The Revival of Truffle Hunting
By Christopher Ford
Known as black diamonds by top restaurants, truffles are quickly becoming a rediscovered treasure amongst growers, hunters, sellers and consumers alike. A subterranean mushroom species, they are essentially the fruiting bodies of mushrooms and exist in hundreds of varieties. Held in high gastronomic regard across the Middle East, France, Spain and the Mediterranean region, truffles have a rich history and have been cultivated as early as 1808. At present France and Italy offer and produce the rarest white varieties with key growing regions well established, however in recent years there has been expansive growth across many regions of the world.
Traditionally, truffles have been sought out in the open ground by specially trained animals such as pigs or more recently dogs as there has been a tendency for pigs to eat their findings. As a result of their high price and strong aroma, they were historically used sparingly. White truffles are typically served raw and shaved over buttered dishes such as pasta or fried eggs amongst gourmet enthusiasts. The Black variety offers a less sharp flavour profile, and as a result is often used for scented variants including salt and honey. Although Truffle oil is frequently used to provide flavouring in gourmet dishes, the majority of oil production does not actually include any authentic ingredients and instead, uses a synthetic agent for flavour.
Being amongst the most expensive food in the world, white truffles can often fetch a value of up to £110,000 a kilo at auction, however even the cheapest black truffles can still bring in a price of £260 per kilo. As a result of their limited production, found typically only in Italy, France and Croatia, they have often been difficult to locate, and have developed a strong supply to demand relationship. Growing best in the south-facing woodland, with a chalky soil and lots of sunlight, England has seen an increased discovery of the treasured fungi in the last few years. Along with this potential development for hunters, there have been new discoveries in truffi-culture, as there is promising evidence that it is possible to artificially lay spores to boost harvests. Although the coveted white variety is currently unable to be grown in England, they are found mainly in Istria, Croatia and Alba, Italy in extremely small quantities.
In recent years there has been an increase of production in New Zealand and Australia, with the first black truffles being harvested at Gisborne in 1993, Australia also saw successful attempts after eight years of intense work and research. Trees were inoculated with spores, resulting in the Wine and Truffle Company being able to form a successful business, and a small community able to produce a rich harvest. Another development has been truffle vodka, as alcohol can be infused with black Périgord truffles; it has been used by various chefs around the world. Its uses range from a spirit, to a cocktail mix and to flavour dishes, as the evaporation of alcohol allows the aroma to be retained in food and to enhance taste.
Truffles are best discovered when temperatures are warm to hot and the soil is moist. Often hunted around two-weeks after a substantial rainfall, it is best to locate existing mushroom rings that have tall umbrella shaped caps. As soon as they have begun to collapse it is an ideal time for hunting. From here you should find trees that harmonise with growth such as firs, oaks and birches and check for animal activity as this is how the spores are spread. Then it is best to rake around fresh pit areas, looking for pits not filled with leaves or other debris. They can often be coloured red or brown and some may resemble stones or even have black and white shades to them. Finally, avoid sealing in plastic bags as they will become mouldy and degrade and most importantly, have an expert identify your findings to make sure they are edible.
Whether hunting for profit or personal interest, truffles have had a historical significance due to their balance of delicate and rich aromas. They have often been difficult to locate, however there has been promising developments over the last decade, particularly in England, as growers have been able to exploit the natural climate which offers near perfect growing conditions. Although it is possible to hunt virtually all year around, the period of June to December has traditionally offered the best chances of success for the native black variety. Favourable sites include Hampshire, Wiltshire and westwards into Dorset with two species in particular being native to England, the apple-sized tuber aestivum and a stronger tasting tuber uncinatum or Burgundy truffle. Although traditionally underutilised in British cuisine, they continue to be coveted amongst many luxury chefs. However the English varieties are typically unable to fetch similar prices as more continental strains, due to a much subtler taste and less developed market.
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