Truffling a few feathers

No longer the preserve of the French and Italians, truffles can now be sniffed out in Britain nearly all year round. But do they measure up to the ­continental version? Anthea Gerrie finds out

In the green heart of England, diners are feasting on the finest local produce in the sparseness of a snow-blighted spring. They tuck into a carpaccio of venison shot on the moors, garnished with radishes dug in a nearby field – and from just over the border in Somerset, shavings of that rare and luscious fruit of the forest, a fresh black summer truffle.

It may be as chilly as deep midwinter, but homegrown summer truffles are still being found everywhere from Yorkshire to the Quantocks by foragers and their clever canines. In a recession, Britain has struck black gold, as realisation dawns that the most prized of all edibles, valued for its pungent, slightly garlicky and uniquely earthy scent, is not the exclusive province of the French, Italians and Australians, who take up the slack during gaps twixt the European summer and winter seasons. But in Britain there is virtually no gap at all; our forests have been found to incubate the aromatic tuber from May through to late March.

Why bother hunting for them? Truffles cost a fortune and deteriorate so quickly that diners who don’t taste one at its peak are likely to be left wondering what all the fuss is about. Yet the best, as the lucky few who get to taste them at two to four figures per truffle know, are edible luxury personified: “The epitome of three-Michelin-star extravagance,” sighs Tom Kitchin, who revelled in them during his stints with Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy and Pierre Koffmann before rejecting them for his own restaurant in Edinburgh: “Only because they didn’t dovetail with my ethos of working with native foods.”

Kitchin was not aware when we spoke that truffles had been found on sites in Scotland – though it is England where man and dog alike are starting to find them in profusion. “The dog was useless, but my wife, who forages professionally, found one in Wakefield,” says Phil Richardson of the award-winning Foundry restaurant in Leeds. Matt Edwards of Hoxton’s new Master and Servant is getting them in from Bristol, while Tom Kerridge of the Hand & Flowers reports: “I have regular sources here in Marlow, including a customer who has dug up several truffles in his front garden. I take as many as I can get, because for me fresh British ones are way better than Italian, simply because they don’t have to do the mileage.”

Although the pursuit of truffles lay dormant for half a century, it has been a serious quest on and off on our shores since the 18th-century. According to truffle-hunter supreme Marion Dean, Eli Collins of Winterslow in Wiltshire sent one weighing nearly a kilo to Queen Victoria. In her new book, Discovering the Great British Truffle, Dean suggests it was the Second World War that put domestic truffling on hiatus, as rural land was lost to house and road-building.  “The truffle, to all but a tiny few, was comprehensively forgotten,” she says.

Dean decided to revive interest, taking a cake fork on woodland walks to unearth the treasures sniffed out by her own truffle hound, training other dog-owners to do the same, and even planting her own orchard in Somerset she hopes will yield subterranean fruit within five years.

But are British truffles any good? Those cooking at certain top London Italian restaurants feel none can equal Tuber Magnatum, the prized white variety virtually unique to northern Italy. These sceptics do not, however, include Carmel Carnevale, head chef of Novikov’s Italian room, who says: “A truffle hunter in Surrey and Suffolk introduced me to English truffles many years ago, and I prefer them to the French or Italian because they have a stronger flavour, due to the different climate.” Or James Knappett of Kitchen Table, who says: “Although Périgord truffles are my favourites, I’m super proud of the English ones, and in season regard them as the Italian truffle’s equal.”   

The happiest truffle chef of all is Sasha Matkevich of The Green in Sherborne, who uses both the imported truffles he worked with in the kitchens of the Capital and Halkin, and all he can get from Dean a few miles down the road, from whom he has buying since November. “There is nothing to match the taste of an absolutely fresh truffle cooked within hours of arrival, and I feel the British ones best match British tastes,” he says. “They have a real affinity with scallops in a risotto, with a poached egg and baby-vegetable salad and with Jerusalem artichokes, as well as with a venison carpaccio, which for me is the best combination of all.”

For those who feel at £15-20 each – a fraction of the cost of Italian white truffles costing thousands of pounds per kilo – the British truffle is affordable and worth experimenting with, Dean’s fellow aficionado Maz Pennington has contributed some extraordinary recipes to her book after months of experimenting with British truffles. “The biggest surprise to me was how well they work in desserts; they make a rice pudding fit for a king,” says Pennington. She also chops truffles into a ganache to make chocolate balls, which for once are not truffles in name only, and practically purrs as she confesses: “I can’t tell you how good these are.

“Truffles have such an affinity with eggs and cream, as well as potatoes and other starchy things, and they are amazing with scallops, which you would expect them to overpower. They are natural partners for hazelnuts, too; in fact the only ingredient I didn’t find they worked with was tomatoes.”

Fortnum and Mason, which has seen its truffle sales rise 12 per cent year-on-year, may be the first to introduce British ones to their counters: “We already sell a cheese made with English truffles,” says their fresh food buyer. However, it has to be said, the divine truffled brie and Italian cheese with truffle that Fortnum and Mason fields deliver a wow factor sadly lacking in the Somerset-produced Vickie’s truffle cheese, suggesting it may take a more pungent imported variety to shine through in dairy products designed to cut and come back to rather than be consumed the minute they’re made.  

‘Discovering the Great British Truffle’ by Marion Dean and Marion Pennington, at Amazon, £23.74.

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