Truffles, those highly delicate, highly fragrant, highly sought-after fungi, have long been prized as a culinary delicacy. While it is estimated that there are over 100 species of truffle, discerning diners will be most familiar with the black Périgord truffle, named for the French region in which it traditionally grows, and the white Piedmont truffle, regarded as the world’s rarest and most expensive truffle.
While truffles are typically associated with the European regions they originate from, it is possible to cultivate them in other parts of the world, including the U.S. The cultivation of truffles requires a firm understanding of fungi, ample space, and copious amounts of time.
The advantages of growing truffles locally are significant. Not only are they commercially valuable for growers, but the ability to produce and supply fresh truffles across the country represents a significant gain for both restaurants and lovers of fine food.
What are truffles?
Truffles are a member of the genus Tuber and are the fruiting bodies of an underground fungus that grows on the roots of certain trees. Truffles can range in size, growing up to the size of a baseball.
While truffles may not look like much – their round, lumpy appearance might be off-putting to some – they are some of the most valuable commodities in the world. White Piedmont truffles can sell for up to as much as US$3,600 per pound, and the truffle industry is so lucrative that it has become the target of organized crime.
As they grow underground, truffles can be difficult to locate. As such, truffle farmers typically enlist the help of female pigs – who are natural foragers – or dogs – who have been specially trained – to locate these valuable fungi.
Most modern truffle farmers, including those based in the U.S., tend to prefer dogs over pigs when it comes to foraging for truffles. As well as being easier to train and control, dogs are also far less likely to eat the truffles once they find them!
Where do truffles usually grow?
The two types of truffles that have the most commercial and culinary value – the black Périgord truffle and the white Piedmont truffle – are traditionally found in their respective eponymous regions in France and Italy.
Both Périgord and Piedmont truffles typically grow on the roots of deciduous trees such as oak, hazelnut, beech, or cherry trees.
How can truffles be grown in the U.S.?
Time, space, and a solid understanding of truffles’ natural environments are needed for a successful crop of fungi. Truffle growers inoculate oak or hazelnut seedlings with the same fungus that spawns truffles, plant them strategically across acres of land, and then wait.
As it can take up to a decade for some truffle crops to yield a successful harvest, and as many as 20 to 25 years for the truffles to reach their maximum yield, time and patience go hand-in-hand with truffle growing.
One of the key issues that has arisen for truffle growers in the U.S. is maintaining the right soil conditions. The impacts of the biodiversity and chemistry of U.S. soil on these truffles, growing thousands of miles from their natural European environment, remain unclear.
Has truffle cultivation been successful?
From Kentucky to California, from Tennessee to Oregon, there are truffle growers across the U.S. who have been coaxing Périgord truffles from American soil. While the white Piedmont truffle has still eluded cultivation worldwide, there have been several successful harvests of black truffles in the U.S., with some growers producing yields of up to 200lbs each year.
While issues around soil chemistry, tree blights, and pest control have proved somewhat of an impediment to U.S. truffle growers, black truffles have been successfully grown on a commercial scale in countries such as Spain and Australia for a number of years.
What does the future hold?
It is indeed possible to cultivate truffles outside their natural habitat. While the rarest and most valuable truffle – the White Piedmont – has thwarted even the most determined growers, the potential for a booming market of black U.S. truffles remains high.
These fungi are also known as ‘black diamonds’, and a ready supply of fresh, locally grown truffles is an exciting prospect. Rather than waiting days for European truffles to be flown in, restaurateurs and epicureans alike would have access to truffles that are potentially only hours old – a food lover’s dream!