Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 9/Truffles, and truffle hunting

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There are few connoisseurs in gastronomy who will not, as soon as the season arrives, ransack Covent Garden Market for truffles, and, regardless of expense, consider themselves fortunate in obtaining such a dainty for eight or ten shillings the pound. But to those to whom economy is an object, truffles are almost unknown, nor will the prudent manager admit them to her table unless she can secure them at reduced prices. In vain, however, does she remonstrate with the truffle-dealer; the answer is always, “We can’t sell them hany cheaper, ma’am, even to our best customers. We can never himport them for less than eight shillings the pound in the best of seasons, and indeed we might run them up for as much again. These French truffles are in such request; the French cooks, ma’am, can’t get on without them.”

Nor will the vender allow that truffles are natives of England, or that any can be found to equal the French. But where the vender chooses to feign ignorance in order to prove the foreign growth of this curious vegetable from which he derives so large a profit, my readers will, if they consent to follow me, be admitted into the mysteries of the trade. Nor need we cross the Channel or rub up our long-forgotten French in our desire either to discover for ourselves the habits and history of the truffle, or to import so many pounds at a cheaper rate; for if these rough, black-looking vegetables could speak, they would astonish their admirers by declaring themselves, in broad vernacular English, to be natives of Wilts, Dorset, and Hants.

More than three-quarters of the quantity sold in London, and of the finest quality, are produced in English soil, and are in reality supplied to the London markets by our village labourers at a very low price; but as this is known to few, and as the public imagine that a cheap English production must be inferior to an expensive foreign one, so the wholesale dealers will continue to sell them at immense profit as a foreign importation. On the other hand, any purchaser may obtain this coveted dainty at very moderate prices direct from the country dealer; but as, unfortunately, the latter obtains few orders of this kind, he is forced to fall back on the London dealers, and supply their demand at their own prices, which are sure to be so low as to prevent him from deriving any profit from his trade.

Yet these country venders are deserving of encouragement, and truffles and truffle-hunting are curious enough in themselves to merit our attention.

Very little has hitherto been written about the truffle. Perhaps, owing to its growing in uncertain districts and places of England, it may have escaped the notice of many of our botanists. Its habitat is, however, well known to the truffle-hunters, and they have collected much curious information, and have formed many sagacious though unscientific opinions as to the cause of its propagation and growth.

In scientific works we find it classed in the ranks of the esculent fungi as the “Tuber cibarium,” and considered even in England, where few of that class are eaten, as the best of the species. There are few of Nature’s productions so extraordinary as this family of the fungi, and in no other country than our own are there so many varieties of the class to be seen, with their curious shapes, their beautiful colours, and their fairy-rings, springing up like magic after a night’s rain or a damp day. To this unsightly variety of the truffle may be applied all the customary characteristics of the more common kinds, for we find from the truffle-hunter that he instinctively looks for it close to the roots of large trees; and so well aware is he that it is propagated by the partial decay of their long fibrous roots, and nourished by the drippings from the branches, that he never dreams of looking for it in any other position. He finds them in shrubberies plantations, and woods, sometimes in banks and ditches, but always where trees abound, beneath them, or at a little distance from the stem, in rings of clusters of six or seven together round each tree. Nor will they flourish beneath every kind of tree, but frequent the oak, lime, and cedar, and appear especially to love the beech, since wherever that tree grows with the richest luxuriance, the truffles are found in great abundance, and of the best quality. Though they are often found in September, the truffler understands so well their need of wet and damp that he will refuse to look for them in a dry season until a certain amount of rain has fallen. Sometimes October almost passes without any worth gathering being discovered in their usual haunts. A few days’ rain, and then, in the very same places where the truffler had looked in vain, large clusters of the finest will have sprung up; so quickly is this strange fungus propagated under the soil in favourable situations and in damp weather. They will increase from a quarter to half a pound in weight, and even in rainy seasons to as much as a pound, whilst they measure from about four to six inches round. In dry, hot seasons they remain small, and are liable to rot and be infested with insects. Resembling externally a rugged knot of an old oak or piece of decayed wood, they are found where the soil is black, loamy, and mixed with flint, or is composed of chalk and clay. Examine them minutely through the microscope, and you will find on opening one that the interior is grained with fibrous lines, and is of a firm, tough texture, white in colour when young, and growing darker, until its ripeness is shown by becoming entirely black.

