English truffles

The past, present and future of English truffles

by Nancy Anne Harbord 12 November 2015

Britain once had a thriving truffle hunting industry, before generations of inherited knowledge effectively died out. Today’s truffle hunter relies instead on observation and experience, teasing these forgotten delicacies out of the earth.

Specialising in vegetarian food, Nancy has cooked her way around Europe and now writes full time for publications and her blog, Delicious from Scratch.

Specialising in high quality vegetarian food, Nancy has worked in Vanilla Black in London, as well as other kitchens scattered around Europe. Most recently, Nancy trained under Gabriele Bonci in Rome, learning to make his famous take on pizza al taglio, before taking the knowledge back to Stockholm to help open and run The Artisan pizzeria. She also writes vegetarian and vegan food blog, Delicious from Scratch, and is now a full time food writer.

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.

On the hunt

It is said that the last great professional truffle hunter was Alfred Collins – the sixth generation of his family to dig truffles – who retired in 1930. When he died, all his historical understanding of truffling in Britain – the best spots, how to find them and how to care for them – died with him. Some industry continued after that, Marwood Yeatman tells us, citing a source still selling in the late 1950s: ‘An old man brought them up from the country every season, then failed to reappear, and the line went dead.’

Growing conditions too deteriorated for truffles in Britain, with this once common fungi destroyed when rural land was lost to house and road building, ancient woodland was felled and modern farming practices were introduced. The hazel copses they once flourished in were gone.

But things are changing. Gentler land management and changes to the climate have offered a more welcoming environment for truffles. People are finding them once more in their heartlands of Surrey, Wiltshire, Dorset, Hampshire, the Chilterns, Somerset, Herefordshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire and the Isle of Wight. But they can be found almost anywhere, if the conditions are right.

Truffles like rich, shallow, alkaline soils, on chalk or limestone, usually at least 40 metres above sea level, with south-facing trees and dappled glades – exactly the same conditions that see vines thrive. They have a symbiotic relationship with trees, exchanging water and nutrients for hosting among the roots – beech is the most common, but oak, birch, hazel, holly, hornbeam, poplar, fir, spruce, pine, cedar and lime are also possible.

English truffle
A truffle's beautiful, delicate centre
Truffle hound
Hounds are used to help on the hunt
Truffle wood
Truffles grow near the base of trees

Replanting hedgerows, replacing clear felling with natural regeneration and the planting of mixed woodlands are all ways of encouraging this comeback. The control of vigorous weeds improves the chance of truffles, as does the ancient art of coppicing – sustainable trimming and harvesting of trees in a managed woodland which results in light breaking through the tree canopy. Truffle hunters past and present cultivate likely spots in this fashion, tweaking the conditions as best they can and hoping for the best.

Today’s trufflers are a new breed, building their knowledge base from scratch with no help finding forgotten truffle sites. Hunters like James Feaver of The English Truffle Company both sell wild truffles and lead other enthusiasts on guided hunts. Others sell truffle spore-infected trees. There are even people who offer dog training, so you too can join in this quiet hunt. One lucky farmer in Wiltshire struck gold on a patch of mixed woodland he planted in 1990; he now harvests more than 100kg from this site in a good year, making it one of the biggest truffle finds in Europe.

Man's best friend

James told me that to hunt truffles sustainably, a dog is an important piece of kit. Without an animal to indicate likely spots, he says, you risk disturbing the earth too much, damaging the fungi’s delicate underground network of mycelium strands and seriously limiting the prospects of next year’s harvest. When a promising patch of earth is found by his dog, he examines and smells the area to decide whether to continue exploration. A ripe truffle can be detected this way, before the ground is broken and disturbed. Even the implement should be small, the aim only to extract the truffle, leaving the rest of the fungi to reproduce.

But British truffles grow in shallower earth than their continental counterparts and often break through our damp soil, meaning spontaneous finds are possible. And truffles grow in clusters, often in a ring around the tree about two metres from the trunk, so finding one could hint at a further bounty. A barren patch around the base of a healthy tree can be a good indicator when other conditions are favourable, and warm sunshine after heavy rain is ideal for truffle development. If you are with a trained dog, Feaver told me, a light breeze is also useful, to help carry the scent to its sensitive nose.

Training a dog for hunting takes willing and practice – on the part of the dog as much as the owner. Scenting hidden objects with truffle oil and rewarding the animal with food as it ‘discovers’ them is a technique which must be practised again and again. In Britain, poodle-terrier mixes were often used in the past, but in practice, Feaver told me, any working dog has potential.

Top British chefs are now turning to British truffles – some, like John Campbell, enjoy the hunt themselves. Others, such as Mark Hix and Simon Rogan, source all their produce from the locality, and that means truffles too. In general, English truffles can be used interchangeably with black truffles in recipes, although their flavour is typically less pronounced; for some, who find traditional truffles overpowering, this is a boon. Common pairings are eggs, cream and starches – high quality ingredients treated simply. Raw and thinly sliced on buttered toast or scrambled eggs is an option, or this Baked hen’s egg with truffle and croutons would make a show-stopping brunch. Luke Holder’s signature Ravioli, polenta, artichoke and truffle is another mouthwatering dish.

Truffle is also lovely with scallops, hazelnuts and many autumn vegetables, as well as umami-rich ingredients such as aged mountain cheeses, cured hams and most red meats. Try Hand-dived scallops with celeriac and truffle purée or Roasted foie gras with apple and autumn truffle beignets. Stuffing thin slices under the skin of a bird will scent the meat, or use them in this Quail strudel with truffle. That earthy savouriness is even an option for desserts; consider Tom Aikens’ Truffle and white chocolate with truffle ice cream.

When choosing drinks, a sparkling white wine is an excellent choice, with the respected bottles of southern England an ideal candidate – what grows together goes together, as they say. A white Burgundy will have come from very similar conditions to those nurturing our English truffles. If choosing red, a pinot noir is often light enough to complement the truffle without overwhelming it, and its earthiness is a great match for any mushroom.

Although the same variety of truffle is harvested abundantly in France and other parts of the world – from wild, but primarily cultivated sources – there are factors that give British truffles the edge. Ripe truffles are at their best when eaten fresh and James Feaver tells me he can get your truffle from ground to plate within forty-eight hours – without the circuitous route across Europe, from hunter, to importer, to wholesaler, to retailer, to plate, as happens with truffles from outside Britain. Provenance is also important; truffle industries in other newly discovering countries such as Sweden blossomed when local became more prized. I, for one, am off to hunt in Yorkshire, where I’m told they have also been discovered. To find the weather, soil, south-facing slopes and trees that this curious fungi needs for its deliciously mysterious life.

Image Copyright

©The English Truffle Company www.englishtruffles.co.uk