“This was actually the first place I ever found truffle, about 14 years ago, no dogs, just on my hands and knees, wearing a pair of gardening gloves,” Melissa tells me as we make our way through the trees of a seemingly unremarkable patch of woodland in East Sussex.
Melissa Waddingham is a professional truffle hunter based in the South of England. She’s one of only a handful of people who are licensed to forage for truffles in the UK, working with landowners and private estates to educate and lead groups, in search of this highly esteemed and elusive edible fungi.
Ahead of us trundle Melissa’s three scent-trained dogs; a yellow labrador named Zebedee, and two working cocker spaniels named Aesti and Ela. Aesti is the youngest of the three, still in training and therefore prone to chasing things other than truffle. “Truffle, truffle truffle” encourages Melissa, reminding the dogs that they are here to work and this isn’t just a walk in the woods.
It’s around noon when we begin our walk and sunlight filters strongly through the naked branches above. Although different species of truffle can be found all year round, February, I learn, isn’t the best time for truffle hunting. It’s unlikely we’ll find any truffle today, Melissa explains – it’s a bit late in the season and it’s not been a great year for them, after the long hot summer we had. She is speaking from years of experience, my hopes of getting lucky not completely extinguished, I content myself with the experience and learning.
One of the best ways to tell if you are in a good place to find truffle, I am told, is to ‘read’ the ground. It’s another reason why this time of year doesn’t favour hunting truffles; everything is dead and covered in leaf litter. What we’d normally be able to look for is a ‘Brule’: a bare area of earth around the base of a tree where nothing is able to grow. These appear when truffle is present among a tree’s roots. Truffle produces an enzyme which essentially ‘kills off the competition’ from any other vegetation and fungi. “If the canopy cover isn’t blocking all of the light from above preventing growth, then there’s a good chance it’s truffle,” informs Melissa.
Melissa points out a spot where an animal has been digging previously. Animals seek out truffles too, so if you see a spot where it looks like something has been digging, that can also be a good sign, along with all the other clues.
The trees here are predominantly beech, one of several types of tree I’m told, that truffles form symbiotic relationships with in the UK. Others include lime, hazel, oak and some species of pine. Birch is also associated, but the sugars present in the sap are detrimental to truffle quality. I’m surprised to learn that it is the younger trees that are favoured; as the truffle mycelium plays an important part in supporting them as they grow.
This connectedness between tree and fungi becomes ever more clear as we walk and I hear more about the other things to look out for when hunting truffle, such as soil type. They are more commonly found in chalky, rocky and nutriment-poor earth which is fairly inhospitable to abundant plant growth. This fungi actually helps its host tree to survive in places such as this.
With truffle seemingly so important to the trees whose roots they call home, it’s no surprise that questions of sustainability arise. Melissa wants to promote sensitive harvesting of truffle in the woodlands she prospects, so the knowledge of locations is shared on strictly on a need-to-know basis. She works with landowners to survey and nurture truffle development – which includes inoculating young trees to increase the chances of truffle regrowth in future.
Training and using the dogs to hunt for truffle helps her and others be more precise when digging for truffle. “You don’t want people coming to these places in their droves and just digging haphazardly in the hope of finding something, it’s best to disturb as little as possible” she tells me. As truffles can exchange hands for quite large sums of money, there is always the danger of people becoming greedy, looking for truffle for purely commercial gain. Melissa rarely sells the truffles she finds, instead giving any found to the people who join her on her various courses to take home and cook.
After about an hour of walking and talking, we notice Aesti digging over a path of earth excitedly and pushing her face into the soil. Melissa joins in, helping her dig and putting her own face into the earth. She inhales deeply. “If there’s truffle here, then you’ll be able to smell it in the soil, it’s that pungent”. I press my own face into the earth and give it a sniff. It smells sweet and strangely clean. I don’t get anything that smells of truffle myself. Neither does Melissa, so we move on and it doesn’t happen again.
Over the course of our walk in the woods, Melissa imparts snippets of information gained over a decade of observation and practise, each a fascinating insight into the inner workings of a truffle woodland. I may have come home truffle-less but I feel enriched with new knowledge about this delicious little fungi and the power it has. A sniff of its unique aroma in future will never be the same.
Melissa Waddingham is a licensed truffle hunter and one of the founding members of the Association of Foragers. She runs educational truffle hunting experiences for the general public and trains dogs to hunt for truffles. To learn more visit her website Truffle and Mushroom Hunter.
About Leanne Downs
Leanne Downs is the content editor for Thryve and a freelance photographer and journalist specialising in outdoor lifestyle, adventure and slow travel. She is passionate about exploring the human connection to nature.
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