Sniffing out the UK's Truffles
Truffle hunting in The Cotswolds: the gastronomic treasures laying right beneath your feet.
11am, December 25th 2021.
“What have you got boy?!”
Frantic digging continues.
“Good boy, what did you find? Did you get one?”
As far as he is concerned, I might as well not be there. There is nothing but him and the soil now. I have to resort to physically pulling him back. Well, he is only six months old after all and I can’t be too cross with a fluffy puppy immersed in concentration. So keen to find his prize, he pushes his nose deep into the soil and snorts, inhaling deeply as he traces the scent. His clever little snootle works quickly in stereo to identify the exact location of the hidden treasure. He has been training for this hunt from the moment he was born. Before his eyes would open he was already being subjected to this alluring perfume. The perfume that is now woven into the tapestry of his mind as well as our daily lives back in France. And just as if we were back in France, we recognise this purposeful digging, a dig that spells truffles.
Duggy’s Christmas Day hunt is the amalgamation of training from birth and from hundreds of years of selective breeding. He is from a long line of truffle dogs. His incredible innate abilities to search for truffles is a credit to those generations of Italian dog breeders who worked with the Lagotto Romagnolo. Incredibly cute and fluffy, he is a wonderful family pet. But do not be deceived, he is also a formidable working dog. Hardy and tough, motivated and obedient, Duggy loves to dig and he loves to please. Time and time again, we have been astounded by his nose - he can smell a truffle underground from as far away as 10 metres. He really is the epitome of humans working with nature to achieve the fantastic.
Months before, curled up with Duggy on the sofa, we discussed the similarities in growing conditions between our homeland in Gloucestershire and our truffière in the Dordogne, France. The Périgourdian buildings echo those of the Cotswolds owing to the limestone found beneath the soil. Magnificent golden buildings are not the only thing to be borne from limestone belts - truffles also thrive in this limestone rich soil. There are truffières popping up throughout the UK. Famously, Prince Phillip in 2019, began harvesting Black Truffles at Sandringham and one of the earlier truffières in Wales began harvesting in 2016. They now cultivate enough truffles to supply across the UK. We have long been aware that it could be possible to cultivate the black winter truffle in England, however, we had not dared to hope to find them wild.
And yet, here we are, Duggy excitedly digging. Our breaths held as we pulled him back and inspected the area with the tablespoon that it always tucked into my dog walking bag. It was indeed a truffle. A Black winter truffle, the black diamond no less! We couldn’t believe it. He'd only been out for 20 minutes. A couple of pieces of cheese for Duggy and it’s time to head back to Chris’s parents house to share the good news. Upon returning the the house we find a plate of hard boiled eggs. Wanting to sample the goodies immediately, we shaved the entire truffle over the eggs, a pinch of Maldon salt and enjoyed the spoils without delay. Wonderful! Deep, rich earthiness, with hints of garlic complexity. From the ground to stomachs within 15 minutes - just the way it should be! Merry Christmas Duggy!
The Black Diamond aka Tuber melanosporum, The Périgord Truffle, The Black Winter Truffle, Truffe Noir is one of the two finest and most prized truffles in the world. At prices of over £1000 a kilogram, gastronomes worldwide herald this truffle as a rare mushroom with complex and intoxicating flavours and aromas, with the ability to elevate many dishes to the sublime. And for us, on our Cotswold Christmas Day walk, it is truly a festive treat.
That was Christmas day. We were set to leave for Cornwall in the morning to see other family where the ‘terroir’ is not the same and unlikely to yield any truffles. Still, time for one more walk. And so, on Boxing Day we set off, along another walk in the Stroud Valleys. Duggy did not hang about, he found four more truffles. This time they were not the Black Diamond, but the Burgundy Truffle, Tuber Uncinatum. Another highly prized truffle though less expensive than that of The Black Diamond. It certainly has a more subtle aroma, but delicious all the same.
With three small children, our walk was fairly short, Duggy was keen to continue it and I am sure they were many more truffles waiting. The question we asked ourselves back on our sofa in France months before had been answered. The Truffe is out there! And therefore, so are plenty of little creatures happy to gobble them up and spread their spores. So why not take up truffle hunting yourself? Unlike hunting for mushrooms, it is not dangerous because it is very easy to identify a truffle. Get yourself a truffle dog, a pig, or failing that you can learn to hunt for truffles using flies. The ideal environment to find truffles is one of marginal farming land rich in limestone. Commons with excellent sun exposure without being too battered by the wind are good. The natural environment for orchids is a good place to start. Truffles need good drainage so avoid boggy or wet areas. Have a look out for the truffle ‘brûlé’ - areas of dead grass resembling ‘burnt’ grass around the bases of trees which are caused by the truffle fungus producing a natural herbicide that kills off the vegetation above it. During our very brief visit, we did in fact find several truffles in the middle of woodland so don’t limit yourself. They are clearly all over the Cotswolds. Oaks are the tree of choice for the Black Winter Truffle but you will also find truffles under a whole variety of trees such as beech, hornbeam, hazelnut and some pine trees. There isn’t a Spring Truffle, but all the other seasons offer ample opportunity to find their respective truffles which vary in flavour, aroma and price.
Truffles ARE growing wild in the Cotswolds. Truffles are probably growing all over the British Isles. It's time to find them!