Say “truffle” and I think of a very delicious little chocolate candy. But really these candies are named for their resemblance to black truffles, Tuber melanosporum. This fungus is one of the ultimate luxury foods, selling for hundreds of dollars per pound. Most of them are produced in the Perigord region of southwest France. However, with increasing demand, the French have sought other areas to produce them. Recently, I was stunned to learn that a mushroom expert in Tennessee was one of the first people to become involved in finding alternative places in which to grow them.
Truffles are nothing if not very particular about their environment. They need a defined four-season climate without extremely hot or cold temperatures. Because they are harvested between November and March, the ground cannot freeze. It turns out that the mid-Atlantic region, including areas of the Carolinas and Tennessee, are practically perfect.
Unlike mushrooms, truffles grow underground among the roots of white oak trees. There the mycelia surround the roots of the host tree where the fungi take nutrients from the dormant tree over winter. In spring the spores become active, aiding the tree roots in taking up nutrients.
While we have plenty of oaks in our area, our soils are too acid for truffles. Step one in getting ready to install a “truffiere” would be to get a soil test. All trees, stumps and roots need to be removed from the area before adding lots of lime to raise the pH of the soil to about 8.
The prospective truffle rancher then needs to locate a source of saplings that have been inoculated with the spores of the fungus. At the very least, plant three rows of six trees each. A buffer zone of 30 feet is needed around the area to ensure that it is not contaminated by the roots of other trees or competing fungal spores. Be patient: The white oaks need to mature for a decade before that first harvest. The enterprising French plant lavender between the rows of young trees. The lavender is productive for about 10 years, so hopefully the truffles are ready when it is removed.
Traditionally, truffles are harvested with the help of a pig. The pig smells the truffle and digs it up, then the farmer wrestles it out of the pig’s mouth before it can eat it. Talk about a high-risk occupation! Nowadays, dogs are used to find and dig the ripe fungi. Fido gives over the treasure in exchange for a treat. Any dog that likes to fetch things for treats can be trained to become a truffle hunter, but terriers and retrievers are particularly good candidates.
So what’s so great about truffles? They have an earthy, musky, nutty flavor that amps up the umami factor. Black truffles are usually added to mild dishes like pasta, rice or eggs. If you have seen truffle oil in the store, that would give a hint of what the fuss is about. However, truffle oil is a chemically-treated olive oil and contains no truffles.
So. Truffle farming may be the wave of the future for Southern farmers. For this year, though, and this gardener, forget fungi! My grocery is featuring a truffle kit. This will be my take on those yummy little chocolates this holiday season.
Master gardener Ann Bartlett never lets lack of familiarity with growing insanely expensive fungi prevent her from enjoying eating insanely expensive chocolate candies.