My train leaves Paddington and drones through the bleak industrial penumbra of London. I’m on my way to meet the planet’s top truffle dealer. He’s given me almost disturbingly precise instructions. Which train to take, what time, where to get off. “I will collect you from the station. When you arrive please walk out of the station, turn left immediately and go up the stairs. I’ll be in a black Mercedes.” I can’t say which station, beyond the fact that it’s somewhere in the Wiltshire Downs. I can’t say much. Not where he hunts, who he buys truffles from, or who he sells to, beyond the fact – obvious to anyone who stalks him on Instagram – that most of the London restaurants that care get their truffles from Zak Frost.
In terms of volume, Frost is far from the planet’s top truffle dealer. The Italian heavyweights dwarf him. But in terms of the quality of his clients, his truffles, and even the information he puts out online, Frost is tops. Unlike dodgy dealers, he sends out an email with his price list every Monday, and he never haggles. “You’re not selling cheap tracksuits,” he says. “It’s a high-end, magical, mysterious ingredient. You have to have a bit of class.”
The day before was Frost’s delivery day in London. I suggested tagging along. No way, he replied. “I am literally sprinting from restaurant to restaurant. My day is a series of rapid-fire meetings with the leading chefs, so it wouldn’t be appropriate to bring someone else with me.” Besides, he does it all on a motorbike. I pictured Frost in black leather, a box of truffles strapped behind, slaloming between lanes of traffic and screeching to a halt, dismounting just long enough to slide a few tubers into Heston Blumenthal’s hands.
The Mercedes is right where it’s supposed to be. Stanley the black lab, suave star of Instagram, pokes his head between the seats. “Instagram transformed our company 10 times over,” Frost says as we drive. “Chefs see me out with my dog. It’s much more authentic than some dealer who doesn’t really know anything about truffles or how they grow.”
We pull up beside a handsome old farmhouse. Well-tilled fields, all ready for winter, stretch away across the downs, punctuated by small woodlots. “This grove really woke the whole interest in truffles again,” Frost says. “People started thinking: ‘Well, if this one place has them, it can’t be the only place.’ Now probably 50 or 100 people seriously hunt truffles in England, and lots of other people are trying to train their dog. I get those calls all the time.”
The old farmer who planted these trees 20 years ago was not expecting truffles. He just wanted firewood and a windbreak. The trees must have been infected with truffle spores, and they happened to be planted on perfect ground. Wiltshire’s thin soil sits atop a big band of chalk that runs across southern England and into France, just the kind of high-pH environment truffles love. In addition, the land had been intensively farmed for decades and probably harboured few competing species of fungi. The woods exploded with truffles. The farmer began collecting them and selling to a handful of local restaurants. Frost got wind of it and was instantly intrigued. He’d had a career as a dance music DJ, travelling the world, and had settled in Tuscany for a while, producing music. “In the season, the aroma of truffles permeates whole towns across the region,” he recalls. “From the first smell, I was hooked.”
In 2004, he moved back home to start a family and heard about the Wiltshire truffles. “To find out they were growing where I grew up was so exciting.” He tried them, loved them, and began helping the farmer, who hadn’t been using a dog. “He’d just go to the right trees and feel around under the leaf mould. He’d miss a lot, but he’d find a few on the surface. And so I did that with him. It’s really hard on your knees.” Stanley’s predecessor, Wooster, always tagged along. “He went everywhere with me. At one point I just said: ‘Why don’t you go and find a truffle?’ And he did straightaway. He just went and got one. So that’s how I trained him.” Frost pulls on a blue jumpsuit and red rubber gloves and grabs a Waitrose shopping bag. “This is what I like to use,” he says.
With the farmer’s permission and Wooster’s help, he began selling to a handful of top restaurants and paying the farmer a cut. Soon Wiltshire Truffles was supplying most of London’s Michelin-starred restaurants, all from one extraordinarily abundant wood yielding 15 kilos a week. In a good year, Frost gets 300 kilos. I’d already spotted his truffles for sale in London’s Borough Market for £900 a kilo. Assuming he got half of that, it was a sweet gig. We slip into a beech grove. Other than white truffles, most species do better under younger trees, which have a greater need for the fungi’s nutrient-mining services. The wood is widely spaced, with minimal undergrowth and years of leaf litter. Diffuse light seeps in from the sides. Stanley cruises along, nose gliding just above the leaf litter, tail a steady metronome. In less than a minute he homes in on a spot, tail oscillations tightening, and pokes his nose into the litter. Frost kneels beside him, parts the leaves, and pulls out a grape-sized nugget. “Nice! Good boy!”
