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Snuffling for truffles in Åland
Maritime climate and chalky soil could suit cultivation
Truffles, "the diamonds of the kitchen" in the words of the 19th century French gastronome Jean Brillat-Savarin, are being sought in the district of Lemland in the Åland Islands between Sweden and Finland. Near the ruins of the mediaeval Lemböte chapel, a truffle dog called Lala keeps jumping around, digging enthusiastically, and sniffing the dirt with its wide muzzle.
Her tail wagging furiously, Lala finds a couple of brown nut-size knobs, which her owner Kristina Holst hands over to the "truffle doctor" Salem Shamekh for a sniff.
"Not a genuine truffle, but its close relative, which is always a good sign", Shamekh states contentedly.
Shamekh, who has lived in Finland for about ten years, is a pioneer of cultivation of truffles in the country. "I am proud to be the first one to spot the possibility of truffle cultivation in Finland", he boasts.
In the Mikkeli region in Southern Finland, ten or so truffle cultivation farms were set up last year, in which truffle mycelium was planted among the roots of oak trees.
Now Shamekh aims to start a new project in Åland, which should be an ideal location for trufficulture, thanks to the maritime climate and the calciferous soil.
Shamekh compares Åland with the Swedish island of Gotland further south, where naturally-growing truffles were spotted in three different locations in the late 1990s.
Once trained sniffer dogs were used, an additional thirty or so natural growth areas were established.
In the municipality of Juva, east of Mikkeli, Lala has found Basidomycete truffles. Kristina Holst purchased her Lagotto Romagnolo dog last year in Switzerland, without knowing anything about the breed's valuable skills.
"When it started digging the dirt for these small roundish nut-like knobs during the hottest days in the month of May, I thought my puppy had gone crazy", Holst recalls.
Holst sent a couple of samples to the Department of Biology at the University of Turku, and they confirmed that what Lala had found were in fact mushrooms similar to truffles.
Lagotto Romagnolo dogs, originally an Italian breed, make perfect truffle-hounds as they are the right size and have an excellent sense of smell. Pigs outshine dogs in this sport, but the problem with sows - which can detect truffles because they smell of hog hormones - is that they may blithely go ahead and eat the truffles.
Salem Shamekh points out that a sniffer dog is of great help to truffle farmers. The potato-like mushrooms can grow in depths of up to 40 centimetres. They can provide a handy income, too: the most expensive Italian and French truffles can fetch up to EUR 3,000 a kilo. Prices for the truffles cultivated in Finland cannot match this, but they can still be worth as much as EUR 800 at retail prices.
A three-day international truffle seminar is to be arranged in Juva next week, attended by a number of leading experts from abroad. Participants will be coming from eleven countries.