by Dick Pyle
It all started with Father’s Day in 2001. After years of not even a card, that year saw two wonderful presents: a trip in a glider, and the rent of a vine for a year in a Sussex vineyard — plus a bottle of wine from ‘my own’ grapes. At the time a buyer had just been found for Hilaire Restaurant on London ’s Old Brompton Road — a business in which I had a one-third share — and my long-held dream of retiring to a quiet corner of France began to seem a distinct possibility. I did some rough research on possible regions, then some armchair house-hunting, and finally flew over in February 2002 armed with around a dozen properties-to-view spread over four immobiliers and four days, in one of the few areas of France I had never visited: Le Gers, département 32.
The houses I had chosen to see all seemed to have minor problems attached, from a beautifully converted mill with a glass drawing room floor (and magnificent views of a huge, tatty pet food factory, courtesy of the 1999 storms) to a vast mansion with innumerable rooms in execrable repair – which would have cost a couple of million to render even habitable. On my final day sitting despondently in the immobilier in Auch, I was idly scanning some property details pinned to a board when a house caught my eye. It looked in reasonable repair, seemed quite imposing, and most importantly, had an affordable price tag. I asked M Brunel if I could inspect it and we rushed out there at once. It sat on the side of a gentle slope about 150m up from the minor road that ran along the valley bottom, with a field of wheat dividing its garden from the road. For some reason the idea of copying the rather old hat ‘adopt a vine’ concept — but this time with the million-times-sexier truffle instead — suddenly came to me. I asked tentatively whether the field could be for sale and the answer was, “Probably, yes!” Just on cue, the owner of the field drove past on a wonderful antique tractor and provided the definitive positive reply I was so hoping for.
Perhaps I should explain at this point what a truffle is — an explanation that was only finally widely accepted towards the end of the Nineteenth Century. It is a kind of mushroom that grows underground in the root systems of several species of young tree, the most important genera for commercial use being oaks and hazels. It is not a parasite, but grows in a strange symbiotic relationship, enabling the tree to assimilate phosphorus and other minerals in return for which it receives carbohydrates to further its development. Nowadays dogs, not pigs, are used to hunt for truffles, and a trained chien truffier is a very valuable beast. There are many species of truffle, mostly inedible, but two are very highly prized by gastronomes: the white Piedmont (Tuber magnatum) and the black Périgord (T melanosporum). Both will cost you at least £2,000 per kilo in London , Paris , or New York , and supply is never able to keep pace with demand.
I came back in April to sign the preliminary purchase contract for both house and field, and after that, ignoring the usual horrors of British house-buying chains, all was pretty well settled; all that is except the $64,000 question: Was the land going to be suitable for truffle growing? I returned in July and the very first thing I did was send a soil sample off to a specialist laboratory for analysis. Three weeks later the result came back — near-perfect for truffles, needing just some phosphorous, potassium, and a large quantity of manure.
We started in October with the manure – not something that is normally easy to lay one’s hands on; but by an extraordinary stroke of luck, just fifteen metres from the boundary of the truffière sat a huge heap of pretty well rotted material from the bottom of my new neighbour’s 6,000-bird chicken sheds. Chicken manure is not absolutely ideal, as it’s rather acidic, but it was terribly convenient, and 60 tons was duly spread over the 1.2 hectares that were to be planted with oaks. Next, in December, came the ploughing. Normally the objective in cultivating is to avoid a pan – a solid boundary between the relatively fine topsoil and the subsoil. With truffles that is just what you do want; the tree roots must be encouraged to grow laterally rather than downwards so the truffles appear not too far below the surface. (In Provence a flat stone is sometimes placed just below the tree to achieve this objective.)
While waiting for the soil to dry out after the winter rains, I composed a very rough draft of a press release explaining the Truffle Tree concept, and sent it off to a journalist friend for his comments. Three weeks later I had heard nothing, and feared that he had found my idea uninteresting. Then the phone began to ring — a national newspaper had printed a small but very effective story. Meanwhile my neighbour, Serge, had been presented with three puppies by his border collie, Rumba. I would need a truffle hound eventually, but it seemed far too soon with not a single tree yet planted. I avoided visiting the youngsters for a week or two but finally I succumbed — and there was Polka. She was a delight: clearly intelligent, stunningly beautiful, and totally irresistible. Against all my inclinations she became mine.
