Nature Blog Network Future Earth: October 2011

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Truffles at Dawn

As dawn disolves the Transylvanian night tall, forbidding trunks of oak, beech and hornbeam emerge from the surrounding woodland. Bears and wolves live here and deep-seated fears from ancient myths lurk in the shadows. We shiver in the cab of the battered 4-wheel-drive that steers us past a local shepherd, his dogs escorting us noisily along the track. One resonant, silencing bark in response from the deep-chested hungarian vizslas in the back and we enter the woodland. The turreted landscape below is cloaked in low-lying morning mist and, as we cut the engine, the only sound is of silence as the dark forest wraps around us.

Released from the confines of the vehicle, smooth-haired "Matty" and wire-haired "Sisi" scope out the terrain, rustling through the carpet of dry leaves, noses down and tails on the level, at once alert, focused and joyful. They know their business and relish every moment. Cornell leads us along the forest track as morning light starts to percolate between the branches. No tangled undergrowth here; the canopy is high - oak driven upwards to match the skywards spread of the hornbeam, not wasting time or energy in side branches along the way. These are oaks beloved of carpenters and builders, straight and true, left to mature for a hundred years.

At their base are wraiths of movement. Matty is seven, has worked with Cornell since she was a puppy, and is a mistress of the art. He watches her closely as she quarters the gentle slopes, then pushes her quivering snout into the layers of leaf litter and pauses. Usually he is in time to mark the spot and feel amongst the leaves to collect the earthy brown truffle growing on buried roots. Sometimes she saves him the trouble and presents him with her find, collecting a tasty dog treat and a touch of Cornell's hand in recompense. Often she will dig enthusiastically to uncover deeper treasures. It has been unseasonably dry for nearly two months and Cornell is surprised that the moist vizsla noses remain so effective in the dry leaf mould. "It's easier when the snow comes" he offers "less competing smells, they find them more quickly".

Wire-haired Sisi is only two. In the forest shadows she disappears against the crackling leaves, camoflagued by a broken outline of silvery hair and constant movement. As if covered in tumbleweed and on a secret mission she goes her own way, emerging with earthy mouth that speaks of truffles known but not delivered. "I need to spend time with her on her own to train her properly" Cornell admits "but it is difficult to leave Matty home alone when we are going to the forest". Meanwhile, Matty is inadvertantly tackling the training of her canine companion herself. Digging into a promising lead at the base of a trunk, the two work together, but it is not a truffle that emerges in that soft vizsla mouth; it is, or rather it was, a velvety mole, woken abruptly to face its last day. Matty was not about to deliver that prize quite so easily, but Cornell guided her back to business. Sisi lagged behind, rolling luxuriously in the patch of late summer leaves, topping up her coat with aroma of mole.

Reluctantly leaving the forest to return to work and workshopping, we ease our way back along the bumpy track to the village, surprising a Roe deer, leaping over shrubby pasture and into cover. A forester for many years, these truffling excursions with his vizslas are Cornell's solitary lead-in to the hustle of the autumn day. We have intruded but we are grateful and carry delicious memories away - along with a couple of nodular truffles nestling at the bottom of our jacket pockets.

Cornell is part of a talented team helping local communities in rural Romania retain small-scale farming and traditional cultures by making them more profitable. Good for nature and for local economies alike, the Adept Foundation helps retain high nature value grasslands, working with a variety of partners including Fauna & Flora International.