America’s most wanted fungus

Fungus among us: Chef Adam Hayes of the Red Stag Grill shaves fresh truffles over risotto. Photos courtesy of the Frankie Lemmon Foundation

It's difficult to pinpoint what makes truffles so sought after. No description does them justice. They can best be described as having a deliciously pungent and musky flavor, but beyond that, truffles are mysterious. In nature, their spores are sown in nature — by way of the digestive process of animals that eat fungus. And often, the delicacy (which grows underground) has been ferreted out of the earth by a truffle-hunting dog or pig and delivered by mouth to its master. Dogs are preferred hunters because pigs, especially sows, have a tendency to eat the truffles — they contain compounds similar to sex pheromones present in boar saliva. Hungry yet?

Part of what elevates a truffle to such prized status is its ephemeral nature; the sensual, musky essence of a truffle fades quickly. When a prime truffle is on the table, people will dig deep — especially for a good cause. In 2007, Bloomberg reports that a Macao billionaire paid the highest price on record for truffles at a charitable auction, about $330,000 for slightly less than three-pounds worth.

A treasure trove of truffles

Given the large amount of truffles at the Grand Bohemian this weekend, Adam Hayes, the executive chef of the Red Stag Grill, probably wants you to know that the current market value is much less exorbitant (although not quite cheap). From Thursday, Feb. 23 through Saturday, Feb. 25, the Grand Bohemian will host the National Truffle Fest, a benefit for the Frankie Lemmon Foundation, a group dedicated to the education and well-being of very young children with disabilities.

The festival will celebrate the entire journey of the truffle from the ground to the plate, with renowned chefs including Ashley Christensen of Poole’s in Raleigh, N.C., growers, traders, educators and gourmands, all celebrating food, fine wine, craft cocktails and the science and economics behind the fungus (see “Talent show” for details).

Enticing such an impressive array of talent is easy when you've got a substantial amount of truffles in all of their freshest, most potent glory, and a good cause to serve. "We get a tremendous amount of truffles in here," Hayes says with the air of a child on Christmas morning. "You're not going to go anywhere else and see this many truffles that I'm aware of in this restaurant community.” And how many truffles are coming to Asheville, exactly? "Security is high — I'll put it to you that way," he laughs.

Being a bon vivant

For the festival, Black Perigord and Bianchetti varieties will be imported for the event from Italy and France, regions with a storied history of cultivation. Oregon black and white truffles will also make an appearance, as will truffles cultivated in WNC and Tennessee, areas increasingly respected as sources for quality truffles. This upswing in regional cultivation has, in part, led to the festival's expanded focus on the science, growing and marketing of truffles. Experts will host seminars and presentations designed for current and prospective truffle growers.

"This year, we have really focused on bringing in very professional talent in the truffle industry," says Lenora Evans, executive director of the Frankie Lemmon Foundation. Emanuele Musini, the chief executive of P.A.Q. Gubbio, an import company, will talk about the business side of truffles. "His experience and expertise is internationally recognized," says Evans. Joining Musini is his protégée, Ian Purkayastha, a whiz-kid who began trading truffles at age 16. Two years later, he had become a veritable tycoon; Forbes Magazine calls him the "Prince of Truffles.” At his current ripe age of 19, he is called upon by top chefs that include Thomas Keller and Jean-Georges Vongerichten.

"The way I look at this event, if you're interested in anything that has to do with gourmet food, being a bon vivant, as they say, there is absolutely nothing that is not appealing about this weekend," says Evans. "It is amazing."

Whiskey, risotto and wine (oh my)

When the seminars are over, there's plenty of dining — and drinking — to be done. There's a whiskey cocktail demonstration and tasting led by New York City cocktail guru Karin Stanley (who will also team up with chef Hayes for a truffle-and-libation filled brunch), a truffle-risotto event and truffle-and-wine pairing seminars.

Various truffle-centric wine dinners will take place throughout Asheville on the evening of Friday, Feb. 24, with area restaurants pairing multicourse truffle-centric meals paired with wines from various national wineries (see “Where the truffles are” for details). The Red Stag will host B Cellars, an award-winning Napa Valley, Calif. winery. If last year is any indication, chef Hayes will pull out all the stops.

"Last year, we called the first course of our winemaker dinner 'Truffle Explosion,'" he says. "That was a 1-ounce piece of truffle that was slightly baked with port and cognac and butter. We put it on top of some creamy risotto. That's how we do it. When you're doing a four or five-course truffle dinner, you've got to get creative, and I figure, why not punch you in the nose with truffles right off the gate, just let it linger with you the rest of the night. I'll do something similar this year," he says, a little swagger in his voice.

A grand gala

The weekend's festivities culminate with the Chef's Gala, featuring live music and an opulent spread of truffled dishes made by both the guest chefs and the Red Stag weaving through several rooms in the Grand Bohemian's ballroom and dining area. It is, to use a well-worn cliché, a true feast of the senses.

But Evans is quick to point out that, with all of the rich, sumptuous foods and wines about, it's important to remember that the event is not all about hedonism (although it may feel that way at times).

"Our children with special needs don't take a break and we have to be there 24/7," she says. "Events like this are what keep us able to do that work. It's so humbling and encouraging the way that people support these events. This kind of support goes long beyond an opulent dinner in a beautiful restaurant. It changes families forever, and that's what we're about."

To learn more about the Frankie Lemmon Foundation, visit http://www.frankielemmonschool.org. To buy tickets to the National Truffle Fest, visit the Grand Bohemian Hotel lobby (the hotel is located at 11 Boston Way in Biltmore Village: http://www.bohemianhotelasheville.com) or to purchase online (and see the full list of events and a la carte options) visit http://www.frankielemmonschool.org/events/national-truffle-fest.

— Send your food news and tips to Mackensy Lunsford at food@mountainx.com.

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