Food

Are we having fungi yet?

The elusive truffle is now being farmed in Britain. But at £150-£250 per kilo, can we expect it to be as prized as the French Périgord or Italian white truffle, which cost at least four times as much, asks Felix Milns.

September 05 2009
Felix Milns

Blindfolded, I sit in the back of the car, my pockets searched and mobile phone confiscated. With one critical sense down, another goes into overdrive: I can almost smell the truffles. I am about to be driven to the foremost truffle site in the UK, in a forest deep in the heart of Wiltshire.

Truffles have always been shrouded in secrecy – Italian and French truffières still hunt at night and protect the identity of their trees more closely than that of their lovers, so the resurgent British truffle scene is following in some very well-trodden forest footsteps. Truffles are homely tubers and every year they creep back into their underground network of roots, only to reappear in exactly the same spot at the start of next season. Hence the veil of secrecy.

Driving the car, un-blindfolded, is chef proprietor of The Harrow at Little Bedwyn, Roger Jones. Now the public face of Wiltshire truffles, five years ago Jones was calmly doing his weekly stocktake when in walked a local landowner who asked him if he could help identify a mysterious haul that had recently appeared in his woodland. As the lid came off the box, Jones was first hit by the pungent smell. He could not believe his eyes: “Some were the size of golf balls, knobbly like bark and black as pitch, and unmistakably truffles.”

Even so, he wanted an expert opinion and called Roger Phillips, an old friend and author of Mushrooms and Other Fungi of Great Britain and Europe (Pan Macmillan). Phillips took the call in London but was in Wiltshire an hour and a half later. He has since had to rewrite his book to allow for their discovery, describing the Wiltshire examples as “the finest summer truffles in Europe”.

After a half-hour drive, we pull up in a quintessential corner of the English countryside and walk over to a 15-acre site of beech and hazel trees, entirely unremarkable in all but one regard: the ground beneath our feet is bubbling up with truffles. Within five minutes, over a five-yard area, Jones and I fill an old Krug champagne box with English summer truffles.

So how exactly did Wiltshire become the epicentre of the British truffle revolution? The answer goes way back. Gastronomic man has been infatuated with truffles since time immemorial. Cicero called them “the children of the Earth” and 18th-century French epicurean Brillat-Savarin termed the truffle “le diamant de la cuisine”. Truffle lovers who have had the pleasure of watching a chef carefully shave layer after layer of wafer-thin truffle over a plate of risotto or hot buttered pasta, the heady aroma assaulting the senses before they are anywhere near the mouth, will surely agree. Even the unconverted agree on one thing – they certainly have a very strong nose.

At a recent truffle dinner in the Italian town of Alba, HQ of the white truffle scene, the odour of shaved truffles was so pungent that vineyards sponsoring the event refused to open any more wine until the smell had dissipated. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, if you imagine the musky and distilled essence of autumnal woodland, or perhaps the perfume of Mother Earth on heat, you’re getting close.

Many believe truffles to be an aphrodisiac and, certainly, their musky scent offers more than a clue to the link between truffles and sex. French royalty have famously proclaimed the connection. Henri IV would feed them to his mistresses as an aphrodisiac, while Louis XV reserved their treasures for his wife, who went on to bear him 10 children. Truffles and procreation was one topic that even Napoleon Bonaparte could agree with them on, crediting the birth of his son to his diet of pheromone-rich truffles.

These tuberous diamonds come in many forms but there are three principal varieties: the highly prized white truffle most commonly found in Italy’s Piedmont region (wholesale value about £3,000 per kg); France’s equally famous black Périgord truffle (£1,000 per kg); and the lesser-known European summer truffle (£150-£250 per kg), which looks very similar to the Périgord but is milder in flavour. Most summer truffles grow in France between June and November, but they have also been found, and farmed, as far afield as Sweden, Israel and New Zealand. Today, not many people seem to know that the UK also has them.

A century ago, it was a very different story. Then, as now, Wiltshire was the key territory for British truffles, but then there were full-time truffle hunters and part-time poachers across the south of England. Poor woodland management has played a significant role in the loss of our truffle knowledge. Tom Lywood is a modern-day truffle hunter, searching British woodland with the help of an Italian-reared truffle hound, a Lagotto Romagnolo called Brenda. Last year he struck black gold in forests around Wiltshire, Dorset and Somerset, and is expecting to discover a lot more this year. “For me it’s like a historical dig. We used to have so many in this country but today our woodland is trashed,” he says. “Truffles need a bit of sunlight to thrive but, sadly, we don’t coppice our woods any more.”

Many experts also pinpoint the first world war as a significant turning point. Both here and in the truffle heartlands of France, local truffières were called up and culled, taking generations of secret knowledge to their unnamed graves. France, one of the most prodigious suppliers and consumers of truffles, felt the blow most keenly. At the beginning of the 20th century it produced 1,000 tonnes of truffles per year, but today manages just 40 tonnes. For a country so steeped in its culinary traditions, losing the code to the truffle map was a tragedy. Despite the best efforts of a new generation of truffières, their well-trained pigs and dogs were only able to pick up a fraction of the scent, and wild truffles began to fade back into the forest. As a result, today more than 80 per cent of truffles in France are cultivated.

And it is this idea of cultivation that has also begun to take root here in the UK. The British summer truffle season runs from August to November. The secrecy surrounding the truffle industry makes it hard to gauge the exact size of UK truffle cultivation, but an educated guess would place the total acreage at between 30 and 50 acres, or approximately 15,000 to 25,000 trees.

