'Truffle powerhouse': The South brings a new approach to expensive, mysterious fungus

Todd A. Price
Southern Kitchen

The glass jar arrived overnight from North Carolina, 650 miles to the east. It was sitting in the kitchen at The Hive, an upscale, art-filled restaurant in the increasingly cosmopolitan town of Bentonville, Arkansas. Chef Matthew McClure unscrewed the top, and a funky odor escaped. Earthy and moist, it was the scent of the Blue Ridge Mountains’ forest floor.

McClure fished into the jar packed with dried oats and pulled out a black, nubby ball: a truffle. He slid it across a mandoline, and the paper-thin slices were a mottled pattern of beige and brown.

“It’s gorgeous,” McClure said.

Blue Ridge Truffles shaved over pasta at The Hive in Bentonville, Arkansas.

This truffle was an Imaia gigantea. They grow only in the Blue Ridge Mountains and Japan. Alan Muskat, the forager who found this truffle, believes the species, which he calls the Blue Ridge Truffle, might be one of the rarest in the world.

What is a truffle?

A truffle is a mushroom, a fruit of a fungus that latches onto the roots of trees and trades minerals for sugar. Truffles grow underground. To spread, they must entice an animal to eat them. Certain truffles, like Italy’s white Tuber magnatum or the Périgord black truffle, appeal as much to people, as gourmets have known since at least the time of the ancient Greeks.

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The truffle oil, truffle salt, truffle popcorn and even truffle ketchup on grocery shelves are synthetic and one-dimensional. A true truffle is a complex puzzle of smells and flavors. Truffles are rare and fleeting. A discerning eater will pay up to $1,000 a pound for the privilege of having them shaved over pasta or eggs.

Truffles have long been linked to European luxury. But they have been cultivated successfully in Australia. Oregon has developed its truffles enough to support an annual festival. And increasingly, Southerners are paying attention, working to cultivate European truffles and discovering native species growing under the trees of their forests, groves and even backyards.

“The South is going to be the truffle powerhouse,” said Rowan Jacobsen, author of the new book “Truffle Hound” (Bloomsbury).

The foragers

Muskat, who found that I. gigantea truffle, has been a forager for 30 years. He makes his living selling ingredients like oyster mushrooms, chickweed and purple dead nettles to chefs in Asheville, North Carolina. For years, though, he kept the truffles he found a secret. He worried that news of the truffles would trigger a destructive gold rush, sending prospectors armed with rakes into the forest.

Muskat, who studied philosophy at Princeton, now hopes the rare truffles he forages can be a catalyst to protect the forest where they grow. He plans to lead groups to gather the Blue Ridge Truffle, which they can take to cook at home or have prepared by a local restaurant.

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”That way, they are connected to the habitat, the ecosystem and the community it is a part of,” he said.

The Appalachian truffles, or Tuber canaliculatum, that Michael Riggan hunts grow as far north as Ontario, although most have been found in the South. The supply is far from abundant.

“Frankly, there’s only three of us that have found any quantity of Appalachian truffles in the United States these last couple of years,” Riggan said.

He describes the Appalachian truffle as having a “sweet, cinnamon-type aroma.”

The Washington, D.C., chef Frank Ruta has been serving Appalachian truffles, which he calls “Lagotto truffles” on his menu for a decade, first at his celebrated restaurant Palena and now at Annabelle.

“I think the Lagotto truffle can compete head-to-head with white Alba truffle,” Ruta said. The white Alba, or T. magnatum, is the most expensive truffle in the world. It has never been successfully cultivated.

Duck salad with baby turnips and shaved pecan truffles from Chef Frank Ruta of Annabelle restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Riggan, who lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, relies on Elora, an energetic Lagotto Romagnolo dog born in Italy, to find truffles. Elora can smell a truffle in the ground 30 yards away.

Truffle hunters once used pigs, but those beasts are more likely to eat the truffle along with the occasional finger. Dogs are better behaved, and cuter. While Lagottos, curly haired, energetic charmers, are traditional truffle hunting dogs in Europe, many breeds excel at the task. Caleb Horton of Southern Tradition Kennels in Georgia finds that black labs are excellent truffle dogs.

