BC Truffles

Truffle Association of British Columbia

The Truffle Underground

An introduction to truffle topics with links for further reading

What are truffles

Truffles are the fruiting bodies of fungi that live underground in the soil and associate with tree roots. Truffles are roundish, or irregularly shaped structures with the firmness of a mushroom. They vary in size from bean, to golf ball to baseball. The fruiting body of truffles is highly prized as food. The taste of a truffle is often compared to garlic, blended with an earthy, pungent mushroom flavour. they are most often served uncooked, shaved into foods such as salads, omelets or mushroom appetizers.

In scientific terms truffles are a group of (mostly) edible mycorrihizal fungi. The most well known truffles are of the genus Tuber, class Ascomycetes. Truffles form a symbiotic relationship with their host plant, such as oak, hazelnut, beech or birch trees.

Truffles belong to a group called the Ectomycorrihizal fungi because they form a sheath around the root tips of their host plant. From this sheath, tongues of tissue run in between the outer layers of the root to produce a three-dimensional structure called a Hartig net. On the outside of the sheath, fungal hyphae run out into the soil. It is this structure that allows an exchange of elements between the fungus and the tree. The fungus gets carbohydrates from the tree and in return helps the tree take up water, mineral salts and metabolites.

The prized truffle species (see the Edible Truffles tab) are now quite rare in the wild, mostly because the oak and beech forests in which they are found are much reduced in acreage. Ian Hall suggests that the knowledge of the location of truffle beds was lost in the world wars. French truffle production in 2008 was about 50 tonnes, down from about 1000 tonnes in 1902. Additional reasons advanced for the decline include the introduction of exotic forest tree and truffle species, poor forest management, indiscriminate harvesting of truffles, the spread of dense forest with the retreat of agriculture, and climate change.

Contrary to folklore, truffles can be cultivated. In 1808, Joseph Talon from Apt had the idea to sow some acorns collected at the foot of oak trees known to host truffles in their root system. His experiment was successful, and so his was the first known cultivated truffiére. In 1847, August Rousseau of Carpentras, planted seven hectares of oak trees and subsequently harvested large quantities of truffles.

In the early 1970's a team of French scientists, known as Truffe Agronomique developed a way to inoculate the roots of oak trees with pureed Tuber melanosporum truffles. Their technique, which they kept confidential, and patented, was to bathe the roots, under laboratory conditions of sterility, in a fertilized slurry of water and truffle spores. The seedling was then planted, and if the inoculation was successful, in 5 to 10 years, truffles could be found among the roots of the trees. Thirty-five years later, their company website advertises host truffle trees for sale. Today, as much as 80% of French grown Perigord Truffles are cultivated.

Truffles in the Forest

In the mid twentieth century young foresters were informed by their professors that there were mysterious growths in the forest, called mycorrhizal fungi, which grew in association with tree roots and had a fairly significant effect on the health and performance of the trees. Beyond that, not much was known. Since then, we have learned that there is a symbiotic, interdependent relationship between trees, mycological fungi, and forest rodents.

Mycorrhizal fungi have been around for nearly half a billion years. Thus it is hardly surprising that most are now so specialized that they cannot survive unless they are in contact with their host plants. Many plants have also become equally dependent on mycorrhizal fungi and without them become stunted and yellow, often due to a lack of mineral elements such as nitrogen or phosphorus.

Fungal fruiting bodies such as mushrooms, conks, and coral fungi distribute their spores by means of wind. But the fruiting bodies of truffle species are located underground and are not released into air. So rodents and other small mammals perform the role of spore dispersal. In Europe, female pigs were traditionally used to find and harvest ripe truffles; in the wild it was the wild boars that found ripe truffles, ate them and dispersed their spores.

In North America, flying squirrels glide down from the trees at night to forage on the ground for food. Ripe truffles, a primary part of their diet, are dug up and consumed. When the squirrels defecate elsewhere, they spread the spores of the truffles to new locations. In this way, trees gain packets of spores from beneficial fungi deposited near their roots. In addition, owls feed on flying squirrels. The owls then also deposit packets of squirrel and spore remains even further afield, benefiting trees elsewhere. To complete the cycle, the forest trees provide habitat for the owls and the squirrels.

