North Carolina’s underground economy

Black perigord truffles have a tendency to embarrass foodies. Their flavor is so intense, so exquisite, that gourmands lapse into highfalutin’ gobbledygook trying to describe them, making the enthusiasts seem slightly snobbish and very silly.

Truffle team: Franklin Garland, who harvests truffles near Chapel Hill, will bring his goods to the Truffle Fest.

Truffle grower Lee Tuttle is at little risk of falling into the epicurean trap. Like most everyone else in the world, she’s never tasted the fungi that sets chefs’ hearts aflutter (and no, truffle oil doesn’t count: It’s mostly olive oil, with a touch of what manufacturers euphemistically call “essence.”) “I had some truffle butter once,” she offers brightly.

Despite Tuttle’s limited exposure to perigords—“I don’t even know for sure if I like them,” she adds—the state’s leading truffle growers are pinning their dreams on curious farmers like her who five years ago agreed to cultivate small truffle orchards. If truffles thrive amidst the root systems of the hazelnut trees awarded to Tuttle and 49 other North Carolina farmers through a Tobacco Trust Fund grant, truffle aficionados say the state could have a profitable new industry to celebrate.

“We’d like North Carolina to be the truffle state,” says Betty Garland, who, with her husband Franklin, has been growing truffles near Chapel Hill since 1992. Garland is organizing the state’s first truffle festival, to be held at Biltmore Estate next month. Although the event oozes ritz—Garland flirtatiously hints at surprise appearances by Martha Stewart and Billy Joel—its objective is serious: “We want to bring awareness to the fact that the truffle is growing here,” Garland says.

While the vast majority of black truffles hail from southwest France, truffles have been successfully grown in Spain, Italy, Slovenia and—most recently—the Appalachian mountains of the South. The New York Times in 2007 trekked to Chuckey, Tenn., to chronicle plant pathologist Tom Michaels’ truffle-growing operation, which has lately produced truffles for Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud.

“We think North Carolina’s going to be passing him,” Garland predicts regarding the Tennessee grower.

It doesn’t take a truffle dog to sniff out the politics pervading the still small American truffle scene: “Tom’s getting all the attention, but we were first,” Garland says. “I can send you the media kit if you’d like. Tom right now is the biggest commercial producer, that is certainly true. But Franklin really started this in the United States.”

Franklin Garland, a former digital-electronics instructor at Alamance Community College, had only grown tomatoes when he stumbled onto a story about truffles. Establishing the American truffle trajectory, he bought a few hundred trees from a zip-lipped French nurseryman before he’d ever tasted a truffle.

“This company from France came to Santa Rosa, Califonia, in 1980, but they didn’t tell anyone what to do next,” Betty Garland recalls. “They just said, ‘Here are your trees.’”

Ten years and one offshoot shitake-mushroom business later, Garland uncovered his first truffle. The Garlands were soon finding so many truffles that Emeril Lagasse came calling. In one year, their trees yielded an impressive 50 pounds. But the supply couldn’t keep pace with demand: “The food brokers are constantly hassling me,” Betty Garland says. “One food broker can move 1,000 pounds of truffles in a week.”

The problem with truffles is that their cultivation requires two things most farmers don’t have: spare land and patience. Producing 50 pounds of truffles requires one acre of trees, five years spent tending them and a fair amount of luck. While the payoff is tremendous—truffles currently fetch about $50 an ounce—many farmers are understandably reluctant to devote so much space and time to what Betty Garland calls a “high risk” endeavor.

The Garlands in 2004 coordinated the Tobacco Trust Fund grant program to attract farmers to the truffle industry, offering winning applicants the trees, landscape fabric and lime needed to jump-start their orchards. Of the 50 farmers selected for the program, 35 have stuck with it. “Franklin visits them every year,” Betty Garland says proudly.

Tuttle is the only WNC farmer participating in the program. A happenstance farmer who retired to Pisgah Forest from Cincinnati and discovered she preferred growing vegetables to playing golf, Tuttle added truffles to Queen’s Berry Farm’s produce roster after attending an informational meeting at the WNC Agricultural Center.

“Nothing really intrigued me about truffles,” Tuttle admits. “I just like to try new things, and it was something unusual. I’m always experimenting.”

Tuttle has been diligently minding her orchard, fighting off wind and weeds that have threatened to take down her trees. “We have to take care of it, even though we’re not getting anything from it,” she sighs. “We get so busy in the summer with other things.”

But, Tuttle says, should truffles show up in her soil, “There won’t be any trouble getting them sold.”

North American Truffle Fest

The North American Truffle Fest is scheduled for March 5 to 7 at the Biltmore Estate. Basic registration is $100. VIP passes, which include a meet-and-greet session with Jose Barbarin, general manager of the world’s largest truffle orchard, start at $750. Dinner tickets are available separately. To register, visit www.northamericantrufflefest.com.

Although the event is likely the easiest way to sample truffles in Asheville, The Market Place sometimes has Tom Michael’s truffles on its menu: As owner Mark Rosenstein wrote in a recent e-newsletter “We can only buy them on occasion. They are not always available, they are expensive, and they are in season at a time of year when we are slow … we only purchase a limited amount, but buy them, we do. What we don’t serve, I eat.”

While a one-pound truffle costing as much as a used Dodge truck probably isn’t on many shoppers’ grocery lists these days, Betty Garland thinks the market for truffles will survive the current recession.

“I picked the worst year I could have to launch this event,” Garland admits. “I’ve been reading that certain high-end chefs have been serving their food on paper plates. But I’ve also been reading that consumers are interested in saving up for luxury items, so that’s the one we’re hoping for. Our economy is spiraling downward, and I still don’t have any trouble selling truffles.”

Garland believes the last real obstacles to a viable truffle economy in North Carolina are a widespread unfamiliarity with the crop—“People are over thinking it’s a chocolate, but most people have never tasted one”—and, perhaps more startling, denial of its existence.

“We have a lot of people who don’t believe it’s real,” Garland says. “They think it’s smoke-and-mirrors and stuff. When you see a dog dig one up, it’s a lot more convincing than me telling you it can be done.”

Garland’s truffle festival will include a staged truffle hunt on Tuttle’s farm, a truffle growers’ forum and more than 20 pounds of truffles prepared by guest chefs. “We’re going to make people know what a truffle tastes like,” Garland says.

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