WHERESIT, ‘Tino,wheresit?’ Tom Lywood directs the dog with small whistles of encouragement. The dog works fast, flitting from one spot to another and, after a few minutes, homes in on the base of a mature beech and begins to dig. Tom joins him, holding him back, as young dogs are keen to sample the prize for themselves, and takes over the digging with a little trowel. He produces a truffle, roughly half an inch across.
I’m deeply impressed, but Tom is unsurprised: ‘I just knew there would be something here as soon as I saw the beech avenue. It has the right aspect, soil, trees and light.’ All this would be understandable if we were in Romagna or Provence, but we’re crouched on a verge leading to a Queen Anne house in north Dorset.
According to Tom, who works with his Italian Lagotto hounds (an ancient woolly gundog breed from the Romagna area, famous for truffling), England is groaning with truffles-it’s just that they haven’t been harvested for decades. History and current surveys back up his theory. In the late 1920s, the famed truffler Alfred Collins was finding pounds per day near Winterslow in Wiltshire, and one only has to read the diaries of countrymen a century ago to realise that there was once a strong truffling tradition.
Then, a large estate would routinely lease a plot of woodland to a forester to make what he would with it. These woodsmen knew the grounds in which to search for the ‘black diamonds’
intimately. They would manage the wood as we would a garden, coppicing to let more light in, controlling weeds and trapping vermin. As a result, Tom says: ‘You couldn’t stop the truffle.’ But this knowledge, previously handed down through the generations, has been lost. they now harvest truffles.
Since the first discovery, they’ve coppiced much of the beech to let more light in. As James explains: ‘A lot of it is conservation and management. If the canopy were to grow over, the truffles would disappear.’ That the Liddells want to plant the next vineyard in the field adjoining a beech copse on a southfacing chalk escarpment is no coincidence. ‘Vines and truffles go together, because I think for vines, you want a pH of about 8.2/3, which is exactly the same as for truffles. They demand the same environment -an alkaline, south-facing slope.’
In 1999, Nigel Hadden-Paton and Adrian Cole set up Truffle UK. Its purpose is to promote interest in truffles generally, but, more particularly, to sell truffle-impregnated seedlings. The type of spore used depends on the planting site-it makes sense to use native spore-which leaves English growers with the Tuber aestevum or Tuber uncinatum, ‘Truffles and conservation can, and should, go
hand in hand’ Lost also, due to modern farming techniques, were the environments -dappled glades, hazel copses-in which the native truffle used to thrive.
Fortunately, we’ve recognised the damage and are starting to put things right by increasing headlands, replanting hedgerows and, importantly for the truffle, replacing clear-felling with natural regeneration. Tom adds: ‘Truffles and conservation can, and should, go hand in hand.’ On paper, truffles prefer chalky, south-facing woodland with plenty of sunlight. They do best on beech, but have also been found on birch, hazel and cherry. But even finding a spot that answers each of these factors doesn’t mean that there will be truffles there-their spore is prolific, their fruit more elusive.
Tom has devised a simple system whereby he hopes to proliferate this fruit: he surveys likely-looking ground with a truffle hound, then, if he finds, tailors the spot to encourage more.
The Liddells’ farm near Stockbridge, Hampshire, is a good example of this. They farm organically, run a fishery, James Liddell’s son, Hugh, produces a méthode Champenoise wine from their vineyards and, thanks to Tom, respectively the summer and Burgundy truffle. Just before Christmas last year, one of the sites produced its first truffles: an uncinatum found in a five-year-old oak and hazel orchard in the south of England.
The find’s importance is great, as it proves that impregnation is possible. But, as Nigel says: ‘All we can guarantee is that the seedlings are inoculated- what we can’t guarantee is that they’re going to produce. For that, we have to place our trust in the hands of the good Lord.’
But whether you need to invest in infected trees is debatable. One farmer, let’s call him John (truffles are too valuable to be specific about places or names) who farms on the Wiltshire
border, created-by accident- the perfect environment for truffles. ‘We started planting new woods
under the Farm Woodland Scheme in 1990, really for amenity’s sake-for firewood, to stop the wind a bit. I had no idea what a truffle was then.
