Real truffles are among the world’s most expensive foods. The valuable Italian white Alba truffle goes for $6,000 to $10,000 per pound. The black lumpy Périgord truffle from France commands more than $5,000 per pound.
Truffles are pungent little boogers. Because of their cost but, more importantly, their pungency, truffles are used sparingly by chefs who grate a bit over risotto, pasta or scrambled eggs for exotic flavoring.
Truffles are found in all parts of the world, but the most prized are those from Alba and Périgord. Truffles grow underground near certain species of oak and nut trees. They are traditionally hand-harvested after being scouted out by dogs trained to find the scent. Pigs were once used to find truffles, but have generally been replaced by dogs because pigs often ate the fungus.
With such a valuable commodity involved, the truffle business is rife with crooks and violent cartels. Truffle thievery is a problem for legitimate harvesters who have been victims of violence and had their harvest and dogs stolen. Truffle thievery and profiteering is fueled by truffle scarcity, blamed by many on climate change. At one time the annual truffle harvest was approximately 2,000 tons. It now stands around 30 tons.
Adding to the woes of the truffle business, the Chinese have entered the market. Rather than using dogs and pigs to scent out ripe truffles, they dig indiscriminately around trees and harvest truffles before they are ripe.
According to a segment by Leslie Stall on “60 Minutes,” last year China shipped some 28 tons of truffles to France in 2011. The less-desirable Chinese truffle is often used as a filler with French truffles and then passed off to other countries as the real thing.
What does this have to do with wine? Most wineries seek biodiversity for their vineyards. Many California vintners now produce olive oil made from trees introduced to the region in the 18th century by Spanish explorers and, later, European settlers.
Long Meadow Ranch Winery in Napa found 250 mature olive trees completely obscured by a second-growth forest when clearing additional land for their winery. These trees now form the backbone of Long Meadow’s thriving olive oil business. Likely these trees date to the 1870s when cuttings were brought over from France around Cape Horn.
On the horizon might be an even more profitable crop for wineries, the truffle. With new technology, young oak and certain nut tree roots can be inoculated with black truffle spores and then planted right alongside vineyards. Robert Sinskey Vineyards is now home to Napa Valley’s first truffle orchard.
Both Napa and Oregon host annual truffle festivals. Two species of native truffles grow in the Oregon wild. Native truffles can be found in Appalachia from Tennessee to Pennsylvania.
North Carolina has several successfully planted truffle farms. Dave Garfrerick, owner of Garfrerick’s Café in Oxford, is trying his hand with experimental truffle farming. He has planted live oaks and hazelnut trees that have been inoculated with wild truffle spores. His trees are 3 years old, but it will be a number of years before the success of Garfrerick’s experiment can be determined.
If one wishes to experience the truffle without spending a ton of money, try truffle-infused oil or salt. Sprinkle a bit over a stuffed egg, fries, pasta or a simple potato soup. For a taste of the real thing, head to New York for a $150 double-truffle burger with 20 grams of shaved black truffles from Daniel Boulud’s Bistro Moderne. A more moderately priced version that’s lighter on the truffles may be had at the Bistro for $32. Unfortunately, truffles have not yet found their way to a Big Mac.
Email Pat Kettles at email@example.com