Besides this large truffle, there is another kind well known to the truffler, though ignored in scientific accounts. It is called in the truffle districts the “red truffle,” on account of its colour, and is of the size of a sweet-pea, but though small, is equal in flavour to the larger kind, and in some places as common. What would those persons say who disparage, or rather disbelieve in, English truffles, were they to make acquaintance with one place in Hampshire where the inhabitants find this red truffle in such quantities as to actually eat them every day for dinner, or, as my informant emphatically declared, “devour them as they would cabbages!”

Probably as soon as the harvest belonging to a truffle district is well in, and there is little to do at home, we shall see two or three of the labourers looking forward to, and preparing for their proposed jaunt, and for a lengthened absence from home. Each man has his separate beat, which extends for long distances into the neighbouring counties, and even in one instance as far as Somersetshire. On they trudge, day after day, through parks, shrubberies, and woods. However privately and far from the beaten road the object of their search may grow, these trufflers have still the licence to hunt, accompanied by their small well-trained truffle-dogs. For though these men are both clever and quick in fixing upon the likeliest situations for the growth of the truffle, they would never succeed in finding them unless they had the help of this peculiar breed of dogs. In order to explain how the dog is enabled to hunt for the vegetable, I must first point out its most striking peculiarity.

Reader, have you ever smelt an uncooked truffle? If you have, you will not require any description of what is so offensive; and if you have not, you may rest assured that “ignorance” is in this case “bliss.”

This extraordinary odour is so powerful and so peculiar, that no imposition can be practised in providing this article of food. I can never forget, whilst living in a truffle district, the first time that three or four pounds were brought into the house. It was impossible to support their oppressive and pungent odour, which pervaded the whole house, and they had to be removed at once to a safe distance till the cook, by either boiling or stewing them into sauce, prevented its recurrence. For, strange to say, it is the raw truffles that offend in this way, and then only when ripe and fit to eat; the young unripe ones are hardly perceptible by smell. This peculiar perfume, imperceptible though it is to the human nose when growing beneath the soil, is yet scented out by the fine instinct of the truffler’s dog. It is, therefore, for the purpose of hunting them out by their smell that the truffler is accompanied everywhere in his rambles by his dogs, or, rather, follows the little animals, as they generally run on before with their noses to the round, as if after some game. Clever little dogs they are, of a peculiar breed, and trained from puppyhood to hunt the truffle out by the nose, and then to scratch it up with their long sharp claws. It is curious and interesting to watch the powers of nose possessed by these small dogs; how, directly they perceive the odour of the hidden truffle, they rush to the place straight as a dart, even at twenty yards’ distance.

Many an amusing anecdote, or, as I may call it, many a truffle tradition, did I pick up in my wanderings with some of these village trufflers. Nay, at one time I was almost tempted to adopt the trade myself! What could be pleasanter than to wander through wood and plain with my dog-friends for weeks together, and thus spend the bright autumn days.

But unfortunately one of my truffle friends knocked my daydream on the head by attributing his rheumatics to truffle-hunting in damp and rain.

“You see, sir, the wetter it is the better for our trade, though bad enough for we. Many and many a rainy week have I trudged on, wet up to the knees, followed by my little dog Nell. Did you ever hear tell of how I found, in the hottest autumn I ever seed, the monster truffle?” continued my friend, lowering his voice into a kind of solemn whisper, and assuming additional dignity of bearing.

“No,” I said; “but I should like to know about it.”

“It was in this way, sir: I was going leisurely along, promiscuous-like, with my little Nell there, in a woody path down south—I was terribly wet, surely, and thought as how I was making a bad business of it besides; when I sees Nell, as I thought, run mad, for there under a beech she stood, pointed and scratched, pointed and scratched at nothing at all but a big root. It was just above the soil, and quite right as to colour; but, bless you, sir, it were a foot round in size, and so heavy that it weighed three and a quarter pounds. Nell made such a fuss about it, too, and whined and whined as I was quite beat like, and didn’t know whatever it could be. So to please the ’cute little dog, I took ’em up and smelt ’em; and sure enough Nell was right, it were a truffle, but such as never was seen before or since. I sent it as a cooriosity to a gentleman, and got something handsome; but I never were so proud as at finding he, and we calls ’em the monster truffle to this day.”

