The Truffle Hunt
Nature’s Gastro Journey Through the Ages
The hunting and eating of aromatic truffles is a tradition steeped in history, traceable back to the Bronze Age and Mesopotamia, and featuring in the records of numerous ancient cultures such as the Egyptians, Greeks & Romans.
The ‘Middle Ages’ saw a lull in the truffle popularity, notably banned on Saints’ Days and Feasts by the Catholic Church who feared the truffle’s sensual pungent muskiness and purported aphrodisiac qualities were a manifestation of lust & evil.
Their heady rise in popularity began in earnest in the 17th century at the court of Francis I, and with each following century the truffle grew in popularity across the world, so much so that in 2010 a record auction price was set for a pair of white truffles of £165k.
Unlike their ancestors, our present-day licensed Italian Truffle hunters no longer hunt with pigs, these proved too enthusiastic and heavy to wrestle with once they have scented a truffle.
Today our Italian truffles are un-earthed by Stella, Bruno, and Guido, just some of our hunters’ dogs who are a mix of breeds that includes the famous short-haired curly Lagotto, Pointers and mongrels all with incredible noses. Each began learning their art by playing catch with balls perfumed by truffle oil, moving on to burrow and hide with pieces of cheese and bread. Each dog is rewarded with a piece of truffle cheese or bread after they have uncovered a truffle. Similarly to a Wine Taster, as their nose develops they grow in value, with the best truffle dogs worth thousands of Euros and truffle hunters tongue-in-cheek proclaiming them more important than their wives!
The dogs and truffle hunters source the 5 most popular varieties of truffles throughout the year, although their busiest time and seasonal peak is autumn and winter when Italy’s most famous and prized Winter White and Black Truffles nuggets are un-earthed. After locating the truffles, the dogs begin to dig, are called off, rewarded for their work and then our truffle hunters take over with their small hoe called a vanghino, with which they delicately carefully prise the truffle out of the ground.
Scientifically each truffle is an underground fungus that has a symbiotic relationship with the south facing deciduous tree; oak, lime, hazel and beech are all agreeable hosts. Nature’s most expensive partnership means that the truffles provide the tree with an extended thread like root network to absorb nutrients, and in symbiotic return the trees provide the truffle sugar and glucose to grow, crucial as with no part above ground truffles are not able to photosynthesise.
The point when a truffle is ripe and when our hunter’s dogs can catch its heady aroma is when this tangled root network, known as mycelium, and the fungal spores come together to form the hard nugget so gastronomically prized throughout history. This can take between 4-7 years after fruiting (when they have taken root), some 5 to 30 cm below the woodland floor in well-drained chalk or limestone alkaline soil.
It has taken centuries for us to discover what makes truffles so beguiling to the animals of the wood and of course man, but it is relatively simple pheromones. The chemicals contained in fresh truffles cleverly mimic mammal reproductive hormones, guaranteeing they will get found under the soft, rich, loamy woodland floor, eaten and their spores dispersed to create the next generation!
Our truffle hunters take home the smaller truffles un-earthed that don’t meet our market guidelines which are gifted to friends and family or consumed their own lunch or dinner. Their favourite way of eating truffles is either a shaving or two on a fried egg or tagliolini, the thinly cut pasta beloved in Italy.