But 15 years later, we found, strewn across the path, these black things a badger had dug up.’ His 10-acre plot is possibly the biggest truffle find in Europe. In Italy, where they harvest as much as possible, they might find about 45lb a year on one site; John is harvesting up to 220lb, and that’s only the surface truffles-he doesn’t use a dog, only soft-soled shoes and his hands. We enter his woods, a carefully planted mixture of beech, ash, wild cherry, birch, hazel, dogwood and
spindle. ‘It’s old-fashioned, with an eye to what grew here before,’ he says.
Constantly prodding the ground gently with the heels and toes of his shoes, he feels rather than hunts for truffles. Occasionally, he interrupts the conversation to examine the ground, then carries on. The soil structure, apparently, is of huge importance to truffles: ‘We’ve no soil really only about 6in. Below is beautiful, soft white chalk, which is like a giant sponge. It never dries and we’ve never
turned it over-it’s been direct drill all my life. We seem to have conserved all the mycorrhiza in the process.’
The prodding continues. Then, John finds lots of truffles on the surface in one place. Most are rotten because, like fruit, they can over-ripen, and the season is drawing to a close. For John, this would normally run from late summer to late autumn, but, this year, there has been a dearth of truffles. The recent wet weather has made John optimistic about a late, almost second, season, particularly if the weather gets much colder. His theory seems to be borne out by some finds: we digup a few truffles that are shiny, black and hard-they’re still growing and, therefore, good to eat. Many are
damaged by the truffle fly, according to John: ‘Lovely little, brown-backed flying beetles. I don’t mind hugely, because we can spread them about the place to encourage more next season.’
In Nature, this would be done via the gut of an animal, but he’s constructed huge deer fences and strictly controlled squirrel numbers to prevent damage to the trees. Indeed, much time is taken in meticulously managing the environment. As well as vermin control, John prunes the woodland, manages the balance of light and controls too vigorous flora such as ivy. ‘You have to look after every single tree. Luckily, we’re small enough scale to do this.’ The reward is remarkable.
At £150 a kilogram (2.2lb), John has sold truffles to more than 100 restaurants, about a dozen of which are regular customers; other buyers are often keen amateurs, a growing breed. The increasing interest in the native truffle cannot but do good-both to our stomachs and to the land itself. So whichever route one chooses surveying the ground for dormant truffles, planting an old-fashioned mixed woodland and hoping for the best or buying truffle-impregnated saplings-there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to harvest the fruit, with the right land and with a lot of luck.
The truth is that the truffle has always loved the chalky copses and downland of England. It’s just that, untilrecently, we had forgotten.
To contact Tom Lywood, email Tom@tomlywood.com
The truth about truffles
White truffles, for which the main strongholds are Istria in Croatia and Alba in Italy, can fetch up to £3,000 a kilo, but a 2lb truffle recently made about £185,000
Perigord black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) fetch between £550 and £1,200 per kilo
Summer/autumn truffles (Tuber aestivum uncinatum) have the biggest range, being found as far north as Gotland and as far east as Hungary. It’s anticipated that the opening price this season will be £200 per kilo
In about 1900, world production of black truffle was estimated to have been between 1,000-2,000 tons. Now, production is rarely more than 150 tons
Truffles, or truffle shavings, go well with pasta, risotto, scrambled egg, trout and meat such as veal or chicken, or in a creamy sauce on steak
Go truffling with Sussex-based Truffle and Mushroom Hunter-its next day is on October 20, near Newhaven and costs £80. Booking is essential (07896 156664; www.truffleandmushroomhunter.wordpress.com)
Truffle UK specialises in truffle-inoculated tree whips-the minimum order is 20; it also has a clearance sale, which includes a Bianchetti Truffle Veloute, £4.40 per jar (01935 83819; www.truffle-uk.co.uk)
In London, Alba Restaurant, EC1, is offering pasta with truffle butter and blacktruffles-for a £20 supplement, you can have white truffles instead-until
October 18 (020-7588 1798; www.albarestaurant.com); Il Convivio, SW1, has a white-truffle menu this month (020-7730 4099; www.etruscarestaurants.com); Refettorio at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, EC4, has a white-truffle menu until December (020-438 8052; www.refettorio.com)
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