Plant an Oak. Harvest a Truffle


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Flavor Magazine, Winter 2009

Profile piece featuring Northern Virginia truffle farm. Includes tips on growing truffles in your own backyard.

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Plant an Oak. Harvest a Truffle

  1. 1. in the garden Plant an Oak, Harvest a Truffle Cristina Santiestevan 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 · 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- jules coon 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. 19
  2. 2. 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 · 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
  3. 3. Windsong Apiaries 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 Honey | Beeswax Candles | Ornaments | Packages: growers. Bees, Nucs, & Queens 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- [p] 540.937.7775 derful,” says Martin. At a loss, she admits, “I’m not good at [m] 540.229.5359 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. Recommended Reading • The Truffle Book by Gareth Renowden • Truffles, The Black Diamond and Other Kinds by Jean-Marie Rocchia Virginia Truffle Growers (540) 937-9881 Greenhouse and Truffiere 11047 Settletown Place Rixeyville, VA 22737 21