In pursuit

How it began…

We received an email: it was a generous offer from our friend, Tom Lywood, to take us truffle hunting in our part of the country. Tom is a poet (‘a rolling word man’ he would say), medieval musician, and an established and successful truffle hunter.

Manic research ensued to find the most promising truffle terroir; to find out the particular species of truffle prevalent (with luck) in our area. I found enough information to fill several lever arch files, including a rather scattered and someone disparate history of truffle hunting and appreciation in Britain through the centuries. However, all of this did nothing to secure any certainty when choosing the ‘best’ place to stage the pursuit.

It also did very little to prepare me for what became the most esoteric ramble I think I’ve ever taken.

We met in a pub in Lewes. Local brew ordered (whiskey mac for me) one of us gamely produced an ordinance survey map. Even though at least 5 years old, it was conspicuously pristine and perfect in every crease… the kind that get’s bought in a fit of enthusiasm yet remains neatly stored on a shelf amongst other ‘local interest’ paraphernalia. We all stared, some pointed, others nodded; we all sat back, none the wiser.

Tom arrived, having valiantly fought the clogged arteries of the coastal roads to reach us. He looked keen to get on, so we left the warm embrace of the pub and quickly clambered into a friend’s draughty old land rover. Lots of rubbing of hands and puffing of cheeks, as much from the cold as from excitement!

After much bouncing, careering and leg bracing the landrover left behind a windy single track road to nose up a narrow rutted lane, eventually coming to a halt on the edges of a private estate. We’d been given the all clear to be here, the owners no doubt somewhat amused at our choice of weekend activity!

Tom emerged from his car, though it’s probably fairer to say ‘unfolded’. At beyond 6ft, he’s a middled aged beanpole with the smile of someone a mere shadow of that age and stature.  Dressing up in ill fitting and rather tired all-weather gear, he flipped open the boot of his little hatchback and released the star of the day. Out hopped Valentino, an Italian Water Hound, his luscious botticelian surfer dude main bouncing. We all stood about making come-hither kissy noises. Snubbing our soppy efforts he and scampered off, nose twitching, and cocked his leg on a nearby beech tree. Tom, meanwhile, ignored all this and pulled out a old, long, hinged box from the car. He carried this to a clear bit of ground. On bended knee he placed it down, and with apparent reverence, slowly unclipped and lifted the lid. We watched, curious.

He pulled out a beautiful medieval looking horn. Holding it with both hands, he stood tall, closed his eyes, and blew. A single breathy note sounded out across the surrounding land. We gazed in wonder, completely thrown by this hark back to another era. He blew the horn several more times, swinging it high, arcing it around, summoning the spirit of the hunt, the truffles and all good fortune. It felt like a reconnection, however tenuous, with another time, when the land rolled out under different ownership and footfall. It now felt somehow altered, wise and hopefully giving.

I think it was at this point that our hearts took on a different beat.

Slamming car doors, thrusting hands into pockets and chins into scarves, we began our hunt.

Tom and Valentino led the way, Tom clutching what appeared to be a little pointed spade mounted on a long handle; a truffle trowel.

We climbed a valley, clambering over barbed wired boundaries and scrabbling up chalky banks. Piercingly cold though it was, faces soon turned ruddy and hands were pulled out of pockets to grasp at the terrain as it steepened further, before levelling out to a light flooded, sparse beech tree copse. Valentino and Tom were just in sight, Tom uttering encouraging noises to his charge “Tino, Tino! Wassat, wassat?” Valentino, head down to ground, nose firmly buried was digging up earth, more earth, and then tiny embryonic truffles. At one point, Tom gently held Valentino’s muzzle and prized open his jaws.  “He’s eaten it. I don’t mind. It’s too small and probably the wrong kind to be bothered with.” Valentino looked suitably delighted and scampered off in a completely different direction, Tom following. Every time this happened it was initiated by Valentino, who with Tom’s urging, would search deeper. Even the minutest of gestures from Valentino would be duly read, understood and acted upon by Tom.

I began to realise that Tom and Valentino were looking at and feeling this land on a completely different plain to us. I looked around, and suddenly felt completely at a loss.  I knew where we were (we had the ordinance survey map, didn’t we?) but I really had no idea what I looking at. Tom was seeing a land that had been lived on, managed, farmed, coppiced, boundaried, fought for and on. To him it was a sprawling rich tapestry of past happenings. There were times when he paused, stood still and closed his eyes, drinking in this land.

For the next 3 hours we rambled, scrabbled, caught our breath and watched. Tom remained calm, buoyant. When he spoke it was always with complete awe and respect for the surrounding land, and never with any frustration that it hadn’t given up any of it’s bounty.

The light began to fade. We hadn’t found a truffle. And to be honest, none of us were entirely bothered by this. The experience alone, being with Tom, a human portal into this otherwise hidden view, had been an extraordinary moment in time. Completely unexpected, and unforgettable.

We’d come a long way and it was time to head back before we lost our bearings for real.

Back at the car, while we concentrated on thawing out toes and fingers, and Tom climbed out of his foul weather gear, Valentino suddenly picked up a scent, buried his nose and with Tom’s guidance, picked out a truffle the size of a golf ball! (Russell Conwell’s “Acres of Diamonds” comes to mind!)

This day went so far beyond anything any of us could have imagined. Yes, finding a truffle was a great result, but spending time with Tom (and Valentino) was a complete honour. This is a man who has the courage and confidence to travel along his chosen path, regardless of whether it’s perceived as out of step with society and it’s fleetingly fashionable trends. He’s not just about truffles. The experience was life affirming, for all of us, I think.

Thank you, Tom.

With love,