If a truffle grows in the forest and no one can smell it, is it really there?
That’s what Charles Lefevre, a professional mycologist and grower of “truffle trees,” has been asking himself lately. Since 2001, his company, New World Truffieres, has been supplying seedlings to aspiring truffle farmers across the United States and Canada. Any time now, the trees Lefevre’s customers have purchased could produce truffles on their roots. But who will unearth the precious fungi? “There is a current demand for 300 or even 400 truffle-hunting dogs,” Lefevre says. “There are that many farms.”
Contrary to common assumptions about truffles—if the word “common” can be applied to something so pricey and elusive—the subterranean delicacies are not harvested solely in the wild. For almost 200 years, truffles have been cultivated in Europe. While they grow unassisted on the roots of oak, hazelnut, poplar and willow trees, truffles also grow in hazelnut and/or oak orchards whose tree roots have been inoculated with truffle spores. Orchards like these, sometimes called plantations or simply farms, have been planted in New Zealand, Australia, Italy, France, Spain, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Israel, Chile, South Africa and South Korea, as well as in the U.S., in Oregon, California, Texas, Tennessee and North Carolina.
Two kinds of truffles are prized above all others: the so-called Périgord truffle, named for the region in France, and its distant cousin, the white truffle associated with the city of Alba, Italy. The white one, whose Latin name is Tuber magnatum pico, is the more expensive. In a good year, a hefty specimen sells for many thousands of dollars (a three-pound Alba, the size of a small handbag, reportedly sold for $112,000). To date, this species has not yielded up its secrets to the laboratory. Lefevre, who earned a doctorate studying mushrooms at Oregon State University in Corvallis, is among those trying to crack the code.
The other superstar, Tuber melanosporum, has been grown successfully under controlled conditions. Provence has eclipsed Périgord as France’s lead truffle producer, but statistics as to quantities and percentages of truffles coming from any region in the world are hard to come by. In the truffle world, secrecy is not only a tradition, it is part of the allure.
Truffle hunting has always been associated with mystery. The Michael Dibdin whodunit, A Long Finish, centers on a murder in an Italian truffle forest. In real life, although the practice is illegal, some hunters work at night to escape the eyes of poachers who would trespass on their prized plots. In France, one truffle man pointed out to me that it is better to hunt with a dog than a pig—another animal common to the tradition—if only because everyone knows what you’re doing when they see you with a pig in your car.
Too Sublime for Words
I sit in a small room, talking with Bonita Bergin, EdD, president and director of the Santa Rosa (Calif.)-based Assistance Dog Institute. Sprawled on the floor after an initial howdy-do of tail wagging, grinning and licking are six Golden Retrievers. Bergin and I are meeting to discuss how one might teach a dog to hunt truffles. I search for words to describe the taste of a truffle, which Bergin has never eaten or seen: earthy and woodsy like a mushroom, but far more pungent; sexy; unlike any other flavor, I explain. Even a simple dish of scrambled eggs is elevated to sublimity with the addition of fresh truffles.
My effusion of adjectives to describe truffles is a match for Bergin’s about dogs. First, she distinguishes between scent-detecting and service dogs, which she has trained for more than 30 years. A disabled individual’s life may depend on an assistance dog, so its training and temperament are critical. “Service dogs don’t react to stimuli,” she begins. They don’t get excited, and their predatory drive and initiative are low. “They are sweet and gentle and expect to lie around,” she says, aptly describing the dogs at our feet.