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Truffle Dreams

Author: Jill Hunting
July, 2011 Issue


The allure of—and demand for—truffles may bring another agricultural boom to California.

 

It’s noon on the winding backroads of Carneros, the wine appellation that straddles Sonoma and Napa counties. The region takes its Spanish name from the grazing sheep one notices behind fence after fence. Black, white and dappled lambs toddle after their mothers. A pair of cyclists cruise by me, excusing themselves as they pass in front of my camera. They don’t realize they’re a very part of the bucolic picture I’ve come here to see.

I pull into a ranch owned by Robert Sinskey Vineyards. The vineyard manager, Debby Zygielbaum, is waiting for me. We stride across a slope dotted with wild radish, blooming in shades of white and lavender. A hawk circles overhead. Pungent long grass quivers in the wind. Over in the vine rows it’s budbreak, the stage when small green flowers destined to become grape berries have appeared. Spring’s arrival has brought the promise of a new vintage.

But what’s most exciting here isn’t the new life in the vineyard or sheep pen, but what’s happening below ground. We’re standing in a newly planted truffle orchard.

Six years ago in this magazine [“The Trouble with Truffles,” August 2004], I reported on a handful of entrepreneurs who were quietly working to grow truffles, the subterranean delicacy, in California. As a direct result, at least one truffière, or truffle orchard, was started. Several more are now being readied to receive their first trees.

The challenge of the moment is to confirm that the finicky fungus is taking to its New World habitat—and to see which planters will succeed.

What’s a truffle?

In layman’s terms, truffles are underground fungi related to mushrooms. Round and stemless, they grow on the roots of oak, hazelnut and other trees in a symbiotic relationship with their host. They effectively extend a tree’s root system and provide moisture and nutrients from the soil. In return, they receive sugars and other nutrients produced by the tree during photosynthesis.

There are hundreds of species of truffles, none known to be poisonous to humans. They thrive in woodlands from the Mediterranean regions of Europe to South Africa, New Zealand and China.

A food hunted without bloodshed, truffles are located with the help of animal companions.

Although goats and bears have been used to find them, the two animals most commonly associated with hunting truffles are pigs and dogs. The “fruiting body,” or edible part, of the fungus produces a pheromone identical to that emitted by a male pig. This makes a sow in heat a motivated finder, even when the treasure is growing well below ground.

Hunting truffles with a pig has two disadvantages, however: With its liking for the taste and its sharp teeth and powerful jaws, a pig doesn’t give up a truffle without some risk to a human hand; and, as a French truffle purveyor told me, your secret hunting ground is hard to protect when people see you with a pig in the car.

Unlike pigs, dogs are usually content to unearth a truffle in exchange for a morsel of beef. The canine sense of smell is 50 to 100 times keener than a human’s and, assuming it has the right temperament for the job, a dog is easily trained.

Two species of truffle are famously expensive, the white Tuber magnatum associated with Alba, Italy, and the so-called Périgord (France) black winter truffle, or Tuber melanosporum. Both grow in regions beyond what their name suggests. Both sell for well upward of $1,000 per pound in a good year, defined primarily as a year with abundant summer rainfall. But of these two, only the black winter truffle takes well to cultivation. Its celebrated and more expensive white cousin has (so far) eluded domestication, though experiments are underway.

Why do these unprepossessing tubers command a high price? Why did the French gastronome Brillat-Savarin call truffles “the paradise of the palate”? Because this lumpy-looking culinary star, besides tasting good, has for centuries been considered an aphrodisiac. The taste and aroma of truffles are sometimes described as utterly unique, earthy and sexy.

Fact or fancy, the legendary allure of truffles figured prominently in the decision of Napa Valley vintner Larry Turley to plant 2,600 truffle-infused trees seven years ago. A native of Georgia, Turley first tasted truffles in Siena, Italy. “I saw fireflies that night for the first time since leaving the South,” he says. Years later, he heard truffles need alkaline soil—just what he had in a vineyard he’d recently purchased in Paso Robles. He thought they might be worth a try. When he learned that Victorian women were forbidden to eat truffles because they inflame the passions, that clinched it.

Risk and reward

Turley’s truffle trees, growing under the supervision of a vineyard manager, have yet to produce fruiting bodies. They are, however, on track according to Dr. Charles Lefevre of New World Truffières in Oregon. In recent tests, Lefevre—who earned his doctorate in forest mycology and grew Turley’s hazelnut trees, inoculating their roots with truffle spores— found truffle mycorrhizae (the symbiosis between a fungus and a root) dominating the root tips in every sample he took. The biggest challenges on the site include providing enough irrigation and nutrients for the trees, and discouraging gophers. Turley says they’ve trapped hundreds of them.

