Ex Sheffield uni man is now a world expert - and not a man to truffle with

Truffle specialist Dr Paul Thomas at Inox Dine, Sheffield
Truffle specialist Dr Paul Thomas at Inox Dine, Sheffield
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They may look like ugly, warty lumps, but truffles are epicurean gold prized by gourmands the world over for their unique, pungent flavour.

The most expensive mushrooms on the planet grow underground, attached to the roots of certain trees, and are so hard to find they are traditionally snuffled out of by pigs and specially-trained dogs.

The Italians and the French sniffily claim theirs are the best in the world and command thousands of pounds a kilo. But thanks to Dragon’s Den, a former Sheffield University PHD student is changing all that.

The young scientist discovered that a century ago, wild truffles grew prolifically in the UK - and set about pioneering a method that meant truffles could be re-introduced and cultivated here.

Now his company, Mycorrhizal Systems Ltd, is thumbing its nose at cocky Continentals across the Channel and is the largest and most diverse grower of cultivated truffles in the world.

Dr Paul Thomas has plantations throughout Europe, the USA and South Africa - and over 30 in the UK, including one right here in South Yorkshire.

There are potentially more to come in our neck of the woods. “Yorkshire is a great place to grow truffles because of the nature of the soil and the climate,” says Paul, whose company is based in Hebden Bridge. “Indeed, a summer truffle grown in Sheffield has a better flavour than those cultivated in France and Italy. It could become a true Yorkshire delicacy.”

A food forager since childhood - “I collected wild mushrooms, nuts and seeds long before it was trendy” - he discovered that truffles grew wild in the UK in the roots of hazel, oak, beech and silver birch trees and were popular with the Victorians.

“But the destruction of our ancient woodland made them much more rare and put paid to their culinary popularity here,” he says.

“I also learned that around the world, cultivation started in the 1970s but the technique was hit and miss. I wanted to do better.”

Towards the end of his doctoral dissertation at the Department of Plant and Animal Sciences he succeeded in creating a unique method of inoculating trees with truffle spores and was awarded a £2,500 university grant to develop it.

In 2005 he took his invention into the BBC’s Dragon’s Den. Two impressed entrepreneurs offered him £75,000 for 25 per cent of his business. “I said no to Rachel Elnaugh in favour of Yo! Sushi founder Simon Woodroffe, but later I turned him down.

“At the time I said I didn’t think he got the science and was more interested in developing truffle-hunters’ trousers. But mainly it was about my own bloody-mindedness,” he admits. “Everyone was telling me what a success he would make of the business and I didn’t want it all to be attributed to him.”

As it turned out, he didn’t need anyone. The show itself was enough to turn his fortunes. He had thought he would need funds to buy land in France on which to create a plantation. But land-owners around the world emailed him wanting to get on board. He remodelled the business plan, set up partnership plantations and grew a commercial operation that was also a massive research project.

Now his research sites span four continents and a wide range of climatic conditions and his findings have changed global understanding of how and why truffles grow.

A renowned authority on ‘the diamond of the kitchen’, he lectures at conferences around the globe.

What he is equally proud of is of making the sceptical French and Italians eat their words. “They are amazed at the taste of UK truffles - and the consistency of our methods,” he says.

“Truffles have been cultivated for nearly 40 years - 90 per cent of all the truffles in France come from commercial orchards. But there are a large number of orchards that fail to produce. “Our technique is a more thorough and reliable scientific method and aims to eliminate the ‘lucky dip’ effect,” he explains.

“Before planting we ensure every tree is inoculated and our constant biological monitoring leads to a truffle harvest in a shorter time frame, in greater numbers and with increased reliability.”

Paul’s company is licensing its technology, launching an analytical service and is expanding its retail sales.

It goes without saying Paul has become a truffle addict. “I have them with eggs for breakfast most mornings and in pasta sauces, I mash them into butter and even pickle them in vodka, which makes a fantastic Bloody Mary,” he says.

Though when his fascination for cultivating truffles first began, he had never tasted one. “I was in my second year at uni and ordered some from France,” he recalls.

“The scent was so strong it stank out every room in my student house in Hillsborough!”

Over 30 commercial truffle plantations are now putting down roots in the UK and Ireland, thanks to Paul Thomas - including one in South Yorkshire.

At an undisclosed location, 1,000 truffle spore-innoculated trees are flourishing. They were planted a year ago as a commercial prospect by two keen locals, who should be harvesting the precious fungus in five years’ time.

And after Paul ran a seminar last month at Sheffield University, another local site could be in the planning. Amateur mycologist Martin Swindell was one of the attendees interested in setting up a plantation - others hailed from Ireland, Devon and even Albania - and is about to start taking samples from land in the Peak Park.

“My plan is to invest about £10,000 to plant a truffle orchard on 10 acres I rent for grazing,” says Martin, of Matlock. “It struck me as a good business idea. I’m 51 and in ten years’ time, it would be something to retire to.”

A lecturer in construction skills at Chesterfield College and a part-time building contractor with an interest in conservation and sustainability, it was the building industry that led Martin to the hobby he has enjoyed for 15 years. He explains: “I was working on a building site where loads of mushroom varieties were growing. I wanted to find out about them and got really interested. I have found and cooked many varieties since but had never eaten truffles until I went along to a meal that followed Dr Thomas’s seminar.”

The Celebration of Truffles dinner was staged at Inox Dine, at Sheffield University’s Students’ Union Building. The restaurant has its own truffle trees, which were donated by Paul’s company, and had tasked its head chef Joe Berry to work with Paul on a three-course truffle-infused menu.

The truffle, a type of underground mushroom, doesn’t harm the trees it grows with - in fact it makes them healthier by helping them absorb extra nutrients.

Mycorrhizal Systems’ technique infects saplings with spores of the black winter truffle and the milder summer variety.

The summer truffle is the less valuable, but is much more at home in cooler climates - in the UK it has been found as far north as Scotland - and can produce far higher yields.

The best land for truffle-growing should be free from established trees and have a high pH value (7.3-8.3). Soils with low pH levels can work if adequate lime is applied.

Paul’s company website www.plantationsystems.com has a shop selling trees for amateurs to plant in the garden from £34.99.

His partnership programme works with land-owners to establish truffle plantations and costs from £3,000 a hectare. Participants receive training, scientific monitoring, guidance on harvesting methods and help with truffle sales.

Mycorrhizal Systems are also searching for landowners who own mature trees and want take part in inoculation trials.

“We are working with a range of high value fungal species,” says Paul.

Email paul@PlantationSystems.com