Somewhere in a wood, its exact location shrouded in secrecy, ‘black diamonds’, ‘culinary gold’ ‘fairy apple’ ‘black queen’ ‘gem of poor lands’ ‘fragrant nugget’ and the ‘black pearl’ are found. Their Latin name is ‘Tuber aestivum’ but we know them as truffles, and it’s here in South West England, in the county of Wiltshire they’re thriving. Truffle hunting is synonymous with Wiltshire, the Collins family held the only Royal warrant to hunt for truffles in the UK until 1930, now that’s expired, it’s every man for himself. So, from July to December “truffles the size of cricket balls” are found in woodland, usually in the roots of beech, birch or hazel trees that are planted in the chalky soil here. There’s a suggestion that the spores were brought in by cattle from France when they were grazed in nearby fields almost twenty years ago.
Local chef, Roger Jones, is one of few allowed to do his own foraging here. He’s something of a truffle expert and was the first person the landowner sought for advice about his strange bumpy discovery. From the moment he confirmed the truffle site, they’ve remained close friends. Roger gathers what he needs for his restaurant The Michelin-starred Harrow at Little Bedwyn, near Marlborough. His customers enjoy early truffles which give his dishes a hazlenut taste whilst later on in the season they can sample a stronger ‘forest floor’ aroma and taste.
So, how do I know all this? Well, the reason is not just that truffles are in season right now, but that a friend has been lucky enough to visit the Wiltshire copse. She filmed truffle hunting for a television feature for a programme which she presents (Escape to the Country) and left the shoot with a large black truffle courtesy of the landowner.
Later, I’ll explain what happens to it, but a first a little about these black, fabled aphrodisiacs. Truffles are edible ‘mycorrhizal fungi’ to the experts or to the lay person ‘underground mushrooms’. They have a unique smell and it’s written that this led the Epicureans to compare the scent to that of the tousled sheets in a brothel bed. In the Middle Ages Monks were banned from eating them in case they forgot their calling.
Truffles can be found throughout the world but are most prized in France and Italy where different varieties will be found. Here truffles like chalk and limestone but more importantly alkaline soil with a high pH so can be found anywhere the conditions are right – they love sunshine, moist conditions and little competition from other fungi. It’s been a good year for British truffles. The wet weather has produced just the right conditions for the fungi to thrive, and now the landowners lucky enough to have an truffles in their woodland are reaping the rewards. It’s a slow growing process though clusters take 6-10 years to cultivate.
If you’ve not seen a summer truffle close-up, they are black and as I mentioned earlier, bumpy and when shaved, resemble a grey slice of brain stem with a dark perimeter. Whole or when cut, the aroma is unique, caused by androstenol, which also happens to be a sex pheromone found in boar saliva and is wildly attractive to female pigs. That’s probably why pigs are traditionally used to sniff them out from the forest floor, although now more increasingly, specially trained dogs are used.
Truffle production is on the rise, because of advances in technology, it’s now possible to infect trees with with truffle spores (in a controlled environment) and these are then planted as copses.
Here’s the truffle a few days after it was found – I am told it has already shrunk in size – but still looks on the large side. This gets the full dinner party treatment by another good friend and chef, Tim Lacey.
We begin our truffle menu with a very simple starter – pasta. The recipe suggested that tagliatelle be cooked al dente and tossed with pats of butter, Parmesan (although we had a non cheese eater so none of that), a generous amount of black pepper and freshly ground nutmeg. Chopped hazelnuts were substitutes for the cheese and had been roasted and tossed into the mix. A sprinkling of fresh parsley finished off the dish with no holding back on the truffle shaving.
Fresh ingredients, cooked perfectly meant that this easy dish tasted stunning. The smoothness of the pasta, the richness of the butter and the shaved truffle worked so well with the unexpected crunch and flavour of the hazelnuts.
A pause for some delicious Napa Valley red before the main course was served.
A generous, plump bird had been separated from its skin and truffle shavings had been placed in the space and roasted. When cut the meat revealed a moist meat, speckled with truffle and again the tastes were phenomenal. Such a small amount of the truffle had managed to radiate it’s flavour to the core of the bird. Tim chose to serve this with Dauphinoise (without cheese) and French green beans and it was a winning combination.
The pudding was a retro take on a traditional classic – we’ve decided to call it a Shackleton Mess in honour of it’s creator. Meringue nests formed the base on which to pile alcohol infused berries. A homemade rose water infused jelly added a new dimension and it was topped off with a generous scoop of rich vanilla ice cream. It may not have been the prettiest plate of dessert I’ve ever seen but it was one of the tastiest. Inspired by Heston, a sachet of popping candy was added to each plate and we were all whizzed back to the playgrounds of our youth. If you don’t believe me – here’s a short video of the delivery, popping and awestruck diners in action.
Thanks to all the people involved in the subject matter for this post – Nicki, Shacky,Tim & Liz, the landowner and in advance the Chef, Roger Jones – we’ll be descending on your restaurant very soon. In fact, I leave you with a picture of a few kilos of truffles Roger happened upon a few weeks ago. Picture is courtesy of his Twitter account @littlebedwyn.