Gophers, acidic soil and adequate water are challenges for truffle plantations throughout California (truffles are a suitable crop from north to south). In Geyserville, Nathan Angerer had trapped his 100th gopher on the day I reached him.

Angerer’s goals are to create a self-sustaining family business and “produce the best truffles ever” by managing his property seriously and professionally. He devoted 16 months to finding the ideal site. His search took him first to a U.S. Geological Survey map showing soil characteristics and drainage, then to 200 different sites that he visited before choosing five finalists. A soil scientist tested them all to a depth of five to six feet. The conditions of one property off Highway 128 were ideal. Angerer is now preparing the soil for a planting this winter of 1,600 trees on eight acres. Ten trees inoculated with Tuber magnatum will be grown separately as an experiment.

Angerer is not a scientist, but rather a gardening hobbyist who likes hunting: “Looking for rocks. Antiquing. Garage sales. It’s like a treasure hunt.”

In his twenties, he woke from a dream of going to a comic book shop, something he hadn’t done in his waking life. The next day, he began researching the comic book market. There, he found a niche and made “enough to pay the bills.” His approach to truffles followed a similar course. Drawing on his experience in market research, he walked the aisles of Whole Foods in search of the single most expensive agricultural product. He then called his dad and said, “Let’s start a mushroom farm.” Before they did, both father and son came across articles on truffles and agreed they’d be more interesting to grow than porcinis and portobellos.

Is Angerer a betting man? “I am, yeah,” he says. “But waking up and driving your car has a risk. I’m excited. Grapes have been marketed and pushed for so long here, the prime land is planted to grapes. A lot of people won’t trade the sure thing for the what-if. Over the next 50 years, truffles are going to become huge.”

Lefevre agrees. “There is some risk associated with growing truffles,” he admits, “because it’s new. The same thing is true of every new industry, like cell phones. People getting in on the ground floor are taking risks that people later on don’t, and they’ll get commensurate rewards.”

The economics of growing truffles

Among the considerations that enter into a decision to plant truffles are a site’s soil type and pH level, water and drainage, and elevation. Because the soil is typically acidic in California’s long band of truffle-suitable land, it’s usually necessary to raise the pH by adding great amounts of lime.

Both New World Truffières and a competitor, American Truffle Company (ATC), thoroughly analyze growing conditions and provide detailed information on the economics of growing truffles. A white paper compiled by a team including New World Truffières’ Lefevre lists the costs, right down to such expenses as farm equipment, manual labor and dog maintenance. ATC’s online data is less comprehensive but based on similar assumptions. It also offers a cost comparison of planting Chardonnay grapes and truffles, which states that, on average, the per-acre profitability of truffles can be seven to 10 times that of grapes, with faster recovery of one’s investment.

Both companies provide technical expertise and follow-through. In addition, American Truffle Company will handle distribution of the truffles, once harvested by the grower. Its “client-partners” sign a nondisclosure agreement concerning proprietary growth methodology and data. At its inaugural Napa Truffle Festival in December 2010 (the second is scheduled for January 13-15, 2012), ATC offered a seminar on truffle cultivation by invitation only to existing clients. The festival also included culinary demonstrations and a dinner prepared by a lineup of chefs from Michelin-starred restaurants. Truffles were flown in for the occasion.

New World Truffières co-sponsors a truffle festival in Oregon each January. It, too, features noted chefs, along with a dog-training seminar so popular that it was already half sold out the first day of registration, six months before the festival. Lefevre’s approach to truffles tends to be less guarded than his competitors’. He believes this approach furthers the goal of establishing a viable commercial truffle industry in the United States. “The point of our festival is to break through those barriers between people,” he states. “We think it’s a critical part of what it will take to succeed.”

To date, three truffle orchards in the United States, one of them in California, have claimed to achieve commercial success. A dozen more may have produced truffles on a smaller scale.

Robert Chang, managing director of ATC and a Stanford Business School graduate, points to two reasons why an orchard might not produce. First, it’s too young. On average, an orchard produces its first truffles in five or six years. Second, the tree roots have little or no truffle mycorrhizae.

“If [the latter] is the case,” he says, “then even after 10 years, there will be no truffles. There, in fact, will never be truffles. We scientifically analyze the roots of all of our client-partners’ trees, so we’re ensured there’s truffle mycorrhizae on the trees and it’s simply a matter of time. We take great care and scientific rigor to ensure we fall in the first category.”

