Two-star chef Alexander Hermann and clever gourmets love the fantastic aromas of the inconspicuous slate truffle. Hardly anyone knows where to find this precious mushroom. Bernd Wurzbacher does. We went into the forest with him. Text and photos: Angelika Jakob
Slate truffle aka Bohemian truffle
You don't see them. You don't smell them, that's the way treasures are. Secret clues? Who would give them, when Bernd Wurzbacher, a retired officer from Upper Franconia, is the only one who knows where to find them. And he'll be damned if he's going to give away where he found them.
We are talking about a mushroom that looks like a dirty stone and hides under a layer of gravel and clay. Its German name sounds trivial: Erbsenstreuling (pea truffle). Enthusiasts, however, call it the slate truffle or Bohemian truffle. Its botanical name? Pisolithus tinctorius.
Michelin-starred chef Alexander Herrmann is a fan of the slate truffle
A few high-class restaurateurs are scrambling for the delicacy. "Bring me everything you can find," requested star chef Alexander Herrmann from the "Posthotel Wirsberg" after he had tested a few sample specimens from Bernd Wurzbacher. Sautéed hot, the mushroom unfolds an incredible aroma. Porcini mushrooms, on the other hand, can't keep up.
The slate truffle can do umami
A delicious mixture of spicy forest floor scent, fresh pine needles and truffle escapes from the blackish flakes in the pan. The pisolithus also has something savoury; the Japanese would call this nuance umami, the fifth taste...
Bernd Wurzbacher, the mushroom expert, is still sitting on his terrace in Waldetzenberg, smoking a pipe and talking. But his rubber boots, knife, basket and car are already waiting. Today he urgently wants to go into the forest because it has been raining.
The mushrooms like that and new fruiting bodies sprout every two or three days. "Bohemian expellees came to our farm in Issigau with baskets full of mushrooms to earn a little money. They brought varieties that were unknown to us. My grandpa Matthäus was thrilled; today you would say that he was a gourmet."
Mushroom mania for over 60 years
The many days spent with his grandfather in the forest left their mark on the man in his mid-seventies. He learned everything about the locations and properties of mushrooms and received praise when he found something. When grandpa threw the mushrooms into the pan and fried something delicious, it didn't have the same effect. The forest and finding things were more exciting for the boy.
"I don't care much for mushrooms!"
"Actually, I prefer meat, I don't care much for mushrooms," he admits, "When I discover an unknown fungus, of course I try it to see if it is edible. Whether the new one also tastes fine is up to my wife to judge."
This is not dangerous, because he knows really poisonous specimens from the guidebooks. Nevertheless, his thirst for research sometimes leads to unpleasant findings. For two days, the mushroom lover had "no joy of existence", as he puts it, because of an overripe meandering truffle.
On this particular morning he drives along narrow roads to one of his hunting grounds, turning off about a dozen times, making it impossible to remember the route later. In the forest, it becomes just as confusing.
Collecting stones in the forest
Bernd Wurzbacher strides with quick steps over the soft ground, the moss glistening in the glow of the sun's rays. The trunks stand at attention like the soldiers of his former artillery unit at roll call, no undergrowth, nothing lying around, nothing rotting.
We are clearly in a commercial forest, a spruce plantation. Nevertheless, it is beautiful, it smells of resin and damp moss and it is quiet. Even the birds keep their beaks shut. In August and September, when the truffles grow, their courtship is over.
Not without my pipe!
Bernd Wurzbacher puffs on his pipe. Tobacco aroma mixes with the scent of spruce, white-lit clouds fizzle out in the sun. "Everyone recognises me by my pipe," he says, "People know that I'm a professional mushroom picker, with a trade licence and everything, and they're curious. I try to disguise myself, but you can hardly escape the German pensioner, with or without a dog. They even reach into my basket. They say it's OK to do that among mushroom lovers. What do you collect, they ask. I always say: stones.”
Forest bathing as work
Not at all. Wurzbacher knows 51 varieties of edible mushrooms, seven of them chanterelles alone. Twenty varieties can be marketed, the most frequently ordered are porcini, black autumn trumpets, knight mushrooms, chanterelles and chestnuts, and his customers include private individuals as well as fine restaurateurs.
No one else in the region hauls as many mushrooms out of the forest as Wurzbacher, and he's not in it for the money. The fact that he has been selling his finds instead of giving them away for a few years now serves as an excuse for his somewhat overgrown hobby. He can now call it work when he practices forest bathing.
The slate truffle needs three things...
...for it to feel at home: moisture, the bare ground under very specific host trees that are not revealed, and forest workers who have pushed earth, sand and rubble together to form a heap. Bernd Wurzbacher knows exactly where such sand quarries are. He is now crawling up a slope above a pond, past a badger's burrow and getting his bearings.
Wurzbacher crawls up the slope, past a badger's burrow
Immediately he notices two smooth, round spots, hardly distinguishable in colour from pebbles and clay. They are the tops of two Pisolitus tinctorius specimens. He digs a little and beams when shortly afterwards he holds the golf ball-sized slate truffles in his hand. The "dark-coloured stone pea", that's what the botanical name means, can grow up to the size of a fist. If the body of the mushroom is already protruding from the soil, it has spored and tis therefore unusable.
Delicacy for star gastronomy
At eighty euros a kilo, the slate truffle is relatively cheap compared to real truffles. White truffles from Alba cost up to 3,000 euros a kilo. Wurzbacher finds his mud-coloured stones more palatable, but of course he is biased. Top gourmet Alexander Herrmann does not make comparisons, he works with the slate truffle because it is an incredible, surprising, regional speciality.
"White and black real truffles are known to every gourmet, they are expensive but easy to get," he says in the office of his "Posthotel Wirsberg". Through a large window he watches the choreography of his cooks. Steaming, chopping, roasting, running, dressing. Up to twenty people deliver the highest precision for a 14-course menu every evening.
Amuse-Geule as homage to the father
“We reach for the stars" is written on the wall. The fact that Alexander Herrmann's team has already earned two of them is motivating. The slate truffle has also contributed to this. "What Bernd has been delivering to us for twenty years is simply incomparable," says Herrmann, "I am especially happy because my father discovered the truffle. The Franconian slate truffle disappeared from our kitchen after my father's untimely death in 1980, until Bernd came along with it."
In the meantime, slate truffles are well-known in gourmet circles, but no one else has this delicacy, except for a few regular customers whom Wurzbacher also supplies. Each menu begins with an amuse-gueule of slate truffles, Herrmann's signature dish and a tribute to his father.
Forest gnome or hunter?
"Alexander Herrmann makes sure that I'm allowed to go into the forest," says pensioner Bernd Wurzbacher happily. So he keeps slipping into his rubber boots, which are already full of holes, they wear out just like the five Opel cars he has run down over the years driving to mushrooms and buyers.
"Am I a forest gnome, an addict or a hunter?" he sometimes asks himself as he sits on his sofa in Waldetzenberg and wonders about his life, "Every day I walk countless kilometres through the forest, sometimes I hardly find anything. What's all this nonsense, it then occurs to me, but I keep going. The forest is my second home."