Every year, between November and March, people in southern France and Italy are busy trampling the woods, sniffing the air and peering under the roots of elm and oak trees looking for truffles. Truffles? Hey, its no trifling matter – there are organisations in France and Italy which let you take part in truffle hunts!
Truffles are a rare and delicate type of edible mushrooms that look like little potato nuggets. They grow in open woodlands in regions with a warm and moderate climate, on soil rich in calcium or limestone.
Truffles are found under the ground at a depth of up to 30 cm under roots of elm or oak trees. These mushrooms are a food delicacy known for their rich taste. Some people describe it as musky and fiery, while others compare it to a blend of garlic and pungent cheese.
They are very expensive and in great demand.
There are at least 32 kinds of truffles and are classified under the group Ascomycetes. Some truffles are the size of a pea while others are as big as an orange. Both Provence in southern France and Italy boast of the best truffle but according to experts, the very best come from the Perigord region in France.
Truffles need a certain amount of rain and extensive exposure to the sun. They need to be cushioned in loose soil where they can feed off the roots of elm or oak trees with enough space in which to grow.
It is difficult to locate them just by looking for them. Sometimes they occur near the surface of the earth but they crack as they reach full size. Even then only experienced gatherers can easily detect them. Truffle colonies also attract small yellow flies that can be seen hovering over them in the morning and evening.
Although truffles are in great demand as a food item, it is difficult to cultivate truffles as a business. The ground is first dug over and oak acorns or elm seedlings planted. Soil from truffle areas is then spread about. It then takes fives years or so for truffles to appear. But it is profitable only after 8 or 10 years have passed. The yield is at its maximum from 15 to 25 years after initial planting.
The truffle smell attracts small rodents to eat them and help spread the spores – a mushroom’s version of seeds – around the forest.
This smell from the truffles is very appealing to female pigs or sows as it is similar to that emitted by a male pig. So truffle hunters often train sows to hunt for truffles. But once a sow turns up a truffle, it can be quite a struggle to persuade her to give up the find. To avoid the fight, some truffle hunters prefer trained dogs like poodles.
Many ‘trufficulteurs’ as truffle hunters are called, have rights to several hectares of truffle territory spread out over the region. So for six months of the year the hunters and their dogs or pigs sniff, hike and dig their way to a nice profit.
In case you join a truffle hunt and your shoes emit a smell, watch out for pigs. You will find it difficult to give up without a grunt!