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A Triffle A Truffle

  • 5 min to read

A Triffle a Truffle, a Happy pig snuffle. You’ve heard of em. Probably wondered about em. Maybe even tasted em. But what exactly are Truffles? And we aren’t talkin about those fancy bite-sized chocolates. Truffles are subterranean fungi grown near the roots of broadleaved trees such as oak or hazelnut. They’re mostly produced in France, Italy, New Zealand, China, North Africa, the Middle East, and the Pacific Northwest.  Now that should boost your appetite.

The truffle is basically a form of mushroom because of its spore-bearing body. However, there are some important differences. Truffles grow underground while mushrooms grow above ground. What’s more, truffles don’t taste much like any traditional mushroom you’ve tasted.

When truffles are harvested ripe, their aroma peaks and declines within a week.  They taste best the moment they’re pulled from the ground, so freshness is a crucial challenge in delivery. A truffle should barely be cooked. In fact, it is recommended to eat truffles raw, just-harvested, to savor the taste. French gourmet chef Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin calls truffles “the diamond of the kitchen”. 

Phylogenetic evidence suggests that the majority of Truffles species evolved from above-ground mushrooms. Over time mushroom stipes and caps were reduced, and caps began to enclose reproductive tissue. 

Truffles only grow on certain types of trees – oak, hazel, poplar, beech and pine. The challenge is you need to grow both the tree and the fungus at the same time — and you need them to cooperate with each other. Step one – inject special fungi spores into trees seedlings with each tree a good distance from each other. As the trees grow, the truffles grow underground by attaching themselves to the tree roots. The truffles and host trees experience a symbiotic relationship, during which the truffles provide nourishing phosphorous from the soil and the tree roots feed glucose to the growing truffles.

While a variety of truffle species exist, most are familiar with the black or white truffles. Black truffles tend to have rough, somewhat granular exteriors, resembling solid clumps of dirt. Their insides look almost like wagyu beef. They give off a pungent aroma and usually taste better when cooked. The flavor is often described as being nutty, earthy, woody, mushroomy, and even a little chocolatey.

White truffles tend to resemble a rough-skinned potato on the outside. On the inside, they exhibit the kind of marbled mushroom quality that you find in black truffles. Whites are somewhat more subtle in flavor and give off a musky aroma while delivering a taste that’s described as being lightly garlicy.

Truffles grow wild in the forests of Europe, North Africa, the Middle East and North America. The majority are found in Italy, France and Pacific Northwest. Truffles grown in Italy and France are the rarest kind and therefore the most expensive. Villefranche-du-Perigord, France is home to the world’s most famous black truffles – Diamonds of Perigord.

The black truffle is the second most commercially valuable species and is named after the Périgord region in France. They associate with oaks, hazelnut, cherry, and other deciduous trees and are harvested in late autumn and winter. 

European white truffles cost as much as $3,600 a pound — making them ounce for ounce the most expensive food in the world. The high-value white truffle is found mainly in the areas of the Piedmont region in northern Italy, and most famously, around the cities of Alba and Asti and Molise.  Spain mandates white truffles be only harvested May through July.

The first mention of truffles was by the Sumerians. Romans used truffles as a carrier of flavor, because they absorb surrounding flavors. Truffles were rarely used during the Middle Ages. Truffle hunting is mentioned by Bartolomeo Platina in 1481. During the Renaissance, truffles regained popularity in Europe and were honored at the court of King Francis I of France. They were popular in Parisian markets in the 1780s, but were so expensive they appeared only at the dinner tables of great nobles. 

Truffles long eluded domestication. People observed that truffles grew among the roots of certain trees, and in 1808 Joseph Talon from southern France, had the idea of transplanting seedlings that he collected at the foot of oak trees known to host truffles in their root system. Some sources give credit to Pierre II Mauléon of western France for discovering how to cultivate truffles around 1790. Mauléon saw an “obvious symbiosis” between the oak tree, the rocky soil, and the truffle, and was successful with taking acorns from trees known to have produced truffles, and sowing them in chalky soil.  