A green crop

Back at the Robert Sinskey orchard in Carneros, Zygielbaum spreads open two plastic tree-tubes to show me the oak and hazelnut saplings inside. When I ask about the pattern in which the trees are planted and sketch in my notebook one I’ve heard about, she apologizes that she isn’t allowed to comment.

I ask if huge amounts of lime are being added to the soil. She laughs. It seems I’ve asked another question she isn’t permitted to answer under the nondisclosure agreement Sinskey signed with American Truffle Company.

The secretive aspect of truffle growing is new to Zygielbaum. She’s used to talking with other farmers and grapegrowers. “No farmer won’t talk about what they’re doing,” she says. “Talking to each other makes our farming practices better. It’s a community.” Still, she admits, she can understand wanting to protect your asset. “If it’s a secret worth guarding,” she adds, “that would be good!”

Sinskey was looking for an opportunity “to do other things than just grow grapes. At first we were looking at grazing sheep between the vines,” he says, “and a place to keep them between seasons so they’re not in the way and not damaging anything. We thought, ‘What about planting trees to provide shade for them?’ Then we thought we could have truffles. It’s a gamble. The reality is that this land was going to be left fallow anyway for the sheep. If this is going to work, it’s an exciting proposition.”

The Carneros property is planted to approximately an acre and a half of black winter and summer truffles. Sinskey is hoping for a first harvest in 2016. His children and wife, the chef and cookbook author Maria Helm Sinskey, share his enthusiasm.

Even so, the grapes come first. Truffles are an experiment that will take time and are part of a larger vision. “We believe in being good stewards of our land,” Zygielbaum says. “One way to do that is by diversifying. It seems that truffles would fit well.” All the Robert Sinskey vineyard properties are farmed organically and biodynamically.

Truffles are considered a “green” crop. They’re grown without fertilizer, described by Chang as “a major pollutant both in terms of manufacturing and usage.” Further, he claims, “Depending on the density of truffle trees, each acre can offset the carbon footprint of 20 to 30 average U.S. households of four.”

The fact that demand for truffles exceeds supply, and they’re best when consumed within a few days, means a domestic truffle industry could eliminate the need to overnight them from other continents. The United States currently levies a 100 percent tariff on imported truffles.

Is our region destined to become one of the world’s great truffle producers, following the lead of the wine industry in the last century? Will the Napa Truffle Festival someday rival those of Richerenches, France; Alba, Italy; and Croatian newcomer Buzet, Istria? Will clergy in California’s Wine Country one day bless truffles at harvest time, as Catholic priests do in Europe?

The answers lie with the truffle scientists and growers who are giving this promising crop their best, and with nature itself. If, in a few seasons, the earth yields truffles, Californians may yet again shout, “Eureka!” As Angerer says, “Life can be a treasure hunt if you want it to be.”


Jill Hunting has written about truffles since 2000, including articles for
NorthBay biz, Appellation: Wine Country Living, Bark and the Los Angeles Times. She published “Truffle Secrets,” a subscription newsletter, for five years until back-burnering it to write the memoir Finding Pete: Rediscovering the Brother I Lost in Vietnam (Wesleyan University Press, 2009). She currently serves as a judge for the national Build a Better Burger competition.

Sautéed Potatoes with Truffles

From Ken Frank’s La Toque Cookbook (reprinted with permission).

Ken Frank, executive chef for acclaimed Napa restaurant La Toque, writes, “If, God forbid, I were a vegetarian, this is what I would live on—during the truffle season, of course.” This dish, he says, “will transform a great steak into the meal of the year.”

2 russet potatoes
 
Peanut oil

4 tablespoons (0.5 stick) unsalted butter

Salt

1 small fresh truffle (any ripe, fragrant truffle in season)

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit.

2. Peel the potatoes and cut them into half-inch cubes. Rinse thoroughly under cold running water. Drain and blot completely dry with a towel.

3. Meanwhile, heat a half-inch of peanut oil in a large ovenproof sauté pan until very hot but not yet smoking. Carefully add the diced potatoes, which must be very dry or the oil will spit and burn you.

4. After 30 seconds or so, give the pan a little shake to loosen the potatoes, then place the pan in the oven. Cook the potatoes for another seven or eight minutes, stirring or shaking from time to time to ensure even cooking.

5. By now, the potatoes should be a rich golden brown. Remove them from the oven and empty them into a strainer, draining off all the oil.

6. Add the butter and return the potatoes to the still-hot pan; toss as the butter melts. Sprinkle lightly with salt and smother with freshly grated truffle. Toss again—the potatoes will absorb an unbelievable amount of butter and truffle flavor. Serve at once.

Note: When grating the truffle, rub it just lightly on the shredder. This more delicate shred of truffle will yield a lot more flavor.

Serves 2


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