English truffles: the hunt for black gold
Author: Emily Miles
English truffles may lack the status of their Italian counterparts, but these little-known delicacies have been found in our native woodlands for hundreds of years. Intrigued, Emily Miles goes hunting.
As summer gradually gives way to autumn, professional truffle hunters start to practice their craft. Hoping for a glimpse into this secretive world, I got in touch with The English Truffle Company. A few days later, a message pinged onto my phone – could I meet James, and his dog Jack, in a particular layby: we were off hunting.
On the hunt for English truffles
The location wasn’t what I’d been expecting – this was on the edge of a built-up area in the south of England – nor was the time (mid-afternoon). But, putting my preconceived notions of morning mists and ancient woodlands aside, I quickly agreed.
Jack was the first of the pair to greet me. Ink black, glossy, tail wagging and extremely excited, he was clearly keen to get to work. Then James – tall, rangy, softly spoken and strikingly calm – explained where we were going. I promised to keep the details vague. Truffle hunters are, of course, very protective of their patch – it’s their livelihood after all. But I suspect that James is discreet by nature; another characteristic that makes him well-suited to his profession.
The three of us duck across a duel-carriageway, and scramble down a steep bank into a small stretch of privately owned beech woodland. It is, to be frank, a bit of a dump. There’s enough hubcaps, bottles, bits of plastic and rubbish to fill a small skip. But we’re not here for the aesthetics. For James and Jack, this is serious business.
Unearthing black gold
While I’m still trying to find my footing, Jack starts scuffling at the ground. More than that – he’s digging. James breaks off from talking to me and turns to his dog: “Good boy, thank you, leave it,” he quietly commands. Jack lies down.
James pulls a lime-green pointed truffle trowel from his backpack and scrapes away the top inch of leaves. I gasp in excitement at a dark, textured ridge in the soil – it is, James explains, easy to get caught out by beech nuts. It’s then that James unearths a conker-sized, slightly knobbly, deep brown truffle; he eases it out of the ground, sweeps the soil back into place and holds it out for me to inspect. Jack waits for his treat. My heart is racing; I suspect James’s pulse remains resolutely steady.
When they’re collecting truffles for trade or customer orders James and Jack are a tight team, systematically and slowly sweeping across the copse. James directs Jack with an outstretched hand, and a soft “Go find! Finding!”. Jack needs little encouragement. His body-language tells all; nose down, tail up. Every now and then he starts to circle, or stops altogether, and begins to dig. At the first scuffle of leaves, James calls him off to begin his excavations, with all the patience and care of an archaeologist uncovering ancient remains.
Search, find, reward, repeat
We’re in a rhythm – search, find, reward, repeat – and every couple of minutes yields another treasure. James noses each truffle, holding them out to me to see, before stowing them in a well-worn soft cotton bag. Occasionally, when the gentle scrape of his trowel is fruitless, James crouches down, nose pressed to the ground, to sniff out the precise spot where the truffle is located. How he can distinguish the hidden aromas from those of the forest floor is utterly beyond me, but it works.
The bag is filling nicely – we just need a couple more. James sends Jack off once again, and almost immediately he’s on the scent. As Jack lies down, panting now, James scrapes away at the leaf litter. I hunker down next to him, quizzing him about the guided truffle days he runs. They sound a lot more glamorous, involve a rather lovely sounding lunch, and seem to take place in rather more scenic country estates. They don’t, however, usually result in quite the quantity of truffles we’ve collected today. James is still working away; this is going to be a sizeable find.
While he’s carefully unearthing the truffle’s edges, a small dark mound catches my eye. It’s got a slight shimmer to it, like coal, and the type of ridged surface I’m becoming familiar with. Cautiously, I dust away soil. “Is this?” I ask. “Might this be…?”
“Oh yes,” comes James’s soft reply. “That’s a truffle alright.” He lets me borrow his trowel, circling around the outline, gradually exposing a smallish (but to my eyes utterly perfect) specimen. “You should take that one home,” James adds. He need not ask twice. Moments later it’s in my bag. He, meanwhile, has found a truffle the size of my fist. Quite the prize.
A (truffle-hunting) dog’s life
While we’re looking for the last truffle of the day, James tells me about some of the other work he does. He runs days training aspirational truffle hounds, usually just for fun, but occasionally for more serious owner-hound partnerships.
“It’s not always the dogs you’d expect who make the best truffle hounds,” he says. “They’ve really got to want to please you.” Jack, it must be said, could not want to please his master more. He’s boisterous by nature, but totally in control while he’s hunting. And he’s exceptionally trained. “I picked him out for the job,” James explains. “He’s been trained for truffles since he was a puppy.”
The future for English truffles
Will the rise of truffle orchards – essentially cultivated truffles – spell the end of James’s business, I wonder? “No, quite the reverse,” he says. “People don’t yet really think of England as somewhere truffles grow, so if they become better known it’s so much the better. It’s only really Italy, Piedmont, where the truffle market is crazy.”
Are the truffles better there? “No, they’re different – but Périgord truffles can now be grown in the UK; perhaps its climate change but there’s definitely a change in what’s growing where,” he explains.
Périgord truffles on the doorstep. Well there’s a thought. These are truffles which command prices of thousands of pounds; which bring with them glamour, money and risk. There have been at least two truffle-related murders, James tells me. It is, then, little wonder that the truffle hunters guard their secrets closely.
We head out over the fields, Jack plays fetch. My head is spinning. We’ve just unearthed truffles worth hundreds of pounds – 770g, he later tells me. How, I ask, does today’s haul make him feel? Excited? “No, not anymore,” he says ruefully. “It’s just a job.” Secretive, exciting, adventurous, wild. Yes, I suppose it is just a job. But it’s a very, very good one.