Truffles aren't trifles for UK entrepreneur

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An English restaurateur is cashing in on the soaring demand and sky-high prices for truffles by setting up a dedicated farm backed by investors from around the world.

Dick Pyle sold his share of the Hilaire restaurant in central London five years ago and used the proceeds to buy land in Gascony, France. He is now converting that to a truffle farm by planting oak trees, which individual investors can buy. Production is set to get under way in around two years.

Truffles are edible fungi that grow in the roots of certain trees. The renowned black Perigord truffles are historically grown in dedicated oak woods known as truffières.

But despite France's long association with the highly prized truffle, production there has slumped to just 10 per cent of what it was a century ago. This is because the French countryside has been hit by deforestation, two world wars and urban immigration. Perigord truffles are currently trading at around €3,660 (£2,450) a kilogram in New York and London.

Investors in Mr Pyle's truffière pay a one-off fee of £135 for the tree and then a £35 upkeep charge every year. They can visit their trees and then, once production is under way, either eat the truffles unearthed under them or take the cash in a yet-to-be-tested pooling scheme that is being devised by Mr Pyle.

He intends to transport his products directly to high-paying clients. "Our truffles can be shipped in a day to the restaurants of London, or packed and shipped to America," he said.

Truffles have traditionally been harvested by pigs. Mr Pyle, however, will be using collies instead. Dogs are able to root out the truffles because they have such a keen sense of smell.

Mr Pyle is still accepting new investors, although he has already sold 200 trees to backers in 18 countries.