The cultivators

Margaret Townsend is not searching for truffles. She is bringing them to the 370 acres of land her family owns in Holland, Kentucky. When she traces her finger across a globe, she sees promise. Holland is roughly the same latitude as Périgord, France, the home of the black truffles she is cultivating.

Townsend, an industrial engineer by training, retired from the corporate world in January. She decided to cultivate truffles in her retirement so she could spend time outdoors. But she is tackling her crop with a focus on “process optimization.”

“I was looking for something that had a whole lot of variables that people didn’t understand, and I got it in spades,” Townsend said.

Kentucky’s latitude might be good for black truffles, or Tuber melanosporum, but the soil here and across much of the South is not. Truffles thrive in soil with a high pH, and Townsend had to dump 20 tons of lime per acre to lower the ground’s acidity.

Townsend planted her trees inoculated with T. melanosporum in 2011. She is producing black truffles. She is selling them. But she admits her farm is not yet a successful business.

“I am still clearly hobby farming,” she said.

Black truffles were first successfully cultivated in France in the 1970s. Getting them to grow in the United States has been a struggle.

The first two truffles that Margaret Townsend found on her Kentucky farm next to the cork from the champagne bottle she opened to celebrate.

Tom Michaels, not far from Townsend in Chuckey, Tennessee, produced "the first American grown black truffles to excite some of the country’s top chefs,” according to a 2007 article in the New York Times. A few years later, a blight destroyed the hazelnut tree under which his truffles grew. Townsend and others now trying to cultivate black Périgord truffles have planted blight-resistant trees.

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“People are starting to learn from past mistakes. They’re very expensive mistakes, but other people have made them,” said Matthew E. Smith, a University of Florida plant pathologist and curator of the fungus collection at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

The one place in the South that has mastered cultivating European truffles is Burwell Farms in Burlington, North Carolina, which grows a bounty of white bianchetto truffle, or Tuber borchii, under groves of loblolly pine trees.

Burwell’s success is built on the research of Omon Isikhuemhen, a Nigerian-born mycologist at North Carolina A&T University.

“When you look at the truffle genus, some of them are very difficult to cultivate, some of them are moderately difficult, some of them are less difficult,” Isikhuemhen said. “The bianchetto truffle appears to be one that is less difficult to cultivate. Take note, I didn’t use the word ‘easy.’”

Nancy Rosborough, the founder of Mycorrhiza Biotech, uses one of her rescue dogs to find truffles.

The pecan truffle

Growers who have prepared their soil for truffles and inoculated their trees with European species try to keep out native truffles. The most common competitor is the pecan truffle, or Tuber lyonii. But this indigenous truffle, found everywhere from the Eastern Seaboard to the edge of the Rocky Mountains, is winning over more chefs and finding buyers. Townsend admits she is currently making more money selling pecan truffles than black truffles.

“Up until this year, there was very little market for pecan truffles out there,” said Riggan, the forager.

T. lyonii were once considered trash by pecan growers. When they realized chefs might buy them, some growers started digging up the truffles with rakes. The chefs were largely unimpressed. Truffles are most fragrant and flavorful when ripe. Raking often pulls up unripe truffles, while also damaging the roots that could produce more truffles in the future.

The difference now, Riggan said, is dogs. More dogs are out truffle hunting in pecan groves, and their sensitive snouts zero in on the ripe truffles.

Andrea Reusing, the James Beard Award winning chef, has been using pecan truffles at her restaurant Lantern in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

“They’re surprisingly present,” she said. “They have a smokiness, almost like a smoked hickory nut flavor.”

Reusing, who gets her truffles from Riggan, likes that the pecan truffle is a truly American ingredient. She also appreciates that it remains an affordable alternative to a pricey truffle from Europe.

“If you think of it as this great democratic luxury product, that is a beautiful story,” Reusing said.

News tips? Story ideas? Questions? Call reporter Todd Price at 504-421-1542 or email him at taprice@gannett.com.