All photos by Michael Griffiths.
"If you are into truffles," says Marion Dean with a wry smile. "It helps to be a teeny bit mad."Dean is the owner of the Truffle Hunters Dog School, the only facility in the UK that trains dogs to seek and find truffles. It's safe to say she errs on the mad side. At least a teeny bit.
The UK truffle industry in a state of regeneration. For years, the subterranean fungi were as plentiful here as in their traditional Italian, French, and Croatian hotbeds, but thanks to a century and a half of farming and rural land development, their favoured habitat of damp woodlands slowly depleted.
It's almost impossible to quantify the current worth of the UK truffle industry. The summer truffle or tuber aestivum, by far the country's most popular, sells for around 300 Euros per kilogram but this price fluctuates according to market conditions.
In comparison, the a.k.a. the Italian white truffle found in the Piedmont region and invariably hailed as king, queen, and all conquering don of the truffle world—is even more pricey. Over the last three years, it has veered between 5000 Euros per kilogram in 2012 to around 1500 Euros last year, after an unusually bountiful harvest.Somewhere in between on the truffle scale are the Perigord tuber melanosporum (around 1000 Euros per kilogram) and the Burgundy tuber uncinatum (400 Euros per kilogram).Basically, truffles ain't cheap. It wouldn't be presumptuous of me to say that you've never bought one. Neither have I.What they are, though, is intoxicatingly pungent. The earthy aroma and mushroomy taste of the truffle is one of the culinary world's most prized flavours, shaved onto salads and slipped into pasta dishes. They make Michelin-starred chefs weak at the knees and incite turf wars.With this in mind, you can understand the appeal for the aeons of truffle hunters Dean has welcomed to the Somerset training school (also her back garden) since 2006. Today's students are Tracey Sellick and her Cocker Spaniel, Floyd.
According to Dean, most dogs can be trained to find truffles as long as they are relatively disciplined, although she says she "won't train dogs with squashed up noses" (for obvious reasons) and questions the suitability of greyhounds' seek-and-chase temperament.
This is no glorified game of fetch, either—dogs' heightened sense of smell makes them ideal for sniffing out precious fungi and last year, the largest truffle ever seen at auction was discovered by a dog. It sold for $62,250.At the School, training begins with a four to five hour session and—for a two-year-old dog who, Dean says, "should be thinking about growing up soon"—is pretty intense. Using the garden's various fenced areas and open spaces, each part of the training focuses on a different truffle-hunting objective.As truffles form on ectomycorrhizal roots systems, one of the most important lessons seems to be knowing your trees. In simple terms, the tree roots and fungal spores get together and have a truffle baby, which grows underground. The trick is knowing which trees to look for.
Accordingly, Dean has created a "mini wood" of trees with such roots. She tells me that she finds Beech to be the most generous host for indigenous truffles, while her personal favourite is the Silver Birch (its shallow roots mean that when a dog crouches on its front to show it has found a truffle, little digging is required).In the mini wood, Floyd scrabbles around for the truffles Dean has hidden, while Sellick bestows treats and praise when he locates the heavily scented fungi."Big fuss!" Dean directs Sellick, as Floyd scratches on the top of a small Tupperware box containing a truffle, her eyes lighting up with glee. It's not a huge surprise to find out that Dean used to be a primary school teacher.
Things aren't quite so successful when we move to the "rading garden." Floyd is struggling, more interested in chasing shadows than truffles.
"It's a scent of the mouse, he's more interested in that," explains Dean. "He's not there yet. The worst thing you can do is kid yourself."We go back to a spot in which a truffle had previously been hidden but Floyd is not impressed. He bounds off."He knows it's there, that's the problem," says Dean. "He's shrugging his shoulders, going, We've done this already. He's one step ahead of us."Floyd might be one step ahead of us but he's most certainly not on par with Mufti, Dean's eight-year-old Lagotto Romagnolo dog, a breed famous for its truffle hunting prowess.Every time Mufti catches a scent of a truffle, she's down on her belly in a flash. Then its head up and eyes expectant until Dean strides along with a palmful of cheese, the reward of choice.The connection between the two is uncanny and properly sweet. Apparently, if Mufti indicates she's found a truffle but then walks away, it means it's rotten.She gets it right every time. Smart kid.It's not surprising then, that Dean refers to Mufti as the "best business partner I've ever had." The platitude takes on more meaning when you consider that Dean used to be in business with Mychorrhizal Systems founder Paul Thomas.Thomas and his company are attempting to grow plantations of ectomycorrhizal trees in the hope the they will eventually bear enough truffles to provide the UK with an output to rival Europe's (it is estimated that 90 percent of France's truffles are from commercial orchards).
Earlier this year, a truffle was found on one of these farms in Leicester. While this success hasn't yet been replicated, it did help give credence to the idea that the UK could cultivate its own truffles. Indeed, Dean has a 650-tree orchard of her own at the training school. But how long will it take to see a truffle?
"Five, ten, 15 years? Maybe never," she tells me.Despite having such a financial commitment in her own backyard (the orchard cost close to £14,000 to plant), Dean isn't interested in making her millions through fungi."My aim is to celebrate the real truffles out there in the wild," she says. "Not the cultivated ones. That's the magic."Teeny bit mad? Maybe. But with Mufti at her side and Cocker Spaniels eager to be trained, I'm backing Team Dean to lead a British truffle revolution.All photos by Michael Griffiths.This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES in May 2015.