Truffles in Devon

PUBLISHED: 17:39 14 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:29 20 February 2013

Summer truffle

Summer truffle

The discovery of truffles in South Devon this summer caused great excitement among the county's gourmets. Helen Stiles is on the hunt to find out more about these delicious and highly sought after fungi

The Royal Botanical Garden at Kew lists truffle finds from around the country but truffles in Devon are rare, so when more than two kilos were unearthed in an unexpected find in a Plymouth garden experts were surprised.

Nigel Hadden-Paton of Truffle UK explains that truffles only grow in alkaline soils, so free-draining chalky soils are ideal. "You'd be wasting your time looking under trees that aren't beech, oak, birch, hazel or hornbeam, ideally on a southerly or south-easterly slope," he advised. "The Chiltern Hills, the Downs from Kent through to Wiltshire, and the limestone escarpments in Yorkshire are ideal. I had a good chat with the owner of that Plymouth garden and was intrigued because there's only a little alkaline soil in Devon, mainly around the Brixham area. Maybe there's a seam of chalk running through Plymouth?"

The ones that were discovered under a beech tree in Plymouth were the Summer (or Burgundy) Truffle, which are usually found in the UK in chalky subsoil and leaf litter beneath beech trees or hedges. John Wright, author of the River Cottage Mushroom Handbook and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's wild food expert, explains what a truffle actually is. "A truffle is the fruiting body of a fungus, like the apple is to a tree," he said. "The fungus is a cotton-wool-like material that wraps around the young lateral roots of certain types of host tree forming a symbiotic relationship. The thread-like mycelia increase the surface area of the tree roots, transfer nutrients and water to the tree and the tree gives sugar to the truffle. A truffle is about 70% sugar, the rest is water."

Fungi that live in these feeder roots are called mychorrhizae and include other edible woodland fungi such as chanterelles and ceps. Truffles have their fruit underground, so need a means of spreading spores. It does this by producing a very powerful scent, which attracts animals who dig it up and eat it and then deposit the spores on the forest floor in their droppings. These spores then colonise the young lateral roots of specific trees.

John Wright remembers his first encounter with an English truffle. "I came across one that had been dug up by a squirrel and half eaten. It's worth looking for animal scrapings under likely trees. The truffle looks like a small piece of coal covered in warts. Inside it is creamy-grey with a convoluted brain-like pattern and, of course, there's that distinctive earthy aroma."

The essential truffle smell is a chemical called dimethyl sulphide, but as truffle expert Nigel Hadden-Paton reveals there's something rather remarkable about its musky aroma. "The pheromone found in the saliva gland of a rutting boar is the same pheromone found in truffles. Sows are often used to find truffles, but they become very aggressive. Truffle-hunters who work with pigs rarely have all their fingers!"

Safer than a grumpy lovelorn sow is a dog. England's last professional truffle hunter, Alfred Collins, used dogs to sniff out truffles in the woods near Winterslow in Wiltshire, and would cycle around with his two Spanish poodles in a basket on the front of his bike. He retired in 1935.

Both Nigel and John have followed this tradition. "We trained a spaniel called Bess by smearing new potatoes with training truffle oil containing dimethyl sulphide and burying the potatoes in the garden," explained John. "Then, an hour later, we'd give her the smell and tell her to find them. We then took her out foraging for truffles."

Nigel has successfully trained his own chocolate labrador Teaser. "Pretty much any breed is suitable, from mongrel to pedigree. It's all done on reward. They hunt the truffle out and you give them a titbit - there's no rocket science in training a dog to find truffles!"

So, what is the great attraction of the truffle in the kitchen? Head Chef Nick Coiley has cooked with Summer Truffles at his Ashburton restaurant Agaric. "Truffles are very good carriers - excellent with pasta, eggs and white meats like pork and chicken, especially with cream. Some chefs store them in the fridge, buried in tubs of risotto rice to give it flavour. To get the maximum flavour, cook in a little butter and finish with cream, or shave them over a salad or creamy scrambled egg."

