JASZIVANY Hungary (Reuters) - Fallen branches crack under Istvan Bagi's muddy boots as he paces through a damp forest in the morning mist, tracking his trusty black Labrador on another outing for truffles, a coveted underground fungus some call the "diamond of the kitchen".
It was in this 44-hectare (110 acre) oak forest that a colleague earlier this year unearthed a summer truffle weighing 1.28 kg (2.8 lb) - the biggest of its kind yet found in Hungary.
"It was the size of a baby's head," Bagi said.
"There is a sense of mystery around this, which benefits us producers, that we search for the truffles in the woods and in many cases even the locations are secret," he said.
Clad in rubber boots, khaki trousers and a shirt, Bagi said Hungary, like southern neighbors Romania and Bulgaria, is a big regional producer of summer truffles, picked in a lengthy period from mid-June to December.
In Western Europe, France is a leading truffle producer, with truffles also found in Italy and Spain.
Wholesale prices for Hungarian truffles range from 60 euros ($80) to 300 euros ($400) per kilo, said the 39-year-old Bagi, who has been involved in the trade for nearly two decades. Prices can rise to as much as 200 to 400 euros in the autumn, when output falls, he said.
With local demand low, the Agriculture Ministry says nearly all truffles found in Hungary are exported, mainly to Italy, Germany and the United States, but increasingly also to Asia.
The ministry estimates Hungary's annual truffle output at 6 to 7 tonnes on average, or 10 to 11 tonnes in a good year.
Given their strong flavor and fragrance, a pungent blend of moist earth and spices, these rugged black fungi, generally the size of a walnut or an apple, are mainly used as a condiment in pasta, seafood or meat dishes, but also in some desserts.
Even seasoned chefs, like Fausto Di Vora, who cooks at a smart Italian restaurant in central Budapest, have a hard time defining the precise flavor of truffles.
"It changes all the time, depending on whether it is a black or a white truffle, but it also varies by season," said Di Vora, who uses about 30-40 kg of truffle a year, some from Hungary.
"The other thing is that it has a very special flavor, which you either love or you hate. You cannot really compare it to anything else, you need to taste it," he said.
Bagi's forest, some 130 km (80 miles) east of Budapest, was farmland several decades ago but has become overgrown and is filled with spider webs that stick to the face as the hasty truffle hunt proceeds.
"Show me!" Bagi yells to start the search, and several minutes later his dog Mokka rolls over happily on the ground, wagging his tail, while Bagi digs out the latest find with a metal tool resembling a blend of a shoehorn with a tiny pickaxe.
Truffleminers, the company Bagi manages, rents 300 hectares of woodland in the impoverished rural region, which the government says is one of the best truffle areas in central Europe due to its climate and soil conditions.
The area is part of a project run by a Swiss research institute investigating optimal conditions for truffle growth.
"The ecosystem that has emerged here, with the forests, the soil, the climate and the environment all favor truffles," said Sandor Feher, a forester and Deputy Chief Executive of NEFAG, a state company that leases woodland in the area.
The team of three to five people gathering truffles in the forest assembles in a small camp where they can rest, have something to eat and take shelter in foul weather.
A large container is used to store truffles at temperatures of no more than five degrees Celsius (41 F) and when Bagi opens it, a potent fragrance emerges.
"When you have some truffle in the fridge, it infuses everything with its smell," said Bagi's friend, Vilmos Sipos.
A surge in the field mice population this season has damaged the crop and added to the difficulties of gathering truffles.
"You need to endure the conditions of the forest and the environment, be it the heat, the cold, the snow, the ice, the rain and the mud, which can be quite trying in the long run, especially if you are away from your family," Sipos said.
"But gathering truffles and working with the dogs gives you such joy, which all but makes you forget about these problems."
Reporting by Gergely Szakacs; Editing by Michael Roddy and Crispian Balmer