My friend, who thus delighted in relating former triumphs, was an elderly man, strong and active, and very intelligent, and somewhat better educated than the others of the trade. He was better off, too, and might be considered, amidst the universal poverty, as a thriving man. He had long been in the habit of buying up all the truffles found by the other hunters in the village, and hawking them about in his travels. He also dealt with several gentlemen, and what he could not dispose of in this way he sent to Covent Garden. He introduced me to his friends, and made me acquainted with his village, his dogs, and his favourite walks; and well pleased was he to answer my questions, and satisfy my curiosity, and display his superior knowledge in all that concerned his trade. Soon I found, on our becoming more intimate, that my friend, though prosperous, was a bit of a grumbler, and loved to enter into a discussion about “public affairs,” and of “how the village labourer weren’t done well by, and ought to be protected.” At first I imagined my friend to be a thorough-going radical, but to my astonishment I discovered that the “good old times” when his father “was a boy,” and when they in this village had their rights, were as precious in his eyes as in those of an old-fashioned tory—and I then found out that he considered the truffle-hunters needed to be supported by diminishing the present tax on their dogs, and that the decline in the trade he attributed to each of these animals being assessed at 12s.; instead of, as formerly, at 8s.

“You see, sir, I speaks more for the others than for myself, but even I am forced to give up all my dogs but one, and she can’t find out alone the same quantity of truffles. There’s no chance of our poaching with them, as was said, for they have no nose for anything else, and are too small and weak for any game. You come with me and see a truffle-hunt, and you’ll soon see that they are a separate breed, just fit for truffling, and nothing else.”

My friend was very lengthy in the detail of a grievance which certainly does weigh heavy on these poor labourers, and he went on to tell me, with much pride, how he had drawn up for himself and companions a petition against the said tax, which had actually been presented to Parliament by the late Lord Herbert, though without effect. But the very idea of what he had done was sufficient to raise him in his own opinion (and I could see he thought in mine as well) into the position of a “village Hampden.”

It was on a bright August day that I accepted my village friend’s invitation to a truffle-hunt, and followed him and his dog through a shrubbery walk, underneath tall beeches, which formed a boundary to the rectory-garden.

“It is,” he said, “a bad time of year for truffles, for they won’t grow till rain comes; but, at any rate, you’ll see how the dog finds ’em.”

He whistled as he spoke, and up trotted his dog with a very friendly air, and was introduced to me by the name of “Nelly.” He assured me she was one of the cleverest of the race, and was never known to fail, and certainly she had an intelligent clever face, with bright black eyes, looking all ways at once, and sharp-pointed ears, always on the alert, and never quiet for one moment. The nose was sharp-pointed, and the whole face reminded me of the expression of a small quick terrier, only far more gentle and clever. I remarked on the clean-made limbs, and the long paws, which seemed made for scratching, and was assured of her strength and unwearied zeal in hunting for this peculiar kind of game. This dog was smooth-coated, white, with liver-coloured spots; but the generality have rather curly hair, a remnant of the poodle, from which these dogs are said to have been bred. While patting Mrs. Nell, and coaxing her to become friendly with me on our way, her master told me how particular they were in keeping their breed distinct.

“The French truffles he did hear say were hunted formerly by pigs, which had latterly been given up for poodles.”

“Your dogs, then,” I said, “are descended from these French poodles, as I think you said they came from abroad?”

“No, sir. They are a cross of the Spanish poodle, and were brought here from Spain, as all the village know.”

He forthwith related the following tradition of the origin of truffle-hunting in these parts; ending with the assertion that it must be true, ’cos my grandfather had told it to my father, and my father over and over again to me, and so we knows the dogs must be Spanish.” To which proof I of course had nothing to say.

“It was in my grandfather’s time that a ‘furrinner’ came to these parts with several dogs, couldn’t speak English, and bided in one of our farmer’s barns down there. Soon he began to hunt for truffles, and after a bit, when he had picked up English, told our folks he was Spanish, and his dogs, too, and taught my grandfather and others to hunt for ’em. He made a power of money, and they do say left it to the farmer in whose barn he slept, and that’s how farmer B—— got his riches. How that may be, I can’t say, but certain he left his dogs to grandfather and I, and that’s how we got the breed and learnt truffle-hunting, for before that nothing was known about ’em or where they growed.”

My friend had just finished his story as we entered the shrubbery, and drew near to trees which my guide declared to be “friendly” to the truffle. We then left the path, and made our way through bushes and underwood, until we came to a hedge on one side, and the trunks of fine beeches on the other. I was so much occupied in forcing my way through thorny brambles and opposing branches, and also in observing how the brilliant rays of an August sun lighted up the massive boles of the beeches, and then lost themselves in the hazel thickets, or the sombre foliage of the yews, that I was hardly aware that our dog was running before us with her nose to the ground, as keen and eager as a terrier after a rat. Suddenly she completely aroused me from my reverie by appearing to have gone out of her dog’s mind; as, merely encouraged by a whistle from her master, or a “here, Nell, here them,” she rushed through some bushes so quickly that I could hardly keep her in sight, and stopping all at once close to a beech tree, began, without a moment’s hesitation, not only to push up the earth with her nose, but to scratch it up with her fore-paws as hard as she could.