With our geology, it's unlikely that truffle orchards will replace our apple orchards, but seasoned mushroom hunter John Wright reckons Devon is a gourmet fungi hot spot. "The wooded valleys of Dartmoor are first class for mushrooms. You get some splendid finds such as ceps and chanterelles and Dartmoor's grassland has field and horse mushrooms. The important thing is that the habitat hasn't been disturbed - the plough and the chainsaw are the enemy of the fungi."

So, if we have a warm, wet September or October you may stumble across a truffle, but more likely is that it will be a chanterelle or cep - still an epicurean delight!

Just what are truffles worth?

The White Truffle, also known as the Italian Alba (Tuber magnatum Pico), is found in Italy and Istria in northern Croatia from late September through to December and sells in excess of 2,500 per kilo.

The Black (or Prigord) Truffle (Tuber melanosporum) found in the Prigord region of France, north-eastern Spain and middle Italy from December to the end of February sells for between 850-1,100 per kilo.

The Summer (or Burgundy) Truffle (Tuber aestivum var. unicinatum) is found in England. The Tuber aestivum appears from late May to October, whereas the unicinatum variation appears from August to October and has a slightly stronger flavour. They cost 180 to 400 a kilo.

Though these legendary truffles that sell for jaw-dropping amounts are not found in the UK yet, Nigel of Truffle UK is growing a plantation of saplings inoculated with the Prigord fungus at a secret location somewhere in Hertfordshire.

Recipe from Nick Coiley at Agaric Restaurant, Ashburton

Truffled Goats' Cheese Baked in Filo Pastry

200g fresh goats' cheese (I use local Oakdown Farm)

10g English Summer Truffle

a few drops truffle oil

Salt and white pepper

8 sheets filo pastry

1 egg yolk (for brushing)

4 very ripe figs

4 bay leaves

2tbsp port

1 Stick a bay leaf into each fig, place in a preserving jar, drizzle with port and seal jar. Allow to stand for 6 hours at room temperature.

2 Season the fresh goats' cheese with finely sliced truffle, truffle oil, salt and white pepper.

3 Lay out 4 sheets of filo, brush with egg yolk and lay remaining 4 sheets on top.

4 Spread goats' cheese mixture onto the 4 double filo sheets and roll each into a cone or cornet. Again, brush with egg yolk and bake in a pre-heated oven at 210C/410F/Gas Mark 6 until golden. Serve at once, garnishing each pastry with a fig.

Recipe taken from the River Cottage Mushroom Handbook

Roast Chicken with Truffles

Should you find yourself in possession of a Summer Truffle, treat it with enormous respect. Use it with restraint, in only the simplest recipes, and with only the finest ingredients to partner it.

Serves 4-5

100g soft butter

1 heaped teaspoon chopped thyme plus an extra sprig

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 small but plump roasting chicken weighing about 1.5-2kg

4-6 thin slices fresh English Truffle

8-10 small, whole shallots, unpeeled but rinsed clean

2 bay leaves

1/2 glass of white wine

1 Preheat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas Mark 7.

2 Beat the softened butter with the chopped thyme and season well.

3 Place the bird in a roasting tin and spread out its legs from the body. Enlarge the opening of the cavity with your fingers, so hot air can circulate inside the bird.

4 Ease the skin of the breast away from the flesh, creating a large pocket of skin over the breast. Press half the thyme butter into this pocket, smearing over the flesh of the breast, then carefully place the slivers of truffle over the butter so they lie flat between the skin and the breast.

5 Smear the remaining butter all over the outside of the bird, and season it well. Put the whole shallots inside the bird (if they won't all fit, just put some in the roasting tin), along with the bay leaves and sprig of thyme.

6 Roast for 20 mins in the hot oven, then baste the chicken, turn the oven down to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4, pour the wine into the tin (not over the bird) and roast for another 30-40 mins, depending on its size. Open the oven door, turn off the oven and leave the bird for 15-20 mins. This is usually enough time to roast a small chicken through without burning the skin. Check by pressing a skewer into the meat between the leg and the body: the juices should run clear.

7 Carve the bird in the tin, letting the pieces fall into the buttery pan juices, along with the cooked shallots, and letting the fresh juices from carving mingle with the rest. Then take the tin to the table and serve. A green salad is the only accompaniment you will need.

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