A valuable ingredient guaranteed to add girth to any dish it touches – John Wright helps us find this sought-after tuber
Way back in the 1980s, the British Mycological Society held a series of summer forays devoted entirely to finding English Summer Truffles. I had previously come across a rather nibbled English Summer Truffle, already unearthed by a squirrel, so, hoping for more, I went on four of these trips at various locations in England.
They involved camping in a likely location and spending the day scratching around under suitable trees in the hope of finding any fungus that had taken to fruiting underground, but most notably the English Summer Truffles (Tuber aestivum). These are the only ones worth eating that grow in summer, hence the appeal. We found many species that were interesting, one having not been seen since the 19th century, but sadly the Summer Truffle never showed up when I did.
In October 1987 we went instead to Italy. About 20 of us travelled around for 10 days, going out with truffle-hunters, visiting processing plants, attending civic receptions in our honour and having the best lunch ever at a truffle research establishment.
We found dozens of Summer Truffles, a few of the considerably more fragrant Black Truffles and, in the north, the White Truffle of Alba. The latter is the king of the truffles and fabulously expensive. The truffle festival was going on at the time, with sellers sat behind small tables, waiting to sell the single White Truffle placed there. The aroma in the open streets was overwhelming. Earlier, I had managed to purloin a fragment that had broken off during excavation. I wrapped it in a plastic bag and, later, put it in the glove compartment of the car. After five miles of driving, the aroma started to make me feel dizzy, so I stopped the car and tied the bag to the roof-rack.
Discovering English Truffles
I came across a few more English Summer Truffles in the years that followed, notably when a friend brought round a dozen he had found while uprooting a beech hedge. He asked me what they were and I suggested he leave them with me and I would let him know in due course. I trained up a friend’s dog using small potatoes soaked in dimethyl sulphide (the chief aromatic compound), though truffle-oil would do nicely, and she, Beth, did find a few over the years. One she found was identified by Professor Pacioni, our former guide in Italy, who was with me that day. It was, he said, Tuber fulgens and the first British record of this nicely orange species. Unfortunately, by the time it got to Kew for confirmation, the colour had faded and it was recorded as the very similar but drab and common Tuber excavatum. My moment of fame was snatched away.
Terry the truffle-hunter
Years later, I met an interesting fellow (we will call him Terry) who had taken enthusiastically to truffle-hunting. He owns a trained truffle-hound, a Lagotto Romagnolo that we will call June. This breed earns its keep in Italy as the go-to dog for wildfowling. However, it is well-tempered, has the powerful front legs necessary for swimming (and, crucially, digging) and a first-class nose.
Terry took me and June to one of his spots. It was in a beech wood in England, if you are interested. After a few false starts with larvae-infested truffles, June found the perfect spot. She’d run around, sniffing furiously, then stop and dig. Terry would grab the truffle as soon as it was exposed. Very occasionally June would snaffle it and sometimes the truffle would shoot between her back legs, providing me with the job of wicket-keeper. We found 35 good-sized truffles in the same number of minutes. I had never seen such a performance, even among the Italian professionals. Terry told me that June is so fast because she already knows where the next one is hiding.
The relatively modest Summer Truffle has a pleasant and distinctive perfume, like the smell you get when you open a tin of sweetcorn only nicer. The Black and the White are similar in their bouquet, except that it is much stronger and with a more extensive palette of organic (mostly sulphur) compounds – about 20 in the White Truffle.
Cooking does little or nothing for truffles, but the slight warming it receives when finely sliced onto scrambled egg is just perfect. If you wish to keep your truffles, put them in a box with some kitchen paper at room temperature for no more than two or three days, and maybe keep some eggs in the box, too – they will absorb the aroma and make your oeufs brouillés aux truffes more piquant.
Truffles are fungi that have taken to fruiting underground, where it is so much safer. ‘True’ truffles are in the genus Tuber, though, as mentioned, several other groups of fungi have adopted subterranean fruiting. Tuber, of which there are about 17 species in Britain, is related to the ‘cup fungi’ such as Peziza, one of which, P cerea, you may have seen growing in a damp basement. (I once found a fine specimen in the footwell of my pick-up.)
These species shoot their spores into the air from their upper surface. Tuber is effectively a cup fungus that has screwed itself into a ball, as can be seen in the marbled markings on sliced specimens.
Unfortunately, screwing yourself into a ball and growing underground makes the previous spore-dispersal mechanism problematic, so another way was needed. Mature Tuber species produce a strong smell that is attractive to mammals. The animals dig them up, eat them and the spores are deposited elsewhere in the woods through the normal course of events.
Truffles are mycorrhizal species – that is, they grow in association with certain trees. Beech is a favourite but oak, hazel, apple and more are known to host them. If you find the right trees, don’t bother if there is a lot of undergrowth. Truffles produce herbicides that keep the ground clear so that they can be dug up easily – even by us.