in the garden
Plant an Oak,
Harvest a Truffle
It used to be that you needed to train a pig and tramp through
an oak forest in the middle of the French winter in order to
hold a fresh black Perigord truffle in your hand. Now you can
grow them in your backyard.
Ancient poets and scholars once believed truffles were the
fruit of lightning bolts hurled at oak trees by Jupiter, king of the
gods. Today we know these warty, knobby, fist-shaped tubers
are the fruiting bodies of a particular type of fungus, just like all
j. r. accettola · www.accettola.com
mushrooms. Thanks to the pioneering work of truffle farmers
like Virginia Truffle Growers, these earthy delights are the next identical to the gastronomically adored Perigord region of
French import to Virginia’s Piedmont—right after wine. south-central France. Famous for its wine, foie-gras, and native
black truffle, France’s Perigord region has long supplied some
From France’s Perigord to Virginia’s Piedmont
of the most coveted ingredients for food lovers around the
With hot, dry summers and mild winters, combined with roll-
world. Already dozens of dedicated winemakers have proven
ing hills of limestone-rich soil, the Piedmont’s climate is nearly
our region’s ability to nurture fine wine-producing grapes
among local hills and valleys. Will the famous black Perigord
truffle be next? Truffle farmers in Rixeyville think it will.
“This whole area is . . . very much like the [Perigord region]
of France, where black truffles grow naturally,” explains Pat
Martin. She runs Virginia Truffle Growers with her husband
John, Tim Terry, a successful Tasmanian truffle farmer, and
Maggie Shumack, who works directly with customers to estab-
lish their own truffle-producing orchards.
While they eventually expect to have about 3 acres planted
with truffle-producing oak trees, the Virginia Truffle Grow-
ers are actually more interested in growing truffle farms than
truffles. Their Culpeper County farm is home to a commercial
greenhouse and a sterile lab, where they inoculate oak seed-
lings with the fungus that produces black Perigord truffles. An
independent mycologist confirms that each seedling is properly
inoculated before it is offered for sale.
Oak saplings dot a hillside on the farm at Virginia Truffle Growers, which the
owners have dubbed Le Clos de la Rabasse, or the Cul-de-sac of the Truffle.
Pat Martin believes truffle growing is a great option for farmers
or vintners who are looking to diversify their crops or to transi-
tion to “something that doesn’t require 24-7 labor and intensive
attention.” Local soybean and corn farmers are already begin-
ning to inquire about the truffles, and the Virginia Department
of Agriculture is interested in their potential as an alternative
or specialty crop. Martin suspects our local vineyards may be
especially well suited for truffle production. “We have every
reason to believe the trees and the truffles are good companion
products to the grapes,” explains Martin. “They certainly grow
in very much the same kind of soil.”
Enthusiastic home gardeners are also encouraged to join the
truffle-growing adventure. In fact, anyone with space for a few
oak trees—and patience to wait the four or five years until har-
vest—could be a future truffle grower. “We’ve been contacted
by people who want one or two trees,” says Martin, “and by j. r. accettola · www.accettola.com
others who want to plant many acres.”
It Takes an Oak to Grow a Truffle
Truffle-producing fungi form an intimate relationship with tree
roots—creating a radiating fan of delicate fibers—known as
Truffle-Growing 101 mycorrizae, that look and act like root hairs. The edible truffles
are the fruits of this mycorrizal relationship. The black Perigord
truffle (Tuber melanosporum) grows best on the roots of oaks,
and Virginia Truffle Growers currently offers holly oaks and
English oaks. Both varieties have been producing ample crops
of truffles for partner Tim Terry on his Tasmanian truffle farm.
In some ways, truffles are no different than any other orchard
crop. The trees are planted and carefully tended, and then the
harvest begins around the fifth year. But there the similarity
Virginia Truffle Growers sells truffle-bearing oak trees ends. Rather than picking an apple from a lofty branch, harvest-
and offers advice and support to aspiring truffle grow- ers dig the truffles from the soil in the tree’s root zone. And it
ers. Here are some of their cultivation tips: takes a carefully trained dog to find them in the first place.
• Prune truffle trees to an inverted-cone shape.
Bring Out the Truffle-Hunting Dogs
Truffles do best with access to light and heat.
Large, hungry pigs are the traditional truffle-hunting animal,
• Irrigation is recommended, especially during the
used across France and Italy by generations of truffle collectors.
dry summer months.
Today—largely because the pigs enjoy eating truffles as much
• Alkaline soil is best for truffles: amend as neces- as we do—trained dogs have become the animal of choice.
sary to reach a soil pH of 7.5–8.5.
Whether in the forest or the orchard, trained truffle-hunting
• Large growers are encouraged to invest in a dogs rely on their noses to find the hidden tubers. Once the
specialized soil test available through truffles are found, it’s a simple matter for the dog’s handler to
Virginia Truffle Growers.
scoop the treasure from among the soil and roots.
According to Martin, any dog can be trained to find truffles.
But anticipating that some future truffle growers may not want
20 flavor magazine • winter 2009
to get into the dog-training business, Virginia Truffle Growers
will offer contracted truffle-hunting dog services through their
Coast to Coast Pollination Service
second company, Virginia Truffle Marketing and Sales, which
will also distribute truffles for participating regional truffle
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Three Weeks of Culinary Euphoria
As should be expected with anything so evocative, the season
for truffles is fleeting. “The fresher they are when you use them,
the better,” insists Martin, who warns that truffles lose their
potent flavor about 2 weeks after harvest.
Martin suggests “truffle virgins” seek out a quality restaurant for
their first experience of this strongly flavored delicacy. More
adventurous home cooks can try pairing shaved truffles with
simple foods, such as scrambled eggs or mashed potatoes.
Despite its recent domesticity, the truffle maintains the allure
and mystery that has held food lovers captive since the days of
Pliny the Elder. “It’s hard to describe the taste because it’s not
like anything else I’ve ever eaten—it is so pungent, so won-
derful,” says Martin. At a loss, she admits, “I’m not good at
describing truffles because I don’t know what to compare them
to.” And, really, that is the point. In a world filled with count-
less flavors and cuisines, truffles remain incomparable. They
are like nothing else.
Cristina Santiestevan writes about science, nature, and sustainable
living from her home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
• The Truffle Book by Gareth Renowden
• Truffles, The Black Diamond and Other Kinds
by Jean-Marie Rocchia
Virginia Truffle Growers
Greenhouse and Truffiere
11047 Settletown Place
Rixeyville, VA 22737