Grey squirrels help to revive truffle industry: A top restaurant is serving a delicacy found growing in a lawn. Richard Smith reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
A GROUP of grey squirrels may have made the first moves towards a revival of England's truffle industry.

George Turner, a retired aircraft designer, had paid little attention to the squirrels scratching holes in his lawn. But he was mystified by the rather strange half-eaten vegetable he found growing under a hazelnut tree.

'It was one-and-a-half inches in diameter with a coal black skin covered in uniform little nodules,' Mr Turner said.

'Inside it had a wax almost honey coloured texture which I didn't recognise - but when I checked in a reference book it was quite obviously a truffle.'

Mr Turner, 68, soon found five more summer truffles (tuber aestivum) clustered within a square yard of the lawn at his home in Weobley, Hereford and Worcester.

It took just one telephone call to Franco Taruschio, owner of the Walnut Tree restaurant, near Abergavenny - which was named Restaurant of the Year in 1987 - to secure a buyer for the rootless delicacy. It needs a constant supply of truffles for its Italian speciality called Vincisgrassi Maceratesi.

Mr Taruschio usually pays about pounds 80 a kilogramme to import summer truffles found by hill farmers in the Marche region of Italy, where he was born. Highly-prized white Piedmont truffles fetch up to pounds 1,600 a kilogramme.

But now he wants to make more use of English truffles. 'This is a completely untapped commodity which would be quite marvellous to develop,' he said. 'It's a multi-million pound business in Italy and could be something big over here . . . Eating white truffles is a great experience - the fragrance is quite heavenly.

'In Italy they originally used pigs to find the truffles like they do in France. But the pigs were very difficult to control once they had found the truffles so now they use mongrel dogs because they are more intelligent.'

The Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, south-west London, estimate that there are 13 species of truffles growing in Britain. Summer truffles can be found on chalky soils in Hampshire, Kent and Sussex and occasionally further north between May and September. A small truffle industry began in southern England in the 18th century and the fungus was hunted in beechwoods until 1935. But they are less common now.

Dr Brian Spooner, a mycologist at Kew, said: 'There are very few people collecting them these days so its hard to gauge the distribution. Squirrels love truffles and badgers would also take them away but because they grow in the surface litter or a couple of inches underground they are hard to find. Most would be too small and tasteless to bother with.'

Truffles usually grow naturally near tree roots on well drained, slightly alkaline soil. Detection aids include cracks in the soil, the presence of truffle flies and the scorched appearance of nearby soil and plants.

So far, Mr Turner has recouped just pounds 8 for his first five-ounce batch of truffles - but he hopes to harvest greater rewards later this summer. 'I suspect there are an awful lot still there. Franco reckons they won't be ripe for another month or more so I haven't disturbed the soil,' he said.

'Unless my wife and I develop an insatiable appetite for truffle omelettes I'll take them to Franco. Hopefully there will be an annual crop which I would never have found without the aid of the squirrels.'

The highly prized Perigord (or black) truffle is the only species to be artificially grown on a commercial basis.

The process involves planting an oak or hazel tree and inoculating the surrounding soil with earth taken from known truffle trees. Truffles have been grown by this method after seven to 15 years - with producion continuing for up to 30 years.

Up to 300 tonnes of Perigord truffles are collected in France, Italy and Spain each year, but only a small amount is from commercial cultivation.

The earliest record of truffles dates back to 1600 BC. They are found throughout the northern hemisphere, but the main truffle producing areas in Europe are between latitudes 40 to 47 degrees.

(Photographs omitted)