It’s the season for magical truffles, once seen as an expensive delicacy are now becoming mainstream. You can find this delightful earthy aromatic fungi on fries, burgers, even crisps now along with other staples on a menu. Mike Collison, owner of Shropshire Truffles, is reaping what he sows — quite literally.
He planted an orchard and waited ten years for his crop — talk about slow food. Now Mike’s business is growing due to demand. He also offers experience days for the curious and the mycophile (mushroom aficionado) alike to discover everything about truffles and to enjoy them in mouthwatering dishes. Below Mike takes us through a virtual tour that includes the history of truffles, building his own orchard and what to do with truffles.
Mike you are the truffles expert, talk to us about them and what people may not know. More importantly, is it a cupboard staple?
The truffle is an underground fungi, there are various species and the English Summer/Autumn truffle is native to the UK. They have a very distinctive earthy aroma when ripe, which is between August and November. They are not much to look at but the taste is fantastic. They will keep in the fridge for a week or two after collection, but cannot be frozen – why would you not just eat them?
They should be added to the food after cooking as high temperatures will destroy the aroma and taste. They are perfect for grating onto pasta dishes, cooked meat and vegetables, they are used as a garnish. I recently visited a local restaurant in Shrewsbury who use our truffles, and had a wonderful Scotch egg with mushrooms and salad with shaved truffles on top. We supply our truffles wholesale, to restaurants and individuals. A 50g truffle would be good for a treat for 4 and would cost up to £45. We are trying different ways to extend our selling season and enable more people to try truffles without having to pay as much.
Our first product is Shropshire Truffle “Butter”, we make this as a luxury product and use salted butter mixed with 10% pure truffle – we do not need to add any artificial ingredients to boost the smell or taste, it is just wonderful as it is, especially if you mix it in with cooked pasta, melt it one your steak or just have it with some fresh vegetables. The cost of the truffle butter is £5/pot, which will be fine for 4 people or two if you keep going back for more! We are working on other products, so watch this space.
A potted history of the use of truffles in England: i.e. have we always used truffles in cooking or is it more a continental thing? Given you sold out at Ludlow Food Festival this year what is pushing demand?
Truffles have always been in demand in England, possibly going back to Roman times (they considered them an aphrodisiac), due to the scarcity and value, they were only eaten by the rich. There have always been only a few truffle hunters to find them, usually in Wiltshire and the South Downs, but by the mid-20th Century there were none left. In countries like France they are much more common and freely available, they have planted orchards for centuries just to supply the market, they still cost a lot as demand is much higher. It is fair to say the standard of chefs in England is getting better all the time and we have some excellent restaurants in Shropshire, these establishments have truffle on the menu, customers try it and want to cook with truffle themselves. Due to the short shelf life of the truffle, the supply chain needs to be short and able to supply at short notice, so being a local supplier ticks all the boxes.
A decade is a long time to wait for truffles! Why the lengthy time to farm and why Stapleton?
I have a company called Trees to Grow which supplied tree and shrub seed to nurseries throughout Europe. One of the customers started inoculating trees with truffle and offered them to me to sell into the UK. I sold them as a gift box and studied all about them. After 3 years of importing them I decided I had talked to enough Truffle owners in France to put the odds in my favour if I tried planting a 3-acre orchard. My logic was that New Zealand and Australia were having success with their orchards (there are no native truffles there and no one with any previous experience!), I was happy to wait for up to 10 years to get a crop, and knew that many aspects of the site were in my favour – exhausted ground (it had sugar beet grown on it for many years), slight slope to ensure water-logging would not happen. I raised the ph by adding lime, it would have no competing fungi in the soil as it was arable land and not woodland and I also had a bore hole to irrigate in any hot dry periods. The truffle spores follow the fresh roots on the tree, if you feed the trees, then the roots grow too quickly leaving the spores behind to die. All you can do is wait for nature and in my case nature took 10 years!
When do your experience days run and what can people expect?
I believe we can offer a unique experience for our visitors, due to the location of the orchard next to our premises and the way the orchard is yielding so well. Guests will arrive mid-morning for tea and coffee followed by a talk and a question and answer session on the history of truffles, our orchard and how the industry works. They will then meet Oscar (our truffle hound and star of the show) and we will go up to the orchard to be shown our Oscar works – guests will have the opportunity to work Oscar and dig for truffles. Once we have enough (usually 45 minutes to find a kilo), we will take them back to the building to wash and clean the truffles, so everyone understands how we lose over half of them in processing, to leave only ripe/perfect truffles. They will then be spoilt rotten with a truffle banquet, with a starter, main course and dessert all featuring truffle and served with matching wine. We will be using local produce and products wherever possible and everyone will receive a pot of truffle butter as a reminder of what we hope will have been a lovely day.
BONUS QUESTION: Give us your favourite truffle recipe particularly for those who may not have tried truffles before!
I cooked a gammon last year, and I was at the point of making the white sauce to go with it, when I decided to split the mixture and make half of it with parsley and the half with fresh truffle. Everyone politely had some of the truffle sauce and a more substantial dollop of parsley sauce. I decided to go straight in and try some of the truffle sauce on a piece of gammon. My two memories are, how fantastic the taste was, and looking up to see my daughters partner emptying all the remaining truffle sauce onto his plate. It is absolutely amazing and everyone should try it. Another favourite is just to have some truffle butter on cooked vegetables or on white meat such as turkey at Christmas – this is ideal as the truffle butter can be frozen and used throughout the year.
To find out more about Shropshire Truffles, visit their website
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