When I think of truffles, I tend to picture the rolling countryside of Northern Italy or the deeper parts of Germany’s Black Forest. What I don’t picture is the UK. However, that’s a mental picture I may soon have to change, as the first truffle to be cultivated in UK soil for an age has recently been harvested from a humble field in Leicestershire, according to one entrepreneurial plant biologist.
Around six years ago, the shadowy outline of Dr Paul Thomas could be seen around 20 farms and estates as he busily planted the fungus of fortune. Fast forward to this week and the discovery of his first 39g specimen thriving happily under a young holly-oak tree.
Dr Thomas, who once appeared on Dragon’s Den, has called this the “birth of the UK truffle industry” and believes that after a decade of waiting, his other sites will also begin producing truffles later this year. When speaking to BBC News, he said:
“There are other sites that are almost certainly fruiting, I had dreamed about this moment for many years. We used to produce loads; there are records of Queen Victoria being presented with the biggest truffle of the season. Now we need more growing partners to help us raise the prominence and reputation of the British truffle industry.”
Your average truffle is actually the ‘fruiting body’ of a certain type of fungus that grows out of the root systems of living trees. Wild Truffles used to be found all over Britain, but a combination of the removal of most of the nation’s ancient woodland and modern farming methods has resulted in wild British truffles becoming extremely rare. So rare in fact that the only way to find them is by using dogs trained to pick up on the truffles’ strong scent.
The cultivation process is no easy task. First a sterile environment must be created before the spores are introduced to the root system of a living tree. The specimen Dr Thomas managed to grow is known as the burgundy or summer truffle (Tuber aestivum syn. uncinatum) and is a native of the UK.
Despite Dr Thomas’s claims of starting a fresh industry, Zak Frost’s family have been selling wild truffles found on their farm for generations. Zak, the owner of Wiltshire Truffles, said: “This is great news. Everyone loves local food, and British truffles are of much higher quality than those from abroad of the same variety and there’s such a high demand, we can’t meet it.”
His truffles are harvested and sold to some of the top restaurants the UK has to offer (including top Michelin-starred establishments) and as such, he doesn’t feel his family’s business is threatened.
“Ours are wild, so they will always command a premium. ‘Cultivation’ makes it sound very easy, but actually it’s not like sowing a seed from a potato. You have to wait for around 10 years. It’s complicated and the outcome isn’t by any means certain.”
.Desired for their earthy taste and unique smell, currently the vast majority of truffles eaten in the UK are imported from abroad, and most are cultivated. But no-one has managed to cultivate the money printing fungus – the white truffle. Found sprouting in small remote parts of France, Italy and Croatia, it can fetch anywhere up to £3,000 per kg.
So if you go ‘down to the woods today’, forget the Teddy Bears Picnic. Take a truffle identification book with you. You might not be ‘sure of a big surprise’, but you never know your luck…
When not writing about the supposed birth of new British industries, Wolf Vanberg can be found inspecting tree roots in the hopes of discovering a truffle.