The Perigord truffle, usually grown in France and Spain, is one of the most prized delicacies in the world. Small and black with a nubby surface, the truffle closely resembles an animal dropping. That resemblance is in appearance only. Truffles have an intense aroma that permeates everything around them, and that aroma and flavor have made the truffle an ingredient with an almost mythical stature in European cooking.
Since the early 1800s, truffles have been cultivated in Europe, but producing them in areas where they are not indigenous is quite difficult. The truffle grows under the ground around trees that have the fungus growing on the roots, either naturally or by inoculation. For the chemistry that produces a truffle to occur, the soil must be an exact pH, and the climate must be temperate and not too wet or too dry. If all these factors are in place, land, money and years of patience must still be invested before a truffle is produced. But the reward for successful truffle cultivation is substantial. This year, the retail price for fresh black Perigord truffles in some markets rose above $2,000 a pound.
Franklin Garland, who looks to be in his 50's and has the faintest trace of a Spanish accent from growing up in Guatemala, has all the charisma of a salesman when he's talking about truffles. "North Carolina could be to truffles what Napa is to wine," he says. I am skeptical, but when he shaves a truffle for me to taste, I want to believe. The taste is musky, nutty, powerful, earthy and full, and it almost goes to your head. There is something about a truffle that is intoxicating, as if all the mystique it carries can actually be tasted. I have tasted truffles before in cooking, and I suspect that most of the flavor in those instances came from truffle oil (oil that has been infused with truffles). But I have never before had fresh truffle alone and uncooked. The intensity makes me giddy.
It's hard to understand what attracted Garland to truffles in the first place. He says in the late 1970s he read an article on the front page of the Wall Street Journal about a new method of inoculating trees in order to grow truffles (in the past, truffle cultivation was achieved by planting trees in places where the soil was known to have the fungus, making it impossible to grow truffles outside natural truffle regions). Garland, the former head of the digital electronics program at Alamance Community College, whose previous agriculture experience consisted of growing hothouse tomatoes, says that one article inspired enough interest in him to search out the man who was mentioned and buy a few hundred hazelnut trees from him. He says he didn't really even know what a truffle was. It was more than 10 years after planting the trees that Garland actually found a truffle. It had taken him some time to find out that North Carolina soil is too acidic and needs to be treated with lime in order to have the right pH. During those years, he learned more and more about the truffle, and his desire to produce them grew. In the meantime, he also developed a thriving business growing shiitake mushrooms.
All that effort paid off. The Garlands had a bad year in terms of actual truffle production this year, as did most of Europe, but they are doing quite well selling the inoculated trees to interested growers. And you get the feeling that the Garlands enjoy the prestige associated with truffles. "When you have truffles, you can get in anywhere," Franklin grins. Multiple trips to Europe to buy truffles (for inoculation purposes) are now tax deductible. The couple has turned truffle farming into a gourmet lifestyle, and the lifestyle into a business.
In other temperate regions of the world, Perigord truffle farming has begun to catch on. Both New Zealand and Tasmania, Australia, have burgeoning truffle industries. But in the U.S., the Garlands are the only growers to succeed in commercially producing the sought after black truffles. Garland says that this is simply because they are the only people in the right place who are trying. The grant the Garlands have received is about to change all that.
The N.C. Tobacco Trust Fund Commission is one of three agencies in North Carolina set up to disperse monies paid by cigarette manufacturers in the 1998 settlement known as the master settlement agreement. The commission's goal is to help tobacco farmers and workers who have lost income as a result of the decline in the state's tobacco-driven segment of the economy. A large part of this effort is to help these farmers diversify into other kinds of crops.
William Upchurch, the commission's executive director, hopes the uniqueness of this particular crop will help farmers avoid problems of a glutted market. "Some farmers a few years ago tried the pick-your-own strawberry thing," Upchurch says. "Then everyone did pick-your-own strawberries. Now it's very difficult to make any money that way. I can't see that being a problem with truffles."
Apparently not. Franklin Garland says that in a year that he produced 50 pounds of truffles, his unsolicited demand was around 1,000 pounds a week. The thing that makes truffles so compatible with tobacco farming is that the 50 pounds Garland harvested came from 350 trees, which in a properly planted orchard can take up less than one acre. Like tobacco, truffles have a high value but use very little land. In a conservative estimate by this year's standards, that 50 pounds easily translates into $50,000. But because the Garlands are the only people to have succeeded in establishing a fully producing orchard, and because an orchard must be maintained for at least five years before there's any chance of seeing a truffle, it's a hard sell in a state where farmers are just looking for a sure thing. But not when the training and the trees are free.
The grant allows 50 farmers to receive 200 trees inoculated with the truffle fungus. The farmers do not receive any money, just the trees, mulch and irrigation needed to plant a half-acre orchard, not enough to make anyone rich growing truffles, but enough to let the farmers see if truffle production is possible.
Jeanine Davis, an extension specialist at N.C. State University who is helping the Garlands pick farmers who will receive the grant, is glad that the grant has opened the door for farmers to try this crop without the financial risk that few of them can afford. "I've known Franklin and Betty for years, and Franklin has always talked about the potential for truffles as an extension crop. But truffles take a really long time to grow, and I can't go out and ask farmers to try and grow truffles with no kind of idea what the economic return is going to be. Franklin is the only one doing this, so we just don't know. So this is a way for people to try it without that risk."
So far, 125 farmers have requested applications for the program, and 25 have sent them back. The application deadline is April 30.
"There has been a tremendous amount of interest from farmers," Davis says. "I get some pretty funny phone calls from people who say, 'I'm interested in the truffle project,' and they give their information, and then at the end of the message they say 'By the way, what's a truffle?' But that's to be expected."
On a cold February morning, Bob Pasarelli walks his truffle dog, Pierre, up and down the rows of chestnut trees in the country's second black truffle producing orchard, just north of Raleigh. "Chercher, Pierre! Chercher le truffe!" he commands the dog in French. Like the Garlands, Pasarelli has trained his dogs to find the truffles. Although this is a job traditionally done by pigs, dogs have an advantage in that they have no interest in eating the truffles themselves. Dogs are now used in much of Europe.
The orchard is serene and beautiful, with the hazelnut trees standing about 14 feet tall in an acre clearing surrounded by woods. The trees that are producing enough fungus on their roots to produce truffles have a burnt looking patch around their base, the result of the truffle's naturally occurring herbicide that kills off other plants that might compete for nutrients. Within 15 minutes of arriving, Pierre has dug up a truffle, small and fragrant. It really does feel like a small miracle.
Pasarelli frets about fresh deer tracks and places that look disturbed around the trees, not sure if animals could be taking the truffles. On the way to the orchard, Pasarelli has joked that he would have to blindfold me for the last part of the drive. Part of owning something so valuable is the fear that you are losing it. The farmer who owns the land that Pasarelli has leased for his orchard wanders down to say hello. His kind face betrays a bemused bewilderment at Pasarelli's venture.
Pasarelli, who is 51 and likes to go by the name Chef Bob, worked as executive chef at the governor's mansion for 15 years before stepping out of the kitchen and into an office as a corporate chef. It's clear that truffles are a part of his wild guy persona. He says his main motivation to grow truffles has been to do something different.
"I like doing stuff that's outside the box," he says. "I like doing stuff that other people aren't doing." He says he used to wonder if truffles grew naturally in North Carolina, and it was just that no one had ever looked for them. "I had an idea to go out to France and get a truffle dog to see if they grew here. Maybe they did and no one had found them. Then I read about Franklin." Six years ago, with help from the Garlands, Pasarelli and a friend planted the orchard.
"Until I found my first truffle with my dogs in my field, it was a scam," Passarelli says. "To me, it was a scam. Even the first truffle we got, it was Franklin's dog who found it, and I still wasn't convinced." He found his first truffle last winter, and expects to be in full production by next season. Truffles mature between November and February, sometimes into March depending on the weather.
There are truffles that occur naturally in North America. Oregon has long produced wild truffles, and in Georgia, truffles have been discovered growing naturally in pecan orchards. The pecan truffles have only recently been discovered, and it's not known how useful they are for cooking. Oregon truffles are widely used in cooking, but don't have the stature and don't command nearly the price of a black Perigord truffle.
"When I got my first truffles, I was pretty sure of what I had, but I wanted to get an expert's opinion. I overnighted one to Fritz Sonnenschmidt, the president up at the CIA [Culinary Institute of America], and he called me and said 'Where did you get this?' and I said 'I grew it!' And he said 'Well then, you're a miracle worker,' " Pasarelli says.
What exactly it is they have is an important question. Franklin Garland insists that it's as simple as, "If you plant an apple tree, it's not going to grow pears. You're going to get apples." Because of the exact conditions needed to produce truffles, the logic goes that if an inoculated tree produces a truffle, it must be the same kind and therefore the same quality as the truffle it was inoculated with.
"I don't know," Pasarelli says. "Is a North Carolina truffle worth less because it's not from France, or is it worth more because it's rare? And fresh. I mean, what are France and Italy sending us, their best truffles? I doubt it. At the freshest they're going to be a couple of days old when they arrive. And they leave the dirt on in order to keep them 'fresh,' but that's some pretty expensive dirt."
The market price for a black Perigord truffle in the U.S. includes a 100 percent import tariff. But if U.S. grown truffles are fresher and therefore of a higher quality, why not sell them at the market price? The Garlands are certainly having no trouble getting that price.
It takes Pierre an hour before he finds another truffle, and by then he's ready to go home. For now, Pasarelli is just enjoying having the truffles. He gives them to chefs when he goes out to dinner, he swaps them for wine, he enjoys the novelty of being one of the only people in the country to have access to a fresh black truffle. But he is looking at it down the road as an investment. "Chefs don't have the best retirement packages," he says. "I'm looking at this as my retirement fund. I'm looking to help put my daughter through college with this."
Franklin Garland estimates that 90 percent of the farmers who plant truffle trees will succeed in producing truffles within five to seven years. The Garlands are also hoping to get more money in next year's grant cycle, which will enable them to get more farmers involved, or give some of the farmers already participating more trees.
"It sounds too good to be true," Bob Pasarelli says, "Like, if it's possible, why isn't everybody doing it? Well, we're doing it. Someone had to start. We were the first. You could be the fifth."
For information about applying for the truffle grant, contact Keith Oakley at the N.C. Agricultural Foundation, (919) 515-9262.
UPDATE (Feb. 8, 2007): The truffle grant program has ended. For more information, contact Kathy Kennel at the N.C. Agricultural Foundation, (919) 515-9259.