Over the past decade there has been a steady increase in interested parties investing in trees infected with the truffle spore. The concept of truffle farming itself dates back to the early 19th century, when Frenchman Joseph Talon discovered that seedlings growing under a truffle-producing oak could be successfully translocated. However, it remained very much more miss than hit until recent technological breakthroughs were made in New Zealand.

Truffle UK, a company that sells both truffles and trees, was the first company to spot the potential, and began selling truffle-infected trees nearly 10 years ago. The company originally forecast a 10-year gestation period, so summer 2010 should see its truffles rise to the occasion. Trees start from £35 but the price comes down considerably if you are planning an orchard. “We’ve applied, if you like, Mother Nature in the laboratory,” says co-director Adrian Cole. “We speeded up the process of infecting the tree roots by applying a sort of amalgam of truffle directly to a newly chitted seedling, the intention being that it completely infects all the roots of that tree, like a glove covering a hand.” However, it is far from an exact science and even the best plantations in France have no better than a 20 per cent success rate.

Dr Paul Thomas is the managing director of a rival outfit called Mycorrhizal Systems, which uses slightly different technology and operates a different business model. Whereas Truffle UK focuses on selling trees, Mycorrhizal Systems enters into a partnership with landowners, supplying the scientific know-how in return for a share of future profits. It now has plantations in 15 countries and its forecasts for turnaround times are quicker: “I would estimate our plantations will be producing their first truffle harvests within six to seven years of planting,” says Thomas.

As well as supplying year-old laboratory-grown saplings, a recent innovation allows them to inoculate established trees in situ, cutting down the waiting time to just three years. Finding suitable sites is not easy, however, as truffles grow in shady, woodland spots. They also need an alkaline soil somewhere between 7.3pH and 7.6pH, although Mycorrhizal systems can recreate this with scientifically derived planting densities. So far it has the one site in Hereford, which I visited last summer. One year after inoculation, 67 per cent of the trees had accepted the truffle “virus”, a result that Thomas describes as “mind-blowing”. He is confident that they will find their first truffles there this autumn. The farmer, who wishes to remain nameless, envisages a potential yield of between £5,000 and £20,000 per season.

Meanwhile, it has also seen a major breakthrough on an orchard of young saplings in Wales. Despite only being planted two years ago, last summer the plantation was already showing signs of very distinct “brûlés”. A brûlé is a burnt-looking patch of ground underneath the tree caused by the truffle fungus. Devoid of vegetation, it signals the imminent onset of the fruiting of the truffle. “The smell of truffles around the trees is fantastic,” says Thomas. “Brûlés normally appear one or two seasons before fruiting, so we are keeping a very close eye on this. We are not sure yet why this site has developed so quickly.”

The Plant Genetic Institute in Perugia, Italy, may have some answers. By unlocking the DNA structure of the truffle, it has discovered the fungal equivalent of a sex life. Originally thought of as self-fertilising, the truffle is in fact developed from a cross between male and female strains of mycelia – a critical discovery for potential farmers, although, given our intuitive link between truffles and sex, perhaps not altogether surprising.

It is against this backdrop of speculative commercial activity that the Wiltshire truffles have broken ground. Bizarrely, it is a complete coincidence that these trees started producing truffles right in the middle of a concerted industry effort to do just that. The unnamed landowner planted 15 acres of beech and hazel trees on previously arable farmland in 1990. Since the extraordinary discovery – two of the acres are producing truffles – he has tried in vain to trace their history. “The trees were bought at Till Hill forestry but no one can tell me where they actually came from,” he says. “They have lost all the records and the forester has died. Everyone I’ve spoken to is as bewildered as I am as to why this has happened.”

One theory is that they were a rogue batch of truffle-infected trees from France. Another theory is that perhaps the truffle spore came over with some cattle bought in France around the same time, although truffles have also been found in nearby woodlands, which suggests that the land could be a historic site. Regardless, the orchard produces a vast amount of truffles. They harvest 200kg to 300kg per year and only pick what rises to the surface naturally.

For Roger Jones they have been a revelation: “I used to buy 1kg of truffles per year, now I go through 2kg a week in season.” Unsurprisingly perhaps, they have become a mainstay at The Harrow and his gastronomic truffle tasting menu is the perfect way to enjoy the best of British truffles. The menu varies, but when I was there we kicked things off with a small cup of cauliflower soup, full of chunky nuggets of nutty truffle, and followed it with scallop and seabass carpaccio, with English truffles, naturally. Next up came a crab, truffle and lobster roll, followed by wild turbot with Scottish girolles and English truffles. Not content with that, a secondary main of grouse breast was accompanied by a rich truffle jus.

But does the English summer truffle really stand up to the Périgord or the white truffle? According to Derek Quelch, executive chef of The Goring hotel, “There is a difference but it’s about understanding what you’re using and making the truffle work for the dishes. I’ve had people who find traditional truffles too overpowering blown away by this milder version.”

However, not every chef is as proud of their English heritage. Word has it that many of the UK’s leading chefs are customers but not all are keen to disclose their truffles’ origins. Sharp business practice or snobbery? The question of provenance is actually vital to the future success of this mushrooming industry. What the modern-day truffières are banking on is that the public will start buying into the concept of English truffles, and that this provenance will be something to be proud of.

Sweden has been somewhat of a trailblazer in this regard. As Paul Thomas explains, “When they started producing their own truffles in Sweden the price was similar to the English truffle [£280 per kg]; now they are selling for around £500 per kg. There is a lot of prestige attached to their provenance. We’re aiming for the same thing here. Once we start producing a good crop of British truffles, we can sell them locally, get local chefs using them and build up public awareness and start to command a premium for the produce.”

So perhaps in the post-credit-crunch spirit, rather than blow our own tubers, we should, in fact, grow them. All that remains to see is whether they will rise to the occasion.

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