Actually, not just any truffle festival, the UK’s only Truffle Festival which just happens to be held at Plumpton in East Sussex.
I have been addicted to truffles since I went to a truffle shop and processing centre in France a few years ago. I’m not sure that the term processing centre is glamorous or evocative enough to describe it but the centre involved several rooms filled to the rafters with truffles being put through their paces. Some were being washed, some were being sliced or made into paste and some were being prepared to sell on to the great chefs of southern France and beyond. We watched, we learned and we tasted. But above all else, what I remember from that trip was the smell. The wonderfully earthy, intoxicating, and hedonistic smell of hundreds of truffles. It was intense. And having never previously given too much thought to the world of truffles, from that moment on, I was both enthralled and addicted.
Still, I had never thought of truffles, or truffle hunting as an English thing until a chance conversation on a visit to Plumpton College earlier this year. And that conversation led me to truffle and mushroom hunter, Melissa Waddingham, and the UK Truffle Festival.
Truffle hunter in chief
Melissa has been truffle-hunting for a long time. She is a member of the British Mycological Society & Association of British Foragers. She’s also a co-founder and organiser of the Truffle Festival (the other co-founder being Ben Sweet, another Sussex truffle forager).
She came to truffle hunting and foraging as a hobby, introduced to it by a friend. She said back then, there was very little information about English truffles and truffle hunting in circulation and she had to teach herself, finding books and sourcing information. Trying what was credible. And what wasn’t. The first time she went on a truffle hunt, she explains, “I selected a woodland area that had all the right attributes, and then I just chose a particular beech tree that looked healthy and like it had had the aid of a truffle’s ecology. I had no dogs with me but low and hold behold, I found a whole flush of truffles straightaway. It was quite a moment.”
Melissa goes on to explain the importance of truffle hunting ethically, sustainably and legally. She explains about the ecology involved and how truffles have a symbiotic relationship with trees, or in other words, how truffles and the trees are mutually beneficial to one another. The truffle attaches itself to the root of the tree and the tree supplies sugars and nutrients and in return, the truffle provides the tree with important nutrients from the soil. That means it’s important to manage woodland properly to truffle sustainably and no, you can’t just help yourself to woodland truffles.
Truffles have, apparently, always been part of our English landscape, and Sussex is a particularly good area because of our chalky soil. Back in the day, there were infamous truffle hunters who sourced truffles for the gentry but with the two great wars, and the loss of so many men, much truffle knowledge and know-how was lost.
Melissa’s mission is to change that and to share truffle and mushroom knowledge. And she has a lot to share. In the spring and autumn months, she runs mushroom forays, truffle hunts, talks, and courses in Sussex and throughout the year she provides truffle hound training days. Melissa explains that more recently dog training has become a massive part of what she does. She can also manage woodlands for the sustainable production of truffles.
The UK Truffle Festival and Truffle Dog Championships
The first UK Truffle Festival was held last year and it returns again to Plumpton Racecourse on the 11th of November. As you might expect, it involves lots of truffles, both from Britain and from abroad. There are lots of talks from a range of first-class experts about truffles and other wild food, there are cooking demonstrations and workshops, tastings, and more. It does what it says on the tin … celebrates truffles!
And it’s a super dog-friendly event too. If you have a dog who already truffles, there are championships to take part in but there’s also a chance to introduce your dog to truffling for the first time. You can find out more or book tickets at: https://www.trufflefestival.co.uk/
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