Stanley gets a treat, and Frost hands the truffle to me. “I call this area Small Truffle Corner. For some reason, lots of little ones grow here.” I turn the truffle in my hand, half shocked at how fast we’ve hit paydirt. The truffle is coal-black, its coat like studded bark. When I hold it to my nose, a floral beauty seeps out. “They’re quite mild still,” Frost says. “They don’t get strong until the end of the season. But they actually smell a lot stronger once they’ve had a few days out of the ground.”
Black autumn truffles, as Frost calls them, are known in most places as burgundy truffles. They’re the same species as black summers, Tuber aestivum, as recent genetic analysis has proved, but while most black summers come from southern and eastern Europe, appear May through August, and have very little scent, the ones from more northerly climates – like, well, Burgundy, which is rightfully famous for them – don’t appear until autumn and have the exquisite light fragrance I was currently trying to snuffle into my consciousness.
In short order, Stanley nails another half-dozen residents of Small Truffle Corner, all barely beneath the surface. Soon we’ve made our way to the other side of the grove. “This is a really productive spot,” Frost says. “It’s on the edge of the woodland, where the light comes in. That seems to be really important. The truffles from this area are usually the least flawed, the roundest, and quite dense. It’s very localised.” Sure enough, the truffles start getting bigger and rounder. Stanley snuffles excitedly, then paws a fallen stick out of the way to show Frost the spot. He kneels down and pulls the leaf litter aside to reveal a fat truffle embedded in the earth like an errant golf ball. Then Stanley nudges aside more litter to unveil a twin.
Soon the bag is heavy with plum-sized truffles, reddish dirt clinging to their crevices. “This is exactly what every chef wants,” Frost says, holding one up in his gloved hand. “Good shape, flawless, nice colour. If they were all like this, happy days.”
These are destined for his top customer, a three-Michelin star restaurant that orders two kilos every week. “What they say goes. If they call me and say they urgently needsome extra , and I haven’t got it, I’ll put my boots on and go get it in the rain and drive it straight to them in time for lunch.” Of course, I want to know who it is, and, of course, he won’t say. “I just think it’s in bad taste to talk about your restaurants.” Finally he caves: the Fat Duck, which uses them in a celebrated dish on its tasting menu called Forest Floor.
Dog noses have two channels: one leads to the lungs, the other branches off into a cul de sac of fine passages lined with 100 times as many olfactory receptors as we have. Because this branch isn’t en route to the lungs, dogs can give their olfactory receptors more time to process the contents of any particular sniff. It’s like photography: dogs have a bigger lens that captures more light, 100 times more pixels for recording the image, and a more observant photographer at the helm. That’s why they’re a million times better at finding any olfactory needle in the haystack. And once they find the trail, they “bracket” it, as Stanley is doing now, nose to the ground, five quick sniffs a second, constantly changing position and doubling back, sampling the aroma’s strength across many points to build a scent map in his head. Dogs smell in stereo, working each nostril independently, which allows them to pinpoint directionality, the same way we do with sound.
Within a couple of hours we have more truffles than I can count, the bag is heavy, and my little truffle addiction is growing more acute.
Although Frost is best known for the black autumn truffles he hunts personally, the season is September through November, and they make up just 4% of his business. The first few years he sold them, he kept his day job as a manager for DJs. One day, he was contacted by an Australian company wanting to sell its black winter truffles in England. Might he be interested? Like most people, Frost believed that black winters came from France. The Australians set him straight. In the 1970s, French mycologists learned how to inoculate oak or hazelnut seedlings with black winter spores and trigger mycorrhisation [where the fungus colonises the roots of the host plant]. Today, virtually all black winter truffles are farmed. Spain is tops, France a distant second, but up-and-comer Australia produces the best of all – or so the Australians said. Frost was sceptical. Try them, they said. He did. Compared to the others he’d had, these were fruitier, richer, more perfect in shape. “Now I live and breathe truffles all the time. My wife says I can’t talk about anything else.”