So, how do the animals find truffles? By smell - mature mushrooms emit distinctive aroma, often pungent or fragrant. Various kinds of truffles have various smells: some of them are pleasant for humans, others are not (for example, the smell of rotten onions, freshly laid road asphalt). But obviously the animals find the aromas attractive.

So, truffles are not only a gastronomic product but also an important link in the network of interacting components of the forest.

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Where in the World?

Truffles are now found, or grown in nearly all regions of the world with a mild Mediterranean climate. However, the most famous areas for truffle production are France, Italy and Spain.

In addition to the above countries, there are now truffle-growing areas in Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Croatia, Sweden, the United Kingdom, South Africa and China, There are several other countries, such as Canada, where truffiéres have been planted, but have not yet produced certified truffles.

The first black truffles to be produced in the southern hemisphere were harvested in Gisbourne, New Zealand, in 1993. According to Ian Hall There are now 150 truffiéres in New Zealand, a few containing more than 10,000 trees. During the 2007/2008 season, the country produced about 100 kilograms of Perigord truffles. In Australia, the first black truffles were harvested in Tasmania in 1999, by Tim Terry, on his farm near Launceton. In Western Australian, the Wine and Truffle Co. is a predominant producer. Their farm is at Manjimup, in the extreme South-West corner of Australia. In 2008 they had an estimated harvest of 600 kilograms.

Spain does not have a history of truffle hunting, as France does. It was not until the 1950's that enterprising Frenchmen wondered if truffles could be found across the border. They were soon found in the plateaus of Catalonia and Aragon. Here are found native grown Tuber melanosporum, Tuber brumale and Tuber Aestivum. The largest truffiére (truffle orchard) in the world is located near Soria, in Spain. Founded by Salvador Arotzarena, a Spanish businessman with a lifelong interest in truffles. It now covers 600 hectares and produces about 3 tonnes of truffles per year. Besides this large producer, there are growers associations, such as the one at Sarrion. this association has 148 members and the local business supports 7 truffle-tree nurseries, with about 1400 hectares under production. Read excerpts from The Truffle Book for more information.

In the United States, the prime growing areas are North Carolina, and Oregon. In 1992, Franklin Garland of Hillsborough, North Carolina successfully cultivated Black Perigord Truffles. He has since established a truffle tree nursery which is supplying stock to North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky. Read this article about Franklin Garland and Tom Michaels.

In the United Kingdom and in Sweden, the Summer Truffle, Tuber aestivum is native, and is also cultivated. In the U.K., attempts are also being made to cultivate the Perigord Black Truffle. A company called Truffle UK is advertising seedlings for sale, infected with either Tuber aestivum or Tuber melanosporum. They also announce that Black truffles are now being harvested.

Truffles - a culinary delight

Ancient civilizations ate and appreciated truffles, both for their taste and alleged magical properties. During the Egyptian and Roman dynasties desert truffles, which are much milder tasting than our current front runners, were the truffle of choice. People even speculate that the manna of the Jewish migration from Egypt to the Holy land was the desert truffle. The oldest surviving recipes for cooking truffles come from a Roman cook book, the Apicius de re coquinaria.

In the middle ages, the consumption of truffles fell into disrepute, except among the peasants, for whom they were a valuable food source. Truffle appreciation in France, appears to stem from the result of Italian influence, especially the move of the papacy from Rome to Avignon in 1309. In 1533 Catherine of Aragon arrived in France to marry the Duke of Orleans. She brought with her, a wealth of paintings, crockery and cooks. She is credited with introducing sophisticated cookery to France. When the first French cookbook, Le Cuisinier Francois was published in 1651, more than 60 recipes featured truffles.

The golden age of truffles was the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They enjoyed a heightened appreciation and a greater supply than at any other time in history. Recipes of the time called for "a dozen fine black truffles".

Alas, truffle production fell from a high of 1800 tons in 1902 to a mere 200 tons in 2008. Along with scarcity comes high prices. White truffles now command, in 2009, between $2000 and $4400 per kilogram and Perigord black truffles sell for between $1000 and $2000. There is however hope on the horizon for the frugal gourmet. The scale of cultivation of truffles world wide will eventually cause the price of truffles to drop dramatically, at least down into the realm of caviar and crab.

