We were recently invited to spend a day mushroom and truffle hunting with forager, forester and truffle hound trainer Melissa Waddingham and as this was something weâ€™re never tried out before, it was an offer we just couldnâ€™t refuse!
So, one warm morning this autumn, we donned our walking shoes, found our waterproofs (youâ€™ve always got to be prepared in the UK!), got into the car and drove over to West Sussex where our foraying adventures began.
After driving through some lovely countryside we met Melissa at Amberley train station and from there followed her to her chosen foray site for the day.
Conservation and sustainability
Conservation and sustainability are big aspects of Melissaâ€™s work – she has many sites that she visits and she wonâ€™t return to specific areas for months at a time. This gives the mushrooms and truffles time to â€˜regroupâ€™, plus she never picks all she finds, therefore making sure those remaining have the opportunity to fully spore for the next generation.
We spent a good five or so hours exploring a South Downs forest with Melissa and her two truffle hunting hounds Zebedee and Ella. The ultimate goal was to find an elusive summer truffle, however, throughout the day we came across an impressive variety of mushrooms and discovered so much about funghi and foraging!
How to hunt for truffles
For the best chance to find truffles you need a good sniffer dog and even though we don’t have one of those at home, Melissa taught us where specifically to look.
Truffles particularly like to grow under or around beech and hazel trees and they like their soil chalky, with a high pH. Theyâ€™re also most often found around a certain altitude – 200-250m above sea levelÂ – and because of the UKâ€™s climate theyâ€™re more likely to be found on south facing slopes because theyâ€™re warmer.
Melissa also explained that they emit an enzyme that keeps other vegetation from growing nearby, so Â places to point your hound are Â the burnt lookingÂ brown patches around trees that are devoid of vegetation.
Throughout the day we wandered through the forest searching for possible truffle sites, and it was really enjoyable just breathing in the woodland air and being close to nature. There were many highlights of the day including some dog training. This saw us coat cotton wool in truffle oil, bury them and get the dogs to find them â€“ this gets them into a working frame of mind and it was great to see them getting fired up.
An introduction to fungi
From time to time during our hunt Melissa would find us a good spot to rest and begin to teach us a little about the fungi world. Thereâ€™s so much to take in that we only got a taster, however it was really enjoyable to learn about the different cap and gill shapes and how you can begin to identify your finds.
Melissa explained that there are over 1,400 different mushrooms in Britain and told us about the different types and their ecological functions â€“ I was surprised to find out how important a role they have!
She also highlighted the dangers of foraging and how you must be 100 per cent sure of what youâ€™ve got before you eat it â€“ some differences are so minute itâ€™s scary!
Sadly we didnâ€™t find a truffle during our adventures but we did come across a great selection of fungi. One of the highlights was coming across a puffball, which when gently poked emits a cloud of spores. We were entertained for ages!
In one truffle orchard we also came across a huge number of hedgehog mushrooms, and Melissa explained these were good to eat, so we each picked a handful and took them home.
That evening when I got home I cooked them with some olive oil and garlic and I have to say they were delicious! They had an almost meaty texture and it was really fun to cook something Iâ€™d found and picked myself earlier that day, although I was still nervous about eating something Iâ€™d never heard of until a few hours earlier! Iâ€™m still here though, so itâ€™s all good!
Want to have a go yourself?
Throughout the spring and autumn Melissa offers mushroom forays, truffle hunts, talks and courses, so if youâ€™d like to find out more, or have a go yourself then do get in touch.
Although Iâ€™ll be honest and say that I was pretty knackered by the end of it, we all had a really great time, and felt it was both fun and informative. Our thanks to Melissa for spending the day with us!