I’ve been told by our host that I must not, on any account, let it be known where we’ve been. This is for my own protection as much as to stop marauding thieves. Armed gangs might kidnap and torture me and I’m under no illusions about my ability to withstand torture, knowing full well that a jam jar with a house spider in it would be enough for me to divulge full map co-ordinates. Let’s just say, we were in Europe and it was raining.
Our small group stood, waiting. We didn’t walk much. We didn’t talk much. We concentrated on the dog and the dog was busy. Every so often, its owner would crouch down to where the excited animal was sniffing and gently remove the forest floor to unearth a small brown lump. The black jewel. This was sniffed by human nose and presented to us in the palm of his hand. ‘Not the right sort,’ said the expert cheerfully, before chucking it back on the ground. Where the dog ate it. Truffle hunting is not for the impatient, but has the eddying ups and downs of any hunt. The dog was so pleased to be working and I wondered whether I could train Fletcher the dachshund.
I explained the pros and cons of his character to the expert: ‘Just offer him some truffle and see if he’s interested. If he is, then certainly.’ I’ve now done this and Fletcher showed less interest than I have in the actual scent and flavour of this funghi. In my early twenties, I went to Spain with a friend. We were on a tight budget, eating crackers and squirrelling the butter from hotels at breakfast (partly because we got strange looks when we tried to buy burro to go with our picnic). Our Spanish was non-existent. One night, when we arrived late in a small town, we were forced to eat in the only open restaurant. It looked pricey, but we ordered the cheapest thing.
The waiter said something unintelligible. We nodded uncer-tainly. A fat omelette appeared, as full as a pasty. As neither of us liked mushrooms, we carefully picked them out and piled them on the side of the plate. It turned out that the waiter had been trying to explain that today, only that day, they had had an exceptional harvest of truffles, which he was sure we would want in our three-egg omelette. We were very blessed to have been offered them, very unblessed to have rejected them, and the bill took all our money for the next week. I think I may have resented truffles ever since.
The rain tipped off our hats and down our necks. We moved to the next spot, the hunter always optimistic. Atmosphere is very important. Theatre. An audience. All these things are essential. And, possibly because of the rain down the neck, we were a little lacklustre. Our energy wasn’t quite there. What we needed was a blast from a medieval hunting horn, which would wake the truffle up and let the earth know we were waiting.
I thought about the 50 hazel and oak trees we had planted at my brother’s house a decade ago, each impregnated with the truffle spore. Whenever we enquire after the crop-which was going to make him a fortune-he shakes his head. He’s never looked. We left our hosts with a nugget in our pocket. Zam was terribly excited.
The scent in the car was undoubtedly strong, eliciting ‘Ugh, what’s that stink?’ from Alfie. We put it in a bottle of oil, which took on a truffly odour. Every visitor was forced to sniff the bottle, which, by the following day, smelt less like truffle and more like something had died. By the third day, we had to take it to the municipal tip because if we’d left it in our dustbin, we would probably have been arrested.
We hadn’t cleaned and shaved it, but plopped it, casually, unwashed into the bottle. I now realise this is not how you treat a truffle, just as I realise my brother is never going to have a crop on account of living on clay. Truffles: magical, unpredictable, demanding and sophisticated. And, frankly, pretty hard to get along with.
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