Philip Hensher: Why Britain's foodies are digging truffles

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The Independent Online

Some things you used to have to go abroad for, and they remained something of a holiday treat. Among those, the truffle stands out. I first had a truffle in Italy, in the 1980s. It was a considerable shock. It's a fungus but it didn't taste like any mushroom I'd ever had. The flavour, moreover, lives much more in the nose than in the tastebuds. On the slopes of Mount Etna, in September 1986, my friend instructed me to place a large napkin over my head and bend over a plate of pasta al tartufo, breathing in the aroma, rather as if I had a bad cold and it was a bowl of boiling water and eucalyptus oil.

Quite a different sensation, though. It's intensely earthy, as if it had brought up the earth it was buried in, and something much more unnerving; a powerful illusion of a bodily odour. Some people have thought it had the distinct smell of unwashed genitals; I think it can strike one as more armpit-like, and certainly very masculine in tendency.

Am I persuading anyone of its merits yet? The two true truffles, the black winter truffle from around Perigord and the northern Italian white truffle, are often overwhelming, even shocking to experience. They can't be farmed, and have to be hunted with sows or, these days, often with dogs who are more easily restrained from eating them when they find them. The cost can be immense – in 2007, a casino owner paid $330,000 (£165,000) for an Italian white truffle weighing 1.5 kg, though about $3,000 a kilogram is more usual.

My one experience of real truffle gluttony came in the week after Princess Diana died, when we found ourselves taking a week's cycling holiday around Cortona in Umbria. The exchange rate was hugely in our favour; everyone we met on the nightly passeggiata kept weirdly expressing sympathy for Our National Loss; and truffles, in one way or another, came into dinner every single night. By the end of the week, for once in my life, I genuinely couldn't face another dish touched by this sublime, vulgar fungus.

We might well be about to find out what it will do for English cooking, since it turns out that the weather we've been having, warm and damp, has been perfect truffle-growing weather. One gentleman found four kilos of truffle in the roots of a beech tree in Plymouth city centre. A Wiltshire garden, unidentified for fear of truffle pirates, is yielding kilo after kilo.

These are, of course, the summer truffle, tuber aestivum, which is not up to the Perigord black truffle or the Italian white truffle, though still worth eating. The decent rewards to be had, however, might inspire the English out into the woods to find not only them, but what is much more likely, some delicious wild mushrooms.

In most urban green spaces and woodlands, there are plenty of fungus hunters; they are, however, all hunting for the same thing, the hallucinogens known as "magic mushrooms". The wonderful chanterelles, porcini and even morels that can be found even in Epping Forest are left alone. England is full of food lovers, and wonderful wild food there for the taking. The glamorous truffle seems like an exotic addition; but if people, this weekend, fail in their attempts to find one, they are likely to discover things in the woods just as worth eating. Take a good illustrated guide, though.

In Berlin, drab is shocking

A Berlin bar has caused a stir by taking on a distinctively DDR theme. The bar, themed after the Stasi, or the old East German secret service, is decorated with East German memorabilia, including, the owners claim, an urn containing the ashes of Erich Honecker. A certain amount of protest at this bad taste enterprise has been heard.

The bars of Berlin are one of the bizarre wonders of the world, and long have been – as in "Cabaret", pictured. My local when I lived in Berlin was a bar on an abandoned barge, which sank into the canal one memorable night. Another, the gloriously reckless Möbel Olfe, once famously ran the Great Transvestite Goulash Challenge – a dozen trannies turned up with their individual take on the pot of goulash, each very seriously judged by the whole bar.

Others looked like public lavatories (Das Klo), recapitulated in loving detail a working-class sitting room in Dortmund in 1977 (Konrad Tönz), or, as in Roses on the Oranien- strasse, coated the interior with bright pink fun fur. This DDR Bar, with its Stasi-style – or is it merely, nowadays, English-pub style? – surveillance camera at the entrance is hardly going to stand out.

Let dead dogs lie in peace

A despatch from the Fool And Her Money department informs us, interestingly, that a former California beauty queen has persuaded South Korean scientists to clone her dead dog Booger. Bernann McKinney, 57, sold her home to pay for the procedure, and now has five pit bull puppies genetically the same as Booger – surely not a very loving thing to call the dog in the first place.

I'm sure the Korean scientists are perfectly on the level, but the thought must have occurred to them that it would probably be much more sensible to hand over five of the many thousands of black pit bull terriers abandoned across the world every year, accepting the £25,000 Ms McKinney paid them without further comment. It's, of course, an extremely sad day when a beloved dog dies, though most of us tend to get over our grief. I deeply loved my dear old greyhound Conrad, and had a very difficult week or two, along with him, at the end. But I can't imagine paying Koreans tens of thousands of pounds to deliver him back from the dead, multiplied by five. That, dare I say it, might be almost too much of a good thing.

The point is that dogs, like most sentient beings, have their own dignity, and make some, at least, of their own decisions. It's unlikely that even a high-tech procedure like this will deliver Ms McKinney back the dog she loved. But even to attempt it suggests that she wants to replace a comforting object with the same one, not that she wants to develop a similar, dynamic relationship with an animal who, I can assure you, may very well have its own ideas on the subject.

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