Shortly after that the land was dry enough to be worked, and things really started to move. The phosphorous and potassium were spread, followed by a ton or so of lime to counter the acidity from the chicken manure and return the pH to its original 8.0. Le Gers abounds with wildlife, and two species are particularly dangerous to a newly-planted truffière: wild boar and deer. The former are, apparently, even able to detect the truffle spores around the roots of the trees and will come in and wreak havoc with their huge tusks, while the latter love to nibble the bark and new shoots of young trees. So some sort of enclosure was a necessity — not, perhaps, high enough to deter a cervine high jump champion, or so solid as to be totally impenetrable to a linebacker, but sufficient enough to deter the odd amateur who would happily be diverted to easier pickings elsewhere. After soliciting construction advice from numerous people, no two of whom agreed, I settled for a simple wire mesh fence supported by long-lasting acacia posts. I had reckoned to slot in the posts myself over a weekend using a rented, hand-held, petrol-engined boring machine but it was impossible; every time I let in the clutch the bit stuck in the clay and I was spun to the ground. In the end it took a mini-excavator and much trial and error before we discovered a viable technique: dig a hole around half the depth of post to be buried, refill the hole and compact it with the bucket, and then push the post into the ground, again using the bucket. With the truffière secure and harrowed once again, we could now turn to planting.
Planting densities in truffières vary quite a bit. I went for an average sort of figure, 500 trees per hectare, with trees 4m apart in rows 5m apart. This would give room for mechanised harrowing even when the roots were fully developed. My original intention was to plant a mix of hazels, evergreen oaks and deciduous oaks, but after a visit to a plantation in the next village I was put off the former on the grounds of their labour-intensive pruning requirements and very acid leaves. So the Holm Oak (Quercus ilex) and the Pubescent Oak (Q pubescens) became my chosen species. Truffles have a status in French agriculture way higher than their economic importance justifies and much government-funded research has gone into the preparation of truffle-producing trees. Around thirty years ago it was discovered that seedling trees produced truffles much more rapidly and reliably if truffle spores were in contact with their roots. Hardly surprising, one would have thought, and I’m sure the ‘secret’ was known to plenty of individuals; they just weren’t in the business of giving away valuable commercial secrets! The truffle business is terribly secretive; no wild truffle hunter divulges the location of productive trees unless on his deathbed and all sales are cash — no cheques, no invoices — and often take place right outside the mairie or gendarmerie. I chose to buy my trees from a fourth generation family truffle business in La Drôme, about an hour’s drive North of Avignon, and placed an initial order for 100.
The twenty square metre plots were marked out using six kilometres or so of tough binder twine and on 3rd April 2003 my daughter, Hannah, and I planted the first trees. Following the newspaper article, adoptions were taking off rapidly and towards the middle of April I decided to plant another 100. My order was lost twice and when the trees were finally shipped they took ten days in transit and arrived on 22nd May, bone dry and looking as if the cartons had been kicked most of the way. It was really too late to plant but I decided to risk it, pray for some rain and a cool spell of weather and rely on the newly installed watering system to give them a bit of cosseting. So now you know what caused the 2003 heat wave which gave us temperatures in the low forties day after day, relentless sun and not a drop of rain for months. The trees really suffered.
With the initial planting completed the next task was to build a web site so that potential owner’s could learn about truffles, see pictures of the truffière under construction, and adopt trees on-line, either for themselves or as gifts. But the nicest aspect of the entire business has proved to be welcoming visitors who come to see their tree. Some come for a couple of hours, some for a week but all seem to enjoy being photographed with their oak, toasting it with a glass of Gascony wine and experiencing the beautiful, tranquil Gers countryside.
So that’s the story of how Truffle Tree was born. Since 2003 the owner base has continued to expand, and we now have tree owners in eleven countries. More trees have been planted. A litter of potential truffle hounds has been produced with attendant comedies and tragedies. Weeding and watering, watering and weeding seem to go on endlessly. But life here is superb. The best thing I have done in my life is to have moved to France, and the second best is to have launched Truffle Tree.
NOTE: You can now buy Truffle Trees in the Gilded Fork Boutique!
Dick Pyle is happily tending to his truffle trees in Le Gers, France.