On the heels of early February’s 2020 Asheville Truffle Experience, readers and newly captivated aficionados may wonder what it takes to bring this luxury ingredient to the plate. The short answer is faith — in spades.
The truffle (not the chocolate kind) is actually a sack of spores, the fruiting body of a fungus that attains maturity underground, attached by an almost invisible mycelium to the roots of certain host trees, most commonly oak and hazelnut. As a survival tactic, in order to entice predators to aid in its quest for sexual reproduction, it emits a powerful odor when mature. It’s this aroma that causes chefs to swoon.
Cultivation of the Périgord truffle, the most revered of black truffles, began in earnest around 1863, when phylloxera ravaged grape production in what became known as the Great French Wine Blight. It wasn’t until 1977 that the first inoculated truffle trees were planted in Europe, marking the start of a truffle renaissance.
In the United States, François Picart began spreading the gospel of the truffle in the 1970s and 1980s, selling inoculated hazelnut seedlings from his nursery in Santa Rosa, Calif., using techniques developed by the French National Institute for Agricultural Research. On the East Coast, Franklin Garland of Hillsborough, N.C., initiated the state’s truffle-farming buzz in 2004 when he provided 50 ex-tobacco farmers with 200 inoculated trees each, following his own successful production of a Périgord truffle in 1992.
Just across the border in East Tennessee, Dr. Tom Michaels planted his first orchard in 2000, harvesting his first truffle seven years later. Since then, Michaels’ truffles have graced the tables of chefs Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller among others, but he acknowledges the trickiness of his trade. “To be a successful truffle grower,” he says, “you have to be good at dealing with a lot of free-floating anxiety.”
Producing a truffle takes years and years of labor and waiting. It involves choosing the right slope and exposure, clearing the land and liming it to bring it to the proper pH, which Western North Carolina soils do not inherently exhibit. Then the farmer must plant skillfully inoculated seedlings of just the right tree with just the right spacing; water just enough, but not too much; keep weeds, other fungal organisms and predators at bay; and identify and treat molds, mildews and blights.
Then there’s more waiting while also training or renting a truffle dog. U.S. truffle farmers work with dogs rather than the greedier pigs Europeans have traditionally used to locate their truffles. The dogs help to check for progress regularly for up to 10 years before show of a harvest.
And, of course, there’s the initial financial investment. In a 2016 National Geographic story, Robert Chang of the California-based American Truffle Co. estimated that it costs $15,000-$20,000 to establish a truffle orchard.
So, why would anyone be crazy enough to embark upon this venture in the land of tobacco and tomatoes, with nothing in our history that has prepared us for the use of this specific ingredient?
For some, it’s just pure fascination of the uncommon coupled with the sense of adventure in uncharted territory. For others, it is a scientific process, with accompanying financial aspirations. The crop has the potential to be enticingly lucrative for stalwart, patient farmers. Truffles can fetch as much as $4,500 a pound for the prized Tuber magnatum, which has yet to appear statesside, and up to $1,500 a pound for the T. melanosporum, which is manifesting with more regularity on U.S. soils.
Brian Upchurch of Carolina Truffières in Fletcher planted his original orchard in 2016 as a farm diversification strategy at the insistence of his then 15-year-old son, Davis, who spent his days researching the fabled tuber instead of hanging out with his friends. Four years later, Upchurch, a nurseryman by training, is the acting president of the North American Truffle Growers Association. He has developed a business propagating mycorrhized (fungus-inoculated) seedlings — around 8,000 at a time — for other truffle growers (also known as truffières) using techniques researched by his son.
Over the years, he has expanded his orchard to around 3 acres, including a variety of species beyond the traditional host hazelnut and oak, such as the Douglas fir and holly oak. He says the venture, like all agriculture, is “a calculated risk,” which is lessened by due diligence. Like many other pioneers in the trade, he has yet to produce his first harvest but remains hopeful, given the signs of brulée (absence of other vegetative organisms) at the base of his trees.
“The cutting edge can often be the bleeding edge,” he observes, referring to all he has poured into the venture since its inception. “The industry has to progress to a critical mass before success is possible.” To maintain levity, he keeps a menagerie of long-haired highland cattle, several miniature donkeys, three canines and a camel named Darwin.
Andreas Lim and his wife, Sherry Snelson, planted their 2-acre orchard of Périgord truffles in 2014 on Snelson’s eighth-generation family farm in Leicester. Sycamore Valley Truffles is one of the multiple ventures of Sycamore Valley Farm, which has a vegetable, fruit and meat stand on New Leicester Highway, seven miles northwest of Asheville.
“We needed to come up with a farm plan that could provide long-term economic sustainability for the next generation and beyond,” says Lim. “We read about a number of attempts for cultivating the black winter truffle, i.e. Périgord, with variable success in Western North Carolina. Reviewing the science behind the cultivation and location, it seemed we had an opportunity to align the stars on the farm.”
His overall vision is to “promote truffle production in the Leicester area as the next economic evolution in mutigeneration farming. Our expectations are measured. We hope to have a winter harvest by 2021-22, but quality and quantity remain unknown.”
The work of Jeanine Davis, N.C. State University professor and head of the Mountain Research Station, is blazing a trail for WNC truffle farmers. Davis planted a test orchard on less than a fifth of an acre in Waynesville in 2011 with seedlings from Garland Truffles. Two years later, she put a second batch of seedlings in the ground — this time blight-resistant — in the hopes of escaping the Eastern Filbert Blight, which hovers at the edge of the first orchard.
Davis and her team, with the help of Lois Martin‘s trained Lagotto Romagnolo dog, Monza, finally unearthed 40 beautiful specimens of Périgord truffles this year, following two years that produced only a small handful. “Farming by neglect doesn’t work,” says Davis, “But if you use the current knowledge available on truffle-growing and maintain your orchard with proper pruning, irrigation and patience, you’ll eventually get truffles.”
Madison County-based chef, musician and author Susi Gott Séguret’s latest book, Cooking with Truffles: A Chef’s Guide, will be available this spring. For details, see ashevilletruffle.com.