Southern France possessed the limestone soils and hot dry weather that truffles need to grow. In the late 19th century large tracts of land were opened for the cultivation of truffles when blights killed the mulberry trees and vineyards. Thousands of truffle-producing trees were planted, and production reached peaks of hundreds of tons at the end of the 19th century. In 1890, 190,000 acres of truffle-producing trees were planted. 

The growing industrialization of France and rural exodus triggered truffle fields returning to wilderness. The First World War dealt a serious blow to truffle production, as it killed 20% of the male working force, resulting in lost trufficulture knowledge. Between the two world wars, the truffle groves stopped being productive. (The average lifecycle of a truffle-producing tree is 30 years.) Consequently, after 1945, the production of truffles plummeted, and prices rose dramatically. In 1900, truffles were used by most people and on many occasions. They soon became a rare delicacy reserved for the rich.

In the 1970s, new attempts for truffle production were started to offset the decline of wild truffles. About 80% of the truffles now produced in France come from specially planted truffle groves. 

 A critical phase is the quality control of the mycorrhizal plants. Between 7 and 10 years are needed for the truffles to develop their mycorrhizal network, and only after that do the host-plants come into production. Avoiding contamination by other dominant fungus and a strict control of the formation of mycorrhizae is necessary to ensure the success of a plantation. Total investment per 2.47 acres for an irrigated and barrier-sealed plantation (against wild animals) can cost up to $11,887.79.  

The first black truffles produced in the Southern Hemisphere were harvested in Gisborne, New Zealand in 1993. New Zealand’s first burgundy truffle was found in July 2012 and weighed 11.640407 ounces. In June 2014, Australia harvested the largest truffle in New South Wales. It was a French black perigord fungus weighing 2 lbs. 7 7⁄16 oz. and was valued at over $2,000 per kilogram. 

Today, there are few farms across the U.S. that grow truffles. Many are in the forested corners of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and North Carolina. The largest crop of cultivated truffles from a single orchard in American history was 200 pounds.  Overall U.S. truffle orchards have been largely unsuccessful.  

Tom Michaels began producing Périgord truffles commercially in 2007. At its peak in the 2008–2009 season, his farm produced about 200 pounds of truffles, but Eastern filbert blight almost entirely wiped out his hazel trees by 2013. Eastern filbert blight similarly destroyed the orchards of other commercial farmers. 

The pecan truffle, found in the Southern United States, is associated with pecan trees. Pecan farmers used to find them with pecans and discarded them; now they sell for $160 a pound.

Because truffles are subterranean, they are located with animals possessing a refined sense of smell. Traditionally, pigs have been used.  In Italy, the use of pigs to hunt truffles has been prohibited since 1985 because of the damage caused during the digging. Dogs pose an advantage because they do not eat truffles, so can be trained to locate them without digging them up. 

[French] Perigords and [Italian] Albas are considered the most delicious truffles. Perigords go for $600 to $900 a pound. France has harvested hundreds of tons of farmed black Perigord truffles since the 1800s.  American farmers have almost exclusively chronicled failures.

No one knows exactly why truffles have struggled to take root in America, but some speculate the wide variety of environments create problems. Competing vegetation and gophers are a problem along with the slugs in Oregon and Washington. The filbert blight which kills certain species of filbert trees has devastated multiple orchards. 

In other countries such as Spain, Chile, and Australia, truffle cultivation has been adopted recently and crops have been successful. The Truffle & Wine Co. in Western Australia harvested its first truffle in 2003, and today has nearly 25 miles of truffle-tree lines and reliably produces several tons of crops annually. Given the history of domestic truffle cultivation optimists can say it shows the slow but consistent advancement of a new industry. So what’s for supper tonight?  Truffles?

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