8 October 1999

ITSAFUNGI BUSINESS BUTHE ADORES HIS TRUFFLES

They cost a fortune and have a smell so strong it can almost overpower

you. A delicacy, some say. More like sweaty armpits, according to others.

People either love or loathe truffles. Farmer and estate owner Nigel

Hadden-Paton loves them. Tim Relf reports on a novel diversification

HE LIKES them grated over his scrambled eggs. Every Sunday, without fail, hell sit down and savour the dish. "So easy to do – but wonderful," says Nigel Hadden-Paton.

Another favourite is truffle consommé under a pastry lid. "As soon as you put the fork in, you get the explosion of aroma and flavour. Just delicious."

This, you soon realise, is a man with a serious passion for the enigmatic member of the mushroom family. A man who recently sat down to an eight-course truffle "festival" at a top London restaurant. A man who, earlier this year, went wild truffle hunting in Italy. A man whos even got a dog called – yes, you guessed it – Truffle.

So fascinated, in fact, is Nigel by the rare and expensive subterranean fungi that hes establishing the countrys first commercial black Périgord crop at Rossway Park, Herts.

His diversification ethic is simple. "Unless you are sitting on grade 1 land – and lots of it – you have to do other things." Other ventures include corporate entertainment, a UK Chaser course and barn conversions. Now, nearly 50 oak and hazel trees – their roots "infected" with the spores – have been planted in the walled garden with the help of New Zealand-based scientist Ian Hall.

Nigel has formed a company, Truffles UK, with Adrian Cole and plans to sell the truffles and market "infected" trees to other people looking for a novel diversification. With a wholesale price tag which can hit £800/kg, truffles could be just the crop to combat falling farm incomes, he reckons.

But theyre not for everyone and some people balk at the strong smell and flavour. "A little goes a long way. You can over do it," he admits.

As for the timescale, well, thats the million dollar question. "And I dont have the million dollar answer," says Nigel. The first truffles could be harvested in about five years. "We just dont know." The trees, however, could be ready for sale earlier.

It is, he acknowledges, a long lead time and a high risk project. It can be variable, too. "Its like wheat – some years you get a cracking harvest, other times it can be very small." But the potential is massive.

So now its a case of waiting. Its looking hopeful, too, with an inspection showing the roots of the growing trees to be still "infected".

"You can see that with your bare eyes; you dont need a microscope. Thats exciting."

Perhaps the only disappointment is knowing that, if and when the day comes to harvest the crop, the exercise wont involve a pig. Grown on carefully planted and spaced trees, itll be obvious where the bounty is – so therell be no need to track it down with keen-nosed pigs as in the traditional style.

"More and more dogs are being used on the Continent for gathering, anyway," says Nigel. "Pigs are good at finding them, but theyre difficult beasts to persuade to get into your car on a Sunday morning when you want to go and find some."