Clive has fun...truffle hunting in Sussex

PUBLISHED: 10:10 21 March 2012 | UPDATED: 17:21 20 February 2013

Clive has fun...truffle hunting in Sussex

Clive has fun...truffle hunting in Sussex

No we haven't found oil, the black gold is truffles, the aromatic delicacy <br/><br/>loved by the Italians. Clive joins the hunt on the South Downs

No we haven't found oil, the black gold is truffles, the aromatic delicacy
loved by the Italians. Clive joins the hunt on the South Downs

Sadly the opportunities to go prospecting for gold in Sussex are severely limited, which is very disappointing for those of us who quite fancy panning by a stream on a summer's evening, picking up the odd nugget and then blowing the proceeds on a wild night down the Dog and Duck. As well as providing a welcome injection of characters and colour into an otherwise rather straight-laced society, gold prospecting would also deliver much-needed opportunities for those of us looking to supplement a modest wage with a second income stream.

Of course there are plenty of conventional part-time jobs available in supermarkets, pubs and tattoo parlours, but they lack the glorious uncertainty that goes with prospecting. And just as fishermen cope with the tedium that comes from standing on a river bank for hours and hours without catching anything by dreaming of landing a whopper, the psychological benefits of holding even a slim chance of striking it lucky are considerable. The lottery, it could be argued, is the modern opiate of the masses.

Although I wouldn't object if a multi-million pound jackpot landed in my lap, I'm perhaps too much of a realist to regard it as anything other than a massively remote possibility on a par with, say, Brighton and Hove Albion winning the European Champions' League in my lifetime.
Instead of sitting waiting for the extremely improbable, I would prefer to go out there searching for the rather unlikely. Apart from anything else, the exercise will do me good, my health will benefit, my life expectancy will increase and, who knows, I might even live long enough to see the Seagulls tear Real Madrid's defence apart in front of 80,000 distraught Spaniards in the Bernabu.

Since gold prospecting is not an option, I need to find something that offers the same alluring combination of rarity and value. Because I have no second income stream and therefore can't afford them, I have never tried a truffle but understand that they are hugely sought after by gourmands willing to pay colossal prices. Even a tiny slither of the $2 billion global market would provide a significant boost to my disposable income.

Before searching for truffles you first have to find a truffle-hunter. Like their gold prospecting cousins, truffle-hunters are, I suspect, a pretty secretive lot somewhat reluctant to share their secrets with a potential rival. Since Italians are the single greatest consumers of truffles, for all I know the mafia might already have a stranglehold on the local truffle market.

My discreet enquiries lead to Horsham and Melissa Waddingham. Thankfully there are no suspicious violin cases lying around her house, just dozens of thick volumes on fungi and truffles and she strikes me as more academic than mafia boss. Now studying Forestry and Woodland Management at Plumpton College, she first became interested in fungi when a friend gave her some porcini, which sounds suspiciously Italian to my ears but is simply an edible mushroom. In fact, she's half French and was excited to discover that her grandfather used to go truffle-hunting in his native France. But are there any truffles in England? "Oh, yes," she reveals over a cup of coffee, "they like chalk and limestone and are up there on the South Downs." My pulse quickens.

Equally excited is Melissa's labrador Zebedee, who has been trained as a truffle hound but appears to mistake my wrinkly skin for that of a truffle and jumps all over me. Melissa reassures me that he's just being friendly and explains that truffle oil was smeared on his mother's teats when he was a puppy and that it's smell rather than appearance that arouses him. Perhaps a recent bout of athletes' foot has left me smelling faintly fungal. Rewarded for finding truffle-scented objects hidden around the house, Zebedee now associates the distinctively earthy smell with all things good.

Far from a recent development, I learn that truffle hunting has been going on in Sussex for centuries. And with global warming making conditions even more hospitable, the prospects are very encouraging and Sussex could yet develop into a major player in the lucrative world of truffles. Just as I'm beginning to get a whiff of bundles of dosh and my metaphorical tail is wagging as energetically as Zebedee's, I learn the quite devastating news that the truffles presently found around these parts are "not very valuable". What? "Summer truffles or Tuber aestivum are only worth about 180 a kilo." That sounds quite a lot to me but a lot less when taking into account the fact that each truffle weighs around 20 grams and they are, even with Zebedee's enthusiastic help, notoriously hard to find. Each reasonable-sized specimen is worth in the region of 3 to 4, handy but hardly life-changing. And certainly not as spectacular as the white truffle (Tuber magnatum), which go for about 10,000 a kilo. Incidentally, the record amount paid for a single white truffle was 165,000 back in December 2007 for a specimen weighing 1.5 kilograms, which is a lot more like it.

Melissa and others are exploring the potentially lucrative possibility of growing cultivated truffles in this country by inoculating host trees with the fungus under controlled conditions. It's a moderately long-term project that my looming deadline won't accommodate and so we head for the South Downs.

"No, I'm not going to blindfold you," says Melissa as we jump in the car, which is perhaps as well since I'm driving. We're joined by Matthew, a fungi fan and trusted friend. Regular checks in the rear-view mirror reassure me that we're not being followed and we climb a moderately steep track before entering a public car park at the top of a hill (Sorry, I can't be more specific).

Zebedee and I are hugely excited as we follow Melissa through a wood. We're looking for 'brle', which is French for burnt and is an area where the normally green vegetation is missing. In case you didn't know, truffles are alleopathic, which means they chemically inhibit the growth of other plants. But they're not parasitic. Indeed, they help the trees by extracting and breaking down the chemicals they need. This assistance is especially beneficial in areas of poor soil such as on chalk.

Very soon we're standing in the middle of an unmistakeable brle in the middle of an unmistakable wood. Zebedee is unleashed and whizzes around in a frantic frenzy, occasionally pausing to sniff the spring air. After only a few minutes, he fixes on a spot and starts pawing the ground. Melissa joins in and then triumphantly lifts what looks like a mouldy blackberry out of the ground. She's surprised as well as delighted because it's so early in the season. Despite Zebedee's best efforts over the next hour or so, it turns out to be our only find. It's worth about 3, which isn't a great return for a morning's work, especially when split three ways.

Instead of flogging it on the open market, Melissa grates it over scrambled eggs and explains over lunch that she's looking for a local landowner interested in cooperating with her to cultivate black truffles, which fetch around 1000 a kilo. Because it takes between six and 10 years before anything can be harvested, patience will be required. But Melissa is confident that it can be done and convinces me that there is, after all, metaphorical gold in them thar hills.

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