Says Marwood Yeatman, authority on English food, in his book The Last Food of England: English Food’s Past, Present & Future: ‘It was harder, heavier, lumpier, wartier and crustier than I had anticipated, more durable, dense and resilient. It cut and revealed an interior the colour of milk chocolate, marbled with diminutive white flecks, fronds and veins. The scent was clean and fresh, hinting at the strength to come… The flavour is subtle, suggestive, elusive, lingering, but the crowning glory of a truffle is its smell – uniquely and deeply fruity, pungent, penetrating and powerful.’
First recorded in Northamptonshire over three centuries ago, the ground of Britain has long bristled with truffles. Biologically, there is only one important culinary truffle in Britain (Tuber aestivum), though seasonal variations and differences in growing conditions mean it is commonly described as two distinct species: ‘summer truffle’ when found between April and September, looking paler with a subtle aroma and flavour; and as ‘autumn truffle’ or ‘Burgundy truffle’ when found between August and January – darker, with an intense, nutty pungency that is greatly prized in French and Italian cuisine.
Britain once had a thriving truffle hunting industry, extending through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century. Collecting the prized ingredient was a mixture of rural cottage industry – particularly in Wiltshire, but also across much of southern England – and another hunting pastime of the landed gentry. Many factors contributed to the decline of this industry, which once collected enough to export truffles to other countries. Truffle hunting by the keepers, woodsmen and labourers of rural Wiltshire, work which usefully offered profit during colder months, was severely curtailed by a hefty dog tax in 1860. The First World War was the final, deadly blow, as Britain’s expert truffle hunters died in the trenches, taking generations of knowledge to their mass graves. France too lost its local truffières, with production falling from 1300 tonnes a year at the beginning of the twentieth century, to a mere twenty tonnes today.