MONEY doesn’t grow on trees. But it does grow beneath them, if you look hard enough.
The County Times had heard wild rumours of black gold hidden in the chalky soil of the South Downs.
The prize? Not oil, but truffles - exotic, mouthwatering and closer to home than you might think.
Our guides for the hunt were Horsham fungi fan Melissa Waddingham and Zebedee the truffle hound.
“One condition,” said Melissa on the phone before the hunt.
“You must not reveal where the truffle orchards are. Otherwise there will be floods of people out here in no time, tearing them to pieces.”
Assurances given, we met Melissa in a supermarket car park, the atmosphere heavy with secrecy.
After establishing that blindfolds would probably not be necessary, we swapped meaningful nods and followed the truffle hunter up winding roads to the secret spot.
She led us through prickly brambles into a dark wood, warning us that truffle terrain is never easy.
“Truffles like the South Downs because of the chalky soil,” Melissa explained.
“They inhibit other plants so what we’re looking for is a ‘brûlée’ or ‘burnt area’, devoid of any vegetation.”
Zebedee, living up to his name by bouncing around uncontrollably, was suddenly alert and still.
He sniffed the ground, looked at his mistress enquiringly, and got to work.
“I’ve been training him since he was very little,” explained Melissa, while Zebedee snuffled through the soil.
“When he was a puppy, I smeared truffle oil on his mother’s teats.
“Now I soak cotton wool buds and bury them in the woods. He finds them every time.
“I even give him a bit of truffle to eat if he’s worked especially hard.
With Zebedee suffering from stage fright, Melissa produced one she’d found earlier.
Small, wrinkled and black, it looked like a warty fossilized pine cone.
But what the truffle lacked in looks, it made up for in smell, with a rich, musty, almost meaty scent.
“When I found my first one, it was so exciting,” said Melissa.
“Me and a few friends went looking for them a bit half-heartedly, but after just an hour we had about ten of what we thought could be truffles.
“We weren’t sure, so we went to the pub to wind down and left them in the car.
“When we came back and opened the car door, the most incredible aroma hit us.
“I was hooked from that moment on.”
The County Times had heard that some French white truffles swap hands for around £10.000 a kilo. This was a secret treasure trove, a goldmine.
At this point, our tails were wagging faster than Zebedee’s.
“Oh no, you don’t get those here,” said Melissa.
“Truffle hunting has been going on in Sussex for centuries, but our ones are summer truffles.
“The most you’d get for ours would be around £180 per kilo. But I like to think our truffles are more delicate and sophisticated.”
In the spring and autumn months, Melissa runs mushroom forays, truffle hunts, talks and courses and throughout the year she provides truffle hound training days.
Read Melissa’s blog at http://truffleandmushroomhunter.wordpress.com/.