Spring 09 - Hidden treasure

12/04/2013 11:04
Craft Guild chefs recently visited Hampshire to meet truffle specialists to learn more about black truffles and the cultivation of this prized delicacy in Britain.

So expensive yet believed by chefs to be worth the price, truffles have always held their own in kitchens worldwide. A little grated is all that’s needed to add the right finish to a dish owing to its powerful pungent flavour.

Mainly sourced from France and Italy, and increasingly eastern Europe, the chance of ever finding adequate supplies of home grown truffles has been a pipe dream until now.

To discover more about truffles, José Souto, senior chef lecturer at Westminster Kingsway College, arranged for a party of chefs to travel down to Old Basing in Hampshire to meet one of the world’s leading experts in truffle cultivation, Dr Paul Thomas of Mycorrhizal Systems. They also met Marion Dean, a truffle enthusiast whose dog school called Truffle Hunters has been set up to teach dogs the fine art of finding truffles.

Chefs Matt Greenwood and Martine Cadet from Providores in London, Thames Valley University chef lecturer Yolande Stanley and her husband Keith who works for Avenance, and Highbury College chef lecturer Martin Tarbuck were given an in depth look at these “undergound mushrooms” and a tasting of some products containing truffles.

Dishes that particularly lend themselves to truffles include egg specialities. It also goes well with sweet things such as honey, giving it a garlicky flavour, and even popcorn.

Thomas says people don’t realise that you can actually grow them. “Every truffle from France is from commercial cultivation. We are developing our own plantations and we are growing them across the UK.”

The two types his company concentrates on are the black winter truffle (Tuber melanosporum) and the summer truffle (Tuber aestivum var. uncinatum). Thomas says there are probably around 30 different underground species but most people just know the black and white truffles. Apart from the single white truffle weighing a whopping 1kg, which recently sold for $200,000, white truffles cost around €4,000 per kg, while the slightly more affordable black truffles are €600-€800 per kg.

A truffle is more than 70% water and, once it loses humidity, it dies. A fresh truffle has a lifespan of only a few days in the fridge before it starts to deteriorate. When frozen, flavour is affected although some chefs get over this by gently warming them. “When they are frozen and defrosted, they soften and go off quickly,” says Thomas, recommending they should be eaten as soon as possible.

While it would be great to be able to grow white varieties in Britain, Thomas says there has only been success growing the black ones so far. But he’s hopeful it will happen one day. But how do they grow? Truffles need a living tree to survive, says Thomas, and grow in conjunction with the roots of certain plants. “Once they are in the ground, and the climate conditions are right, they will grow. It’s a symbiotic partnership – giving to each other.”

Hazel, oak and beech are recommended trees and Thomas says there are also experiments going on with silver birch, which is a good mushroom host. But it is mainly trees that develop a strong root system that are best. “It takes four to seven years to produce truffles,” says Thomas. If you have a small area to grow them, a hazel tree is good even though it bushes out. Most prefer oak but I would go for a hazel; you can get the nuts as well.”

Thomas says his business didn’t really get going until 2005 and says the oldest plantation is three years old. Trees are inoculated with whatever type of truffle is required. He also offers individual trees inoculated with the summer or winter truffle with full planting instructions and certificates. But for a serious business, he says you need to plant 20-25 hectares at least.

Before plantation a 100% inoculation rate without contamination is ensured, supported by constant biological monitoring, which should lead to a truffle harvest in a short time frame, in greater numbers and with increased reliability. Reasonable plantations are reported to produce 20-90Kg/Ha per annum.

The best land for truffle growing should be free from established trees and have a high pH value – (7.3-8.3). However, even soils with low pH levels can be used as long as adequate lime is applied. The pH can be estimated using simple kits available from most garden centres. “You have to try out the soil to make sure the trees will grow and therefore the truffles. We put limestone chips on the ground which act as a good buffer. The truffle then grows on the roots that spread over the ground.”

Planting time is traditionally November and December to give the truffle roots time to settle before the spring. Prime areas for growing are chalky sites. There are lots on National Trust sites, which we can’t get at, says Thomas. Most of the truffles come from Wiltshire, Hampshire and Kent, but site owners are quite secretive about their harvests. “We try to keep it quiet,” he says.

Thomas says a new spot has just been found in Kent but they can also be found wild in the UK as far afield as the Scottish borders. The true truffle farm looks in fact like a tree plantation, he adds.

When it comes to harvesting them, he says when you see a cluster of flies on the ground there is a good chance of finding a truffle underneath it, and you can train dogs to look for these flies. “You can find them with an electronic sensor but it’s nowhere near as effective as a dog.”

Marion Dean’s dog Mufti has become adept at finding truffles. Dean, bitten by the truffle hunting bug trained her dog, an Italian water dog [lagotto]], to become a truffle hound. Any dog can be trained, she says. “It’s in their make up. You can train dogs to do this because of their ability to sniff things out.”

Food companies have shown interest but there aren’t enough truffles produced yet. But Thomas says it will be great for chefs who want to put British on the menu.

Imagine – a delicacy that could soon carry the ‘produce of Britain’ stamp.

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