Following a renaissance of foraging and wild foods, our native truffles are on the path from a little-known curiosity to an exciting ingredient, sought after by top chefs around the country. From truffle-hunting experiences in the woods of Sussex and Wiltshire to mouth-watering dishes served in snug country pubs, the English truffle season has a truly intoxicating aroma.
Grab the dogs!” Melissa shouts and starts sprinting. She navigates between rows of thin beeches, their rusty leaves shimmering in the low October sun, and is the first one to reach the spot where two very excited Cocker Spaniels are sniffing the ground. They’re ready to dig but, this time, Melissa is faster. She gently shifts the dogs away and starts breaking the damp ground. Soon, she’s presenting a handful of round, plum-sized balls, coal-black and warty. Their scent is lightly floral, sweet and nutty, with earthy undertones of raw beetroot. Truffles. Not in the hills of Piedmont, not in the Périgord region of southwest France. Melissa Waddingham has been hunting for these delicacies in the grounds of Sussex for the last 15 years.
The world’s most celebrated fungi, white truffles — tuber magnatum — often associated with the Italian town of Alba, are found in the limestone-rich soils all the way between Italy and the Black Sea, with some exceptional ones hunted in the forests of Croatian Istria, Southern Hungary and Serbia. Black winter truffles – tuber melanosporum – sometimes called after the French region of Périgord, are native to eastern Spain, southern France and northern and central Italy. Today, most of black winters are farmed in truffle orchards worldwide, and the Australian inverted seasons satiate European markets in the summer. And while the two species – magnatum and melanosporum – are unanimously prized in the culinary world, they are just the tip of the truffle iceberg. “People think only Italy and France grow truffles, but we have around 38 species here in the UK,” says Melissa. The ones important from a gourmet perspective, black summer and black autumn, are in fact biologically the same species (tuber aestivum), though are often described as two distinct kinds. Summer truffles, usually found between April and September, have a paler inside and a vanishingly light aroma. Black autumns, also called Burgundy, mature in hilly forests between September and December. Firm to touch, with a marbled, milk-chocolate-coloured interior, they hold a much stronger aroma of flowers, boiled sweetcorn and toasted hazelnuts. As with wine, the terroir plays a significant role in their flavour; the same truffle will develop a different smell in various soils, regions and weather conditions.
“There’s nothing like driving back from a hunt with a kilo of truffles in my bag,” Melissa smiles. “Their aroma is an instant mood enhancer.” She always whiffs the soil after taking out the truffles, taking in the smell that resembles a freshly opened tin of sweetcorn. Straight out of the ground, the truffles hold a rather mild scent, which develops over time. To Melissa, pleasant hints of white spirit and a very light diesel start appearing after a couple of days. An experienced forager with a forestry degree, Melissa provides hands-on truffle experiences in the Sussex forests. Sometimes, she feeds participants luscious truffle creations, like baked apples with truffle-infused cream and honey, or a hot celeriac soup with freshly gathered truffles grated on top. At home, she whips up truffle frozen yoghurts, shaves truffles over warm bread-and butter puddings or cures egg yolks in homemade truffle salt “I’m half-French, I love cooking.” Melissa hunts with two Working Cocker Spaniels, Ela and Aesti. Pigs — the original truffle-hunting companions — were swapped for dogs by the 1700s, as their love for truffles can be as passionate as the one of human gourmands. Stopping pigs from eating truffles is hard, stories of nine-fingered hunters teach us, and most dogs are happy to work for treats. “My girls actually really enjoy truffles!” Melissa laughs. “And I let them have an occasional one.” After all, this is how truffles replicate; unlike mushrooms, which use wind to spread their spores, truffles depend on animals to dig them, eat them and disperse their spores by defecating beneath a different tree. This is where the intoxicating smell comes in handy — a truffle is found when its aroma can be detected by squirrels, foxes, deers or boars. Human sense of smell is not strong enough, which is why we usually need help.
The first account of English truffles comes from 1693 and the last truffle hunter of the previous millennium, Alfred Collins, retired in the 1930s. Following the recent renaissance of foraging and wild foods, British chefs became increasingly passionate about using local truffles. Harriet Mansel, the head chef at Robin Wylde, a restaurant serving seasonal, local produce in a former pottery shop in Lyme Regis in Dorset, sources her ingredients from the West Country or forages them herself along the local coastline, hedgerows, moors and fields. “It’s on my radar to try and figure out how and where to forage local truffles. Last time we had them on the menu it was a classic autumnal feel; celeriac velouté with chestnut mushrooms and truffles. It’s important we use British truffles, we would never import them.”
Steven Edwards, the winner of 2013 MasterChef: The Professionals, gets to celebrate British produce in his weekly tasting menus at etch. in Hove. He pairs truffles with mushroom, venison, celeriac and Tunworth cheese, as well as creating truffle puddings, like chocolate fondant with truffle ice cream. His black fragrant fungi always come from Wiltshire: “We get our truffles from Wiltshire Truffles, where we have highly regarded and trustworthy suppliers in Zak Frost and his wife Nina. We love promoting great British produce and are very happy with the quality.” Zak, best known for the black autumn truffles he hunts personally in a secret location in Wiltshire, also imports aromatic beauties directly from trusted hunters abroad. Wiltshire Truffles supplies some of the best restaurants in the country, including Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck and Frog by Adam Handling. To try Zak’s truffles in a countryside setting in Wiltshire, head to The Red Lion Freehouse in East Chisenbury, a family-run restaurant in a whitewashed, thatched roofed building of an 18th-century village pub.
Zak’s truffles come to the menu in autumn, where he starts hunting for them. Today, Zak supplies home chefs with fresh truffles from a new online shop, making it possible to celebrate the English truffle season from the comfort of your own home.
Truffle and Mushroom Hunter
Truffle and Mushroom Hunter hosts truffle hunts and mushroom forays in Sussex. Melissa is planning to launch a UK Truffle Hound Championships and a truffle festival in November.
The English Truffle Company
The English Truffle Company sells fresh truffles and runs truffle-hunting experience days in Dorset, Wiltshire and Hampshire throughout the season.
Wiltshire Truffles supplies almost all of the UK’s leading restaurants, as well as offering a new online shop for home users. They sell fresh truffles and their own luxurious truffle juice, used in Michelin-starred kitchens and now available for creative home chefs.
Text by Karolina Wiercigroch
Lead image credit: Truffle dog training with the English Truffle Company. Image credit: Nicky
Woods Photography – www.nickywoodsphotography.com