“What is the dog about?” I asked, half-bewildered; but I was answered directly by the man stooping down, and picking up something whilst he said:

“Well done, Nell,” and at the same moment he placed in my hand a real English truffle, smelling strongly, according to its peculiar nature.

The dog was off again directly, and found four more within ten minutes of the first, and one or two rather deeper down in the soil, so that it required a little help from my companion’s stick to get them up. I afterwards found that they carry a little spade with them, which the truffler uses when his dog is unable to scratch up this curious fungus with his paws.

All the time that the hunt lasted, Nelly was extremely excited and agitated, now smelling them out with unerring instinct, then scratching them up with the greatest delight, which she showed by wagging violently her short tail, and by fetching and carrying them at the bidding of her master. She glided through the thick bushes and underwood in a marvellous manner, and as every truffle-dog has his tail docked when a puppy to prevent any impediment in their hunting through bushes, little Nell was able to agitate hers as violently as she liked, without any fear of being caught by it in the boughs.

The most wonderful proof of her sagacity was in her scenting out and scratching up two of the red truffles, which were so tiny that, unless she had carried them in her mouth to her master, we should not have remarked them, though the place was pointed out to us by her scratching. Whilst I was wondering how these dogs could ever be trained to hunt for what appeared so foreign to their nature, and turning over in my hand one of these shapeless fungi, the others being safely placed in my pocket, I felt something cold touch me; and lo and behold! there was mistress Nell standing up on her hind legs in an endeavour to truffle-hunt in my pocket, but soon recalled to her usual good manners by an imperative “Nell,” from her master.

“Would she have eaten them?” I said, surprised.

“Oh dear yes, dogs likes ’em beyond everything else; it’s their food, only we don’t let them have any, as it would spoil their training. But that’s why they hunt for ’em, they want to eat ’em. A good dog will hunt, however, all day without touching them, but we generally carry a bit of bread with us as a reward to the dog and to take off his attention from the truffles.” Need I say that it was from my hand that little Nell received her reward that day, which she took as became her, gently and affectionately, after the day’s hunt was over.

I shall not carry my readers with me to the end of our hunt, nor relate how disappointed we were in the size and number of those found by Nell on that bright hot day. A truffle hunt, though very interesting and amusing to witness, would appear monotonous in a description, and therefore it is sufficient for the encouragement of those who would like to see one, that, if they go out later in the autumn, they will doubtless have as good a day’s sport as I had on my second attempt, and will bring home in triumph truffles large enough and black enough to delight a French cook’s heart, although they will probably fail in discovering another “monster truffle.”

One piece of information I will give before I close my account of truffles, and that is, how the dogs are trained for truffle-hunting. I will give it in the words of an old woman, the wife of another of the trufflers, who answered my question in the following way:—

“How we trains ’em, sir? Why, bless you, we takes ’em as puppies, and ties ’n up, and then we takes a truffle and chucks ’em—”

“Well,” I said, as she stopped short, “and then I suppose the puppy eats it?”

“Oh no, bless you, we never let’s ’n eat ’em; that would spoil ’em.”

“Then what do you do? Do you make them fetch and carry?”

“No, surely, we just chucks ’em.”

“But what do the puppies do?” said I, getting out of patience, and screaming at the top of my voice, in the vain idea that the woman was too deaf to have heard me. “That can’t teach them.”

“Oh bless you, it does; he snaps at ’em, and we chucks ’em—and—and—” (here I interrupted, hoping to get at the root of the matter), “you let the puppy out with the other dogs, don’t you?”

“Oh dear no, we just ties ’em up, and chucks the truffle to he, and—”

“Well!” I said, provoked to a degree.

“Why, then,” says the old woman, “we takes another and chucks ’em, and then we takes again and chucks; and so you see we just” (hesitating a little for fresh words, but in vain), and in her loudest voice, “we just chucks ’em.”

In despair I turned round and ran out of the cottage, and the last words that rang on my ears were “we just chucks ’em.”

May my readers glean from the old woman’s words more information than I did!

J. L.