Known as black diamonds, white diamonds or diamonds of the dirt, truffles are highly prized by chefs and gourmands alike. Adventurous foodies wanting to get closer to the source can opt to go truffle hunting, which has been likened to unearthing rare gemstones.
I was once fortunate enough to be gifted fresh Périgord truffles (Tuber melanosporum). Stored in an airtight container with organic eggs, the latter took on the essence of this renowned delicacy. Eventually I stuffed truffle between chicken skin and flesh with butter before roasting. I shaved it over soft scrambled eggs, or ate it on its own. But I more vividly remember the first time I had the pinnacle of all truffles: the white truffle (Tuber magnatum). The dishes themselves have since escaped me, but like gastronome Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, I will never forget this introduction to what he described as the “diamond of gastronomy.”
There is one thing that every gourmand should tick off on their truffle bucket list, however, and that is going truffle hunting. I have romantic visions of donning gumboots on a frosty morning, following a trained dog on the scent, releasing the truffle gently from the earth, and holding it with reverence as I breathe deeply, embracing its wondrous aroma.
Someone who has been on the hunt for truffles is Jason Lo, managing director of Waves Pacific Limited, one of Hong Kong’s premier food distributors. For Lo, the best thing about going on a truffle gathering adventure was the thrill of the hunt. “Even though we were on a farm there was still a childlike excitement and giddiness when the truffle hunter’s dog found a truffle.”
Lo visited Truffle Hill truffière in Western Australia with Hong Kong’s king of truffles, chef Umberto Bombana, who according to Lo kept wanting to play with the truffle dog, distracting it from the hunt.
Bombana is not the only truffle-hunting dog lover. Gareth Renowden says that for guests on his truffle tours there are two aspects that are most memorable. “It’s a combination of seeing our beagle Rosie working – she loves to find truffles – and the act of finding buried treasure. It’s fun for dog lovers and for lovers of fine cuisine!”
Renowden, who has been described as the godfather of New Zealand truffles, is the owner of Limestone Hills, a vineyard and truffière in New Zealand’s Waipara Valley.
He says that while there is no guarantee of finding truffles, his guests have never come back empty handed during the season, which usually runs January to March and May to September. “Our all-time record is finding five different kinds of truffle on one hunt. Not many places can say that.”
Calling them a “wonder of nature” is Sofia Agustín, business development manager at truffle purveyor Manjares de la Tierra in Teruel, Spain. “To see how they are harvested is a wonderful experience. Often our guests are surprised to see how the dog is able to detect the aroma under the ground and how it appears to be enjoying a beautiful game.”
A supplier of black truffles internationally and a producer of truffle products, the company offers exclusive tours for small groups to truffle farms. These range from a morning visit to a full weekend, with guests unearthing up to 15 truffles, which they can choose to buy.
In addition to the thrill of the hunt, Lo adds that joining a truffle tour gives one a deeper appreciation for these gastronomic gems. “I still find it incredibly bold and adventurous the amount of effort and energy that is committed to growing truffles. There is an incredible amount of research done beforehand, such as what trees to use, how to plant them, how loose or compact the soil needs to be, the inoculation process, weather pattern predictions, training the dogs etcetera. And, even with the best people behind it you are still at the whim of Mother Nature on how the season ends up,” explains Lo.
A MYRIAD OF OPTIONS
Truffle tours are primarily available in Australia, New Zealand, Spain, France and Italy. It is interesting to note that while many truffle hunting expeditions are done on truffle farms, some tours available in Italy, France and Spain include a search for truffles in the wild. While reducing the chances of finding one, it certainly increases the excitement of discovery.
Many of the tours include additions to the truffle hunt itself, from educational aspects of learning more about truffles, the growing process, and how to distinguish truffles varieties, through to a gourmet truffle and wine lunch, truffle product tastings and truffle cooking classes, to the opportunity to purchase the truffles found.
Recently, truffles have been found in Yunnan, China, with reports in December last year of two new species of white truffles being discovered. Some reports suggest that over 40 truffle species have been discovered in this biodiverse region. Finding information online about truffle tours there can be a challenge, so it is best to opt for local assistance once you arrive. In the future, truffle tours may also be available in Thailand, thanks to the 2017 accidental discovery of two (new) truffle species in Chiang Mai. For now, the Thai truffle industry is still in the research and early farming stages.
Wherever you decide to go there is a certain allure to the idea of unearthing nature’s treasure, as Manjares’ website so poetically puts it, “The truffle is not a food, nor even just an aroma and flavour. The truffle is mystery, uncertainty; it is glamour and simple beauty. It’s the cold air on your face. The cool, bright fields of holm oaks and the mountains of Teruel will welcome visitors, ready to whisper their secrets to them.”
Finally, for those truffle fans in Hong Kong that love the idea of being in possession of a truffle, but not so much the idea of spending time on a farm, Lo sells jet-fresh truffles direct to consumers.
ON THE HUNT
Bucket list truffle tours to book:
The Truffle Farm in Tasmania, Australia
Home of Australia’s first black truffle, this truffière runs four tours and can also customise truffle experiences. Specifically, The Truffle Hunt tour is just that: 75 minutes of unearthing truffles with your own hands, plus a truffle product tasting. Those wanting to soak up more of the ambience can choose the signature Winter Warmer Hunt (May to September), with time also spent around a fire dining on truffle pizza and truffle products; or the Truffle Hunting and Lunch option, which includes generous truffle tasting, and farm-style platters of delicious Tasmanian produce and wines.
Truffle Hunting Alba in Alba, Italy
A tour operator with a range of truffle hunting tours in the Piedmont region, including wild hunts, for both black and white truffles (the latter in season from September to December). Groups are kept small, and tours are led by expert truffle hunters and their dogs, and include a host of post-hunt experiences, such as truffle tasting, truffle farmhouse visit, and wine tasting with truffle. Guests can also arrange add-ons like private cooking lessons, lunch at a winery, and the opportunity to purchase a truffle or two.
Les Pastras in Cadenet, France
This organic farm has received international media coverage in part due to its comprehensive hunts for black winter truffles, which take place between November and March. Learn how truffles are cultivated, how truffle dogs are trained, and hunt with professionals who also regale guests with tales of success and sabotage. Also included is learning how to properly clean, store and cook with truffles, while nibbling truffle hors d’oeuvres and sipping champagne. You can even adopt a tree and receive a yearly shipment of fresh Périgord truffles every January.