The Underground Truffle Trail
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Decadence. Sex. Bliss. This is what I’m thinking of one recent morning before my rendezvous with Virginia-born Barry Maiden, chef-owner of Hungry Mother, who, hunk of bacon in hand, ushers me through the back door of his Cambridge kitchen and over to the bar. We’ve gotten together not for something illicit, but to talk about truffles, those earthy, intoxicating tubers that offer a fleeting moment of musty carnal pleasure for an unbearably high price.
|Barry Maiden preparing truffles over Carolina gold rice and sweet scallops|
"The Best Truffles Outside of France"
Maiden is onto something big: He’s discovered a source for black truffles—not in Périgord or Umbria, where many of these highly delectable edibles are farmed, but right here in the US. Few chefs in America have access to, let alone know about, this secret stash of Tuber melanosporum that arrives in December from a mushroom expert in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains named Thomas Michaels, who has a PhD in plant pathology and owns Tennessee Truffle. He and Tom Leonard, owner of Leonard’s Truffiere, also in Tennessee, are the only two major commercial purveyors of black truffles, also known as black diamonds, in the United States.
“I’d heard about Tennessee Truffle from my southern connections, who knew I’d be interested in them because of their quality, their link to my home region, as well as my interest in local and sustainable produce. These are the best truffles outside of France,” says Maiden, recalling his first shipment back in 2008. “They came by FedEx, humbly packaged in a Styrofoam box with ice packs. I’d ordered about a quarter of a pound, which amounts to three or four decent-size truffles. When I opened the package the whole restaurant immediately filled with the aroma, that smell of dirt, clay, and damp leaves, like walking in the woods—like home.” Maiden immediately cut into one of the truffles, sliced off a thin round, and placed it on his tongue, like a communion wafer. “A lot of a truffle’s appeal is the aroma. But this one had great flavor. It tasted a little spicy, a little earthy, and had just the right texture—firm but still creamy, not slimy or too dry, just the way a fresh mushroom should be.”
Truffle is a very broad term. For many people, the word suggests a rich chocolate candy. In reality, truffles are a kind of underground mushroom. Roundish and with no stems, they grow along a web of fungi filaments around the roots of trees, mainly hazelnut and oak. According to the North American Truffling Society, hundreds of different truffles grow wild in this country (excluding the Tuber melanosporum) and vary in color, size, shape, and perfume. Because truffles rarely see the light of day, they rely on animals (and humans and their dogs) to dig them up and spread their spores. The truffles do this by sending up a luscious, irresistible odor that becomes more and more potent as they mature.
“The ripening season lasts three months—December through February,” says Michaels of Tennessee Truffle, referring to his black diamonds. “In the early part of the season the aroma is lighter, floral and fruity. Toward the end of the season, around Valentine’s Day, the ivory marbling in the truffle darkens and the smell is more earthy and musky.” While Michaels can’t quantify it, he knows from years of observation and experience that women far prefer the late-season truffles. “They go wild over them,” he says, chuckling. “There is a male pig pheromone, androstenone, that the truffle produces,” he adds, and that could explain the magnetism.