Digging the Truffle

Truffle Maria Ujvari

There is some very attractive about the word 'truffle'. It’s a versatile word, almost onomatopoeic. It can stand for either sweet or savoury, and it conjures up visions of indulgence and expense. The word has economy and decadence. I like that. Actually, I like truffles - both kinds.

The truffle under the microscope here, though, is of the fungal variety, especially now that the pungent-scented Alba truffle is finally in season. This white, winter wonder’s growth pattern had been inhibited by the latest spate of warm weather, so truffle hunters and gourmands have had to go on standby since October waiting for the tubers to reach optimum maturity and quality. The black truffle, aka Périgord black, isn’t quite so contrary; just like that other end-of-year tradition, it appears on cue in December and will be harvested through ‘til March. It’s this short truffle life span that makes the truffle much coveted, highly prized, and fiercely auctioned off at ridiculous prices. If you want to make a wealth statement, then casually drop into the conversation that you picked up a couple of kilos at auction the other day...

Truffles are associated with luxury, gastronome, Europeans, and clever pigs, and to make them even more intriguing, they also have colourful past. Truffles have been revered by the Egyptians, considered an edible deity by the Greeks and Romans, excommunicated by the church, and elevated to regal status by the Europeans reaching heady popularity heights by the mid-1800s, where they were cultivated to meet demand. A couple of wars interfered with truffle growing, and consequently, consumption was forced into decline. Cultivation (trufficulture) has since been refined and productivity has stepped up, but like most things dependent upon nature, the truffle faces an unpredictable future.

It’s fair to say that the truffle has always been elusive as well as exclusive. Truffles are only good when ripe, and the human nose isn’t really equipped with the sensitivity to unearth the knobbly, fruiting fungi bodies when they have reached their peak. Today, tracker dogs are favoured over the pig to unearth them, and these K-9 tuber hunters are well worth their weight in truffles - if you have a keen-nosed one. The advantages of using dogs is that they are trained to be more precise when digging, and tend not to damage the intricate root systems which propagate seasonal truffle reproduction. They are able to unearth bigger, deeper hidden truffles, and are less inclined to scarf their 'find'. Most of all, they are easier to get into the back of your car. Try enticing a hefty hog into the rear of your pick-up. So if you fancy a bit of truffle hunting, then check out the trees with a bare circular patch surrounding their base. Better still, if there has been a bit of woodland creature mining activity going on, then there’s a good chance that there are some musky smelling gems awaiting discovery. Please note: you can’t go about digging up the landscape willy-nilly. Do bear in mind sustainability and property rights.

They say a bag full of truffles are considered an aphrodisiac - too true, if you can afford a bagful of the things, then I suspect they’d be a turn-on for many a gold digger. However, if it’s just a few grams you’re after to impress your partner with a bit of truffle experimentation in your kitchen, then I suggest you give this man a call - Mister Truffle. He will sell and deliver them to you by the gram.

Mister Truffle, or rather, Hugo, is an entrepreneurial sort with a background in technology. He first encountered truffles when he decided to buy 'some' for his dad one Christmas. To his dismay, he discovered that they were mostly sold by the kilo, and that 'some' was financially ambitious. He also discovered by hanging out at his local greengrocer that there was a demand for truffles in smaller quantities. Tapping into his day-job business skills, which involved the Lean Startup Methodology he created a plan and tested his hypothesis through social media. Using free tools, an hour of his time, and an £8.33 Facebook advertisement, he asked a series of carefully crafted questions, which gave him some answers. The lure of a 'free truffles' prize draw ensured a take up. Hugo used the results as encouragement to turn dealer and set up his business with his wife, Emma. Mister Truffle was born.

Hugo buys a variety of truffles in bulk and then redistributes his cache to food lovers who want to experiment with truffle cooking, or like Hugo first did, give them as a gift. Cashing in further on the response with social media, Hugo continues to use Twitter to advertise his wares, and more importantly collect orders, and they are coming in fast. In fact business has been so good that Hugo is now branching out into truffle oils using cold-pressed rapeseed oil and a pink Malayan truffle salt. Like his truffles, no doubt they will be a popular, too. If you do get in touch with Hugo, ask him about his secret supper club (and no, you won’t need a tracker dog to find them).

Like I said, truffles are versatile and indulgent, and I’d happily settle for a kilo or two as an investment. But failing that, I’d be just as happy tasting them in a creamy risotto, shaved over pasta or simply allowing their earthy fragrance to permeate my eggs in readiness for a delicious Eggs Benedict.

Have something to tell us about this article?