Truffle recipes

An array of good, fresh truffle recipes may be found at Vervacious, Fresh truffles and Fancy Food. These recipes generally call for ½ to 1 ounce of truffles per person, translating to $30 to $60 per person for the truffle ingredients. A feast of truffles and vegetables may be found at the World Wide Gourmet. A good introduction to truffle taste may be truffle butter, described here and available for purchase here, if you are a U.S. resident

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Truffle Quotes

Tom Michaels - Kentucky truffle farmer

If Bill Gates decided he wanted to grow truffles, this industry would change overnight. Ten pounds an acre is laughable! Forty years from now we'll chuckle that annual world production was once as low as 30 tons. We'll have 10 times that many truffles! Or more. It's totally possible to make this a non-elite food. They'll be able get them down at Safeway."

Franklin Garland - North Carolina truffle farmer

When asked if the days of $800 truffle prices might be numbered, "To produce enough volume so that the price comes down," he said, "it will take 30 to 40 years. And even if the price drops to $350 a pound, it's still going to be profitable. Truffles are the highest paying legal crop in the world. This industry is in its infancy here. And so is the American appetite for truffles. Until a few years ago, most Americans thought truffles were chocolate. Now I can go into some podunk town in North Carolina and the kid changing tires at the gas station will know what truffles are. So I don't think we'll ever be lacking in demand. This is going to grow. By a lot.”

Charles Lefevre - Oregon - Owner of New World Truffiéres

"Truffles are subterranean in every sense of the word. They evoke a criminal mentality." In Europe, there are tales of truffle poachers with night vision goggles, of dogs being poisoned with strychnine meatballs. There are rumors of mafia connections, of truffle muggings.

Alexandre Dumas - author of "The Three Musketeers"

The most learned men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber, and after two thousand years of argument and discussion their answer is the same as it was on the first day: we do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated, and have answered simply: eat us and praise the Lord."

Plutarch - author of Parallel Lives - 120 A.D.

"Since, during storms, flames leap from the humid vapors and dark clouds emit deafening noises, is it surprising the lightning, when it strikes the ground, gives rise to truffles, which do not resemble plants?"

Ancient civilizations ate and appreciated truffles, both for their taste and alleged magical properties. During the Egyptian and Roman dynasties desert truffles, which are much milder tasting than our current front runners, were the truffle of choice. People even speculate that the manna of the Jewish migration from Egypt to the Holy land was the desert truffle. The oldest surviving recipes for cooking truffles come from a Roman cook book, the Apicius de re coquinaria.

In the middle ages, the consumption of truffles fell into disrepute, except among the peasants, for whom they were a valuable food source. Truffle appreciation in France, appears to stem from the result of Italian influence, especially the move of the papacy from Rome to Avignon in 1309. In 1533 Catherine of Aragon arrived in France to marry the Duke of Orleans. She brought with her, a wealth of paintings, crockery and cooks. She is credited with introducing sophisticated cookery to France. When the first French cookbook, Le Cuisinier Francois was published in 1651, more than 60 recipes featured truffles.

The golden age of truffles was the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They enjoyed a heightened appreciation and a greater supply than at any other time in history. Recipes of the time called for "a dozen fine black truffles".

Alas, truffle production fell from a high of 1800 tons in 1902 to a mere 200 tons in 2008. Along with scarcity comes high prices. White truffles now command, in 2009, between $2000 and $4400 per kilogram and Perigord black truffles sell for between $1000 and $2000. There is however hope on the horizon for the frugal gourmet. The scale of cultivation of truffles world wide will eventually cause the price of truffles to drop dramatically, at least down into the realm of caviar and crab.

Truffle recipes

An array of good, fresh truffle recipes may be found at Vervacious, Fresh truffles and Fancy Food. These recipes generally call for ½ to 1 ounce of truffles per person, translating to $30 to $60 per person for the truffle ingredients. A feast of truffles and vegetables may be found at the World Wide Gourmet. A good introduction to truffle taste may be truffle butter, described here and available for purchase here, if you are a U.S. resident

Sources: