If you’ve eaten a truffle in the United States, it probably wasn’t grown here. It’s not that we don’t have any—there are nearly a thousand wild-truffle varieties in the United States. But only a few are delicious.
Oregon truffles (black, white, and the rare brown) are the most sought-after wild, uncultivated ones. In spite of their name, they grow from northern California to Washington on the roots of Douglas fir trees. Charles Lefevre, the owner of Oregon-based New World Truffieres and president of the North American Truffling Society, says Oregon truffles can be every bit as good as French and Italian varieties: He says he can still vividly recall an omelet laced with Oregon truffles he ate ten years ago.
A truffle is essentially a mushroom that grows underground on the roots of trees. Because it grows beneath the ground, it can’t release its spores like other mushrooms and instead relies on animals to dig it up, eat it, and disperse its spores. Unlike fruit, which displays bright colors to signify that it’s ready to eat, the truffle depends on its aroma to attract the agents of its propagation—most traditionally, pigs. Dogs can be trained to hunt truffles with a buried film canister stuffed with a truffle oil–soaked cotton ball.
Truffle cultivation is not new. Because urbanization, acid rain, draught, and other factors have been shrinking wild supplies of the beloved Perigord truffle, beginning in the 1970s the French government set about figuring out how to cultivate them through inoculating trees with spores. Now as much as 80 percent of French-grown Perigord truffles are cultivated.
A pound of top-grade black truffles can sell for more than $1,800. The French saw a business opportunity and started selling their truffle-cultivation technology in the 1970s, spreading the Perigord truffle to China, Croatia, Spain, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. In North Carolina, Franklin Garland opened Garland Gourmet Mushrooms and Truffles in 1993, growing truffles and selling inoculated trees. Now he’s trying to get North Carolina tobacco farmers to switch from growing the cancer-causing leaf to cultivating high-dollar fungi.
One of Garland’s early customers was truffle farmer Tom Michaels, who realized that the red clay of his new Tennessee home was very similar to the soil of northern France. Three years ago he planted 2,500 hazelnut and oak trees, which he inoculated with black truffle spores (it takes five to ten years for a truffle-inoculated tree to start producing). If Michaels’ spores bear fruit, he’ll be on the vanguard of American truffle production.
Some chefs in the Pacific Northwest use Oregon truffles when they can find them. But few pro cooks across the country have had the opportunity to use American-grown truffles. Because of this, chefs are taking a wait-and-see approach.
“If someone can give me one and it compares to a (French) Perigord truffle, I’ll take a look at it,” says David Kinch, chef at Manresa, a restaurant in Los Gatos, California. “The proof will be on the plate.”
How to Use Them
When using truffles in the kitchen, don’t prepare anything too complicated, as you want the truffle’s flavor to come through. A high-quality truffle will be so pungent that its aroma will permeate anything it is stored with. To see what we mean, store the truffle in a container of rice or eggs, cover it tightly, and refrigerate it until you’re ready to use it. The rice or eggs will take on the scent and will yield you heavenly truffle-scented risottos and omelets (and you can use the truffle itself in another dish).
As a general rule, use the more robust black truffles (raw or cooked) to top omelets or pasta, or in this Truffle-Roasted Chicken. Reserve the more delicate white truffles for shaving raw over dishes as a last-minute garnish. While a truffle slicer certainly helps in making paper-thin slices, you can also just slice the truffle finely with a paring knife.
Where grown: From the Cascades to the Pacific coast, and between far northern California and southern British Columbia.
Flavor: White—oniony, musky, and earthy, with a kick. Black—more savory than white, chocolaty aroma, pungent. Brown—much less intense than white or black, with a garlicky aroma.
Source: White and black—Oregon Wild Edibles. Brown—not available commercially.
Cost per pound: About $150 for white, $300 for black.
Season: Mid-December through February.
Italian White (Piedmont) Truffle
Where grown: Northern and central Italy, and southern Yugoslavia.
Flavor: Strong pepper-garlic aroma; pungent, earthy, spicy taste that’s stronger than any other variety’s.
Source: Dean and DeLuca.
Cost per pound: $2,000 to $4,000 (or $200 to $300 per ounce).
Season: September through December.
Black Perigord Truffle
Where grown: France, Spain, Croatia, China, Australia, New Zealand.
Flavor: Strongly earthy with slight fruity aromas.
Cost per pound: $800 to $1,200.
Season: Late November through February.
Burgundy (Summer) Truffle
Where grown: France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, New Zealand.
Flavor: Similar to Perigord’s but less intense.
Cost per pound: $400 to $500.
Season: May through October.