Truffles – what a rare treat indeed!

on Tuesday, 07 January 2014. Posted in Traditions and Folklore, Wiltshire People

We all like to indulge in the odd luxury if we can, including a good truffle or two perhaps…

Did you know that these chocolate treats originally contained truffles of the fungal variety when they were first produced in Belgium? At the time it was this truffle that was at the height of fashion.

Truffles were once common in England, especially in the south. The hunting of them became a cottage industry in rural Wiltshire from the late 17th century to the early 20th. The earliest known description of the truffle is by Tancred Robinson in 1693. “Those observed in England are all included in a studded Bark or coat; the Tubercules resembling the Capsules or Seed–Vessels of some Mallows and Aloeas the inward substance is of the consistence of the fleshy part in a young chestnut, of a paste colour, of a rank or hircine odour, and unsavoury, streaked with many white Veins or threads, as in some Animals’ Testicles; the whole is of a globose figure, though unequal and chunky”. The size can range from 3mm to that of a grapefruit, can be found near trees or in forested areas, and are especially associated with beech trees which do not give too much shade. The first definitively English truffle was the ‘Trub’, documented and written up in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1693.

Truffles have held a certain mystique for many years in history as well as today, but just what is that that makes them so special?

Truffles were always in demand and as their supply was limited they fetched a high price, becoming renowned as a luxury item. They also received the reputation as an aphrodisiac, giving them an even greater appeal! Charles Dickens once wrote “Truffles, like caviar, are things of which many talk who never saw or tasted them.”

Some of those who tried them, like William Verral in 1759, felt that they were overrated. “Truffles in England are a very scarce commodity and of consequence very dear; but are sometimes to be had. I have known some found in the neighbourhood where I live, but very bad, and not much preferable to a pototoe.” Obviously an acquired taste! The comparison with potatoes appears an apt one, as when potatoes first appeared in Europe they were often confused with truffles and for a short while both were known by the same name.

The Wiltshire parish of Winterslow became famous for its truffle hunting. These Winterslow families hunted not just in Wiltshire, but also in Hampshire, Dorset, Somerset, Herefordshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, Surrey, Sussex and took the occasional visit to the Isle of Wight too. Eli Collins hunted until he was 83 as was ‘on the friendliest terms with almost every titled family in the truffle counties.’ The Winsterslow trufflers appear to have cornered the market! It was in fact Lord Radnor of Longford Castle, Salisbury, who gave Eli his famous velvet coat. Eli sent out regular parcels all over Britain, but he probably gave the landowners and local gentry first refusal. It is interesting to note that even though the practice of truffle hunting was felt by the Leisure Hour in 1861 as “leads to trespassing, vagrant habits and a look out for higher game,” Eli received a testimonial from Lord Radnor. “Eli Collins has been allowed to hunt for truffles on my Estate for nearly 45 years, commencing to do so with his father – he has never during that time encroached in any way; and has conducted himself respectably. Aug 22, 1895.”

Pigs were originally used as truffle hunters but dogs were found to be smaller, easier to keep and once trained, more controllable with a higher concentration span. They also made good companions. The ‘truffle hound’ was of a poodle type with a tough curly coat to protect against thorny thickets. Another essential was that it had a very good nose. Alfred Collins’ star truffle dog was Major, a terrier/poodle cross. He had a truffle conditioned sense of smell and the single-mindedness necessary for the role. Major also had a passion for truffles and would gobble them up as fast as he could uncover them, if allowed to get away with it. A food dog could find up to 8lbs in a day. It was Alfred who wrote about a man bringing a pack of specially trained poodles over from Spain approximately 250 years ago. He would visit southern Wiltshire during the truffle season and leave the dogs with locals during spring and summer when he returned home. He eventually stopped coming but the dogs remained in Wiltshire and were sold on. Queen Victoria was given two white truffle dogs as a birthday gift by Prince Albert in 1842.

A dog tax levy was begun in 1860 which included the truffle dog. The Winterslow truffle hunters put a petition to the House of Lords in protest:

“We, the undersigned Poor Men of the parish of Winterslow, in the county of Wilts, do humbly solicit the attention of our honble. House to our humble Petition. Being poor labouring men, mostly with families and aged, and liveing in a woody district of the county, where there is a great many English truffles grow, which we cannot find without dogs, we do therefore keep and use a small pudle sort of dog wholey and solely for that and no other purpose; and, as it is in the winter season of the year when we gather them, when labourers is generaly on the excess in our neighbourhood, we often are enabled by the aforesaid dogs to provide a subsistence for our families, otherwise we should often be a burden to the parish; and as it hath been carried on by our ancestors for generations past without paying any tax for the dogs; but as the tax is now leveld upon us, viz. twelve shillings per year, and as we have to keep our dogs six months when we have no use for them, it presses so heavy upon us that without redress we shall in most cases, be obliged to make a sacrifice of our dogs, and thereby become a burden on the parish…”

This heralded the death knell for truffle hunting which gradually declined into an occupation which did not pay. With the retirement of the last professional truffle hunter Alfred Collins in the 1930s the truffle hound is fast disappearing as a breed.

But fear not… truffles are entering the public sphere once more with talk of them in this year’s BBC Countryfile. They are now making a return to the menus of some of the top restaurants in London and you can even buy your own ready spored truffle tree from the English Truffle Company who sustainably truffle hunt in the woodlands of Dorset.

Truffling still lives on in the hearts and minds of the people of Winterslow; a coffee shop called “Truffles” was opened in the village in 1992, the name being top choice in a competition.
Have you had the good fortune to try one yet?!

Julie Davis
Local Studies Assistant


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