Frost learned that the Australians had brought a new scientific rigour to understanding what made a great truffle. “What’s the best way to store truffles? How long do they last? When is the aroma at its peak? What’s the best way to ship them and to keep the microclimate at the right conditions? They studied this, they got universities involved, and now they do it the right way.” Even better, Australia’s seasons are inverted. Instead of December through March, the truffles are ripe June through August, when there’s no competition.
By the time he added Spanish black winters to the mix in 2014, he had a year-round business. “At the time, nobody in London knew that truffles even came from Spain, because up till then all Spanish truffles had been sold by other truffle dealers as French Périgord truffles. Most people would say to me: ‘Oh, I’ve never tried Spanish truffles.’ And I’d tell them: ‘Well, you probably have, you just thought they were French.’”
Frost discovered that most truffle dealers knew very little about the fungi they were peddling, and the chefs knew even less. He decided to make knowledge and authenticity the cornerstones of his business. “Because I do all my own deliveries, I’m in touch with most of the top chefs day to day. They were fascinated to hear where truffles are really coming from. In the past, people thought you had to say your truffles were from Périgord or Alba, or else you couldn’t sell them. But we totally disproved that. Everyone bought them, and we took over the market for winter truffles that year. And ever since then, every other truffle company in England now openly sells Spanish truffles.”
Frost later added white truffles to his line, seeking out small, trustworthy partners. Although he found some excellent suppliers in Italy, most of the good stuff came from Croatia and Hungary, which he openly advertises. “Even a couple of years ago, it would have been inconceivable to go to Hungary and Croatia and post on Instagram that all your white truffles come from there. Now the majority finds it much more interesting.” Still, the diehards will fight him to the end. Frost mentioned one old-school chef who’d long ago learned that white truffles should only come from Italy. “He’d always say: ‘Oh, when you smell a real Italian one, there’s nothing like it.’” Frost brought him a box of Italian and Croatian truffles, mixed together. “I said: ‘You’re a truffle expert, you’ve been buying truffles for 50 years. Pick out the best ones, and obviously they’ll be the Italian ones.’ And he just gave me a look.”
In The Red Lion freehouse, a white-walled, Michelin-starred pub, Frost hands his best truffle to Guy Manning, the chef, and we grab a table in the corner, Stanley settling beneath it. Manning and his wife, Brittany, met at Per Se in New York and decided to decamp to Wiltshire to have a family and make the food they liked – country cooking executed to perfection using local ingredients. He and Frost became firm friends. They take hiking holidays together.
As we sip our pints, a procession of truffle-inflected dishes – paté, gnocchi, poached cod in cream, creme brulee – rolls out of the kitchen. Other guests glance down at their fish and chips in confusion. Frost catches the appraising look in my eye. “It’s not all chef lunches and dog walks,” he says. “I work seven days a week from now until Christmas. No breaks. The week leading up to Christmas last year we sold 270 kilos of truffles. All delivered individually by me.” Hence the motorcycle.
He can hit 40 or 50 accounts a day, spending just a few minutes in each one, versus maybe seven a day in the van. “I leave the house at 3am and get home at 10 at night. When I get home from a few days in London I can barely talk. I can’t even sleep. My mind’s still going: ‘I need two kilos here, one kilo there.’” Frost sips his pint, reflecting. “It’s an amazing job, but people don’t see the insanely hard work that goes into it, or the incredible stress. There’s two big stressors: not having enough truffle, and having too much truffle. The profit margin on truffles isn’t that great. If you lose one kilo, it can wipe out your profits. At the height of white truffle season, we import about 25 kilos of magnatum on a Monday. That could be worth £60,000, and it’s losing weight, and therefore value, at 3-5% per day and then, after five or six days, it’s worth nothing. And people say: ‘Oh, how can your job be stressful?’”
He reaches down and gives Stanley an affectionate pat. “My main hunting days are on Sundays and Thursdays. And the reason for that is my main delivery days are Saturdays and Wednesdays. Those are the hardest days, so then spending the next day hunting with Stan is essential for my mental health. Your stress melts away. You’re just out with your dog on your own, the peace and the wind, the sanity. I genuinely could not do this job without the hunting part. Just selling truffles would drive me mad.”
From Truffle Hound: On the Trail of the World’s Most Seductive Scent, with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs (Bloomsbury, £20) by Rowan Jacobsen. To order a copy for £17.40, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 020 3176 3837