By Frank Thadeusz
It isn't much to look at, but lovers of the truffle insist that it's sexy, or at least that it smells beguiling. But the coveted truffle doesn't give itself up that easily. Perseverance is a key trait of anyone searching for the delicacy.
In Germany, only a few of the initiated search for the wrinkled, exotic truffle. The summer or burgundy truffle, buried in the soil, is considered a rarity here, where it appears on the Red List of threatened animal, plant and mushroom species.
The summer truffle, which German foodies like to shred in very small amounts over pasta or use to season a wild boar terrine, is imported from France, Italy or Spain. Germans consume 40 to 60 tons of truffles a year, at prices ranging from 250 ($329) to 9,000 a kilo.
Now what would German truffle aficionados say to the claim made by two avid mushroom pickers that substantial numbers of the valuable fungi lie hidden in the ground in southwestern Germany, undiscovered and accessible to everyone?
Dyed-in-the-wool foodies would probably say that this is about as ridiculous as an amateur archeologist stumbling upon untapped oil reserves while digging in the Bavarian Forest.
Deposits across Southern Germany
Forestry expert Ulrich Stobbe, 32, and locksmith Ludger Sproll, 49, recently wrote about their surprising discovery in the professional journal Fungal Ecology, and corroborated the theory that there are large truffle deposits in southwestern Germany with five years of field research. The two men found seven different truffle species at 121 sites in the region. The popular burgundy truffle turned up at 116 of the sites.
For Stobbe and Sproll, the discovery initially felt like finding a suitcase full of cash on the subway, and they were very tempted to sell the harvest for lots of money on the market. "I'll be quite honest about that," Sproll confesses.
The two mushroom devotees resisted the urge. Instead Stobbe, who was studying Forest Botany at the University of Freiburg in southwestern Germany, decided to channel his passion into scientific research. He told his faculty mentor that he wanted to make truffle research the subject of a master's thesis and, to Stobbe's amazement, the professor reacted enthusiastically to the proposal.
When they began their truffle project in 2007, they were all but unfamiliar with the subterranean growth. Stobbe and Sproll only knew how the fungus spreads in the forest. Attracted by the intensive fragrance of the tubers, wild boards, mice and squirrels dig up the delicacy, eat it and then excrete the undigested spores elsewhere. Under favorable conditions, new fungal cultures develop in these locations. But what are favorable conditions?
There is plenty of superficial knowledge about truffles out there. For instance, it's said that truffles can only be found where there are oak trees. The trees and the mushrooms enter into a symbiotic relationship. The fungal material improves the tree's ability to extract water and nutrients from the forest soil. In return, the truffle gains access to strengthening carbohydrates.
A Lost German Delicacy
At first, Stobbe and Sproll didn't find what they were looking for in the forest soil, and instead had to turn to the library for information. In 1891, mycologist Rudolph Hesse included a relatively accurate description of the deposits of German truffles in his book "Hypogeous Fungi of Germany." The duo also dug up recipe books that were more than 100 years old and revealed knowledge of the existence of the German truffle.
At the time, the truffle was a regular feature in ordinary home cooking. Butchers mixed truffles found in the loamy soil into liverwurst. Housewives stuffed spring chickens with truffles to season the poultry, and once the chickens were done the truffles were tossed into the compost. At some point, however, knowledge of the domestic delicacy waned, and the truffle disappeared from German menus.
As hunters of this lost treasure, Stobbe and Sproll set out without maps and without the slightest clue as to where to find truffle deposits. All they had at their side was a dog named Diana. The French Pointer is a bread of dog which is especially receptive to being trained to sniff out truffles. Sproll bought the dog in the Italian region of Umbria while undergoing a training program to become a state-licensed truffle hunter.
Diana picked up the scent for the first time on the Schönberg, a mountain on the southern outskirts of Freiburg in the state of Baden-Württemberg. The dog returned with a truffle in her mouth that looked like a charred avocado. The find was tiny and hardly worth mentioning. Nevertheless, says Sproll, "we were delighted."
From then on, Sproll drove the 100 kilometers (63 miles) from his home in the Swabian Jura region to Freiburg almost daily. He still had no idea that much bigger truffle deposits were buried underground practically at his front door.
The two men spent hundreds of hours wandering around the area, hoping to cover the geographic range of the burgundy truffle in Germany on foot. Stobbe had also bought a truffle dog by then. The workday was determined by the animals' limitations. They could normally work for about five hours, but less on very cold days.
The stereotype is that pigs are best suited for truffle hunting, but Sproll says "that's just a myth." "Try holding onto a 150-kilo (330.7 pound) pig on a hillside." There's another problem with swine as well: The scent of truffles makes pigs hungry. In the 19th century, botanist Carl Adolfo Emmo Theodor Bail warned that the pig had "the great disadvantage that, unless it is observed very carefully, it will pull up the truffle, from which, once it has found one, it must be chased with shouts and abuse."
Dogs, on the other hand, reliably retrieve truffles. Sproll and Stobbe lead their companions to places where they suspect there are truffle deposits. Then the animals take over, their concentration only occasionally interrupted by the search for a mouse.
Treasure Map Gourmets Would Kill For
The two truffle hunters are still mystified by the preferences of the fungi. Why, for example, do they thrive in one spot but not 20 meters away?
After three years and thousands of hours spent walking through the forest, Stobbe and Sproll have compiled something of a treasure map, one that many a gourmet and mushroom fanatic would presumably kill for. The map includes the precise locations of all the sites the two researchers have discovered.
Truffle enthusiasts will be frustrated to know that the delicacies that are ready for the plucking at the many sites will probably all rot away in the ground. The reason is that the truffles are subject to conservation laws that apply to threatened species.
Nevertheless, Stobbe and Sproll predict a rosy future for burgundy truffles in southwestern Germany, primarily because they mature at different times of the year in different geographic areas.
Burgundy truffles mature in the summer in France, Italy and Spain. "But that's precisely when the vagaries of the climate are causing the biggest problems. And if there's flooding, it's the death of the truffles," Sproll explains.
Not so in southern Germany, where the subterranean mushroom thrives from October to February. It even continues to mature under a thick blanket of snow.
This leads to the paradoxical situation in which France is still plundering its already heavily depleted reserves, while Germany is leaving its considerable resources untouched.
Could Germany Become a Truffle Exporter?
Stobbe and Sproll hope to change things in the not too distant future. They say they have a plan that could enable Germany to become an exporter of truffles in the medium term. They hit upon the idea in a beer garden, when truffle hound Diana began poking her nose into a narrow strip of grass. The dog returned a short time later, her tail wagging and a truffle in her mouth, and her master learned something new: Truffles don't necessarily grow in the forest.
Since then, Stobbe and Sproll have been running a business selling truffle trees, in addition to their research activities. The two men now know that in addition to the oak tree, hazelnut and beech trees serve as host trees.
After several years of experiments, the team discovered a successful recipe for literally inoculating the trees with truffle cultures. The creators guard this mixture about as jealously as Coca-Cola does its own famous formula.
Sproll and Stobbe are completely serious when they tell farmers to consider switching to truffle cultivation. They believe that land throughout Germany is suitable, noting that individual truffles have even been spotted in Rostock in northeastern Germany.
Sproll can hardly contain his excitement when he talks about the fantastic conditions for growing truffles in Germany. But then the man, who tends to prefer very simple pleasures, pauses for a moment, and says thoughtfully: "Sure, truffles have an incredibly intense aroma. But they really don't taste of anything at all."
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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