The Underground Truffle Trail
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|FROM TOP: Truffles over Nantucket bay scallops at American Seasons; Margate layers truffles over hamachi at Clink.|
The Truffle Tree Giveth
Michaels got his start in truffles back in 1977, when he adapted the French technique for coating sapling roots in black truffle spores at Oregon State University as part of his doctorate thesis, resulting in America’s first truffle-producing tree. Years later, he moved to eastern Tennessee, which has a terroir similar to that of France’s Périgord truffle region: well-drained soil, enough rainfall each year, and moderate summers and winters. In 1999 Michaels planted 100 hazelnut trees coated with the black truffle spore and then kept his fingers crossed for eight years, since truffle-inoculated trees—if they’re going to produce any truffles at all—won’t do so for approximately seven to 10 years. Michaels struck gold in 2007, and harvested enough truffles to sell commercially to chefs like Maiden.
Tony Maws, chef and proprietor of Craigie on Main, is also privy to Michaels’ Tennessee black diamonds. “When I first saw them I said, ‘This is the real deal,’” explains Maws. “They were very good and extremely fresh, because they were picked one day and arrived the next. There is no middleman. I am talking and dealing with Tom [Michaels] directly.”
Most of the Tuber melanosporum shipped in from overseas go through several handlers, thus extending the time from soil to plate by several days. As a result, the truffles’ scent begins to fade and the fruit dries out. For the diner, the taste can be pure disappointment instead of enchantment.
Truffles are a fickle, unpredictable product of nature. Tom Leonard, the second major commercial black truffle grower in America, knows this all too well. A farmer at heart and a registered nurse by day, he harvested his first commercial batch in 2009. “I nearly gave up because I wasn’t sure they would produce,” he says, referring to the truffle trees he planted 10 years before. “This year, the trees are producing, but the chipmunks and squirrels are eating them.”
One of the largest truffle tree producers in the country, Charles Lefevre of New World Truffieres in Oregon, believes the industry will take off. “We know we can do it and do it well,” says Lefevre, referring to the cultivation of the Tuber melanosporum in America. “There are a large number of orchards poised to produce and, although we don’t know if they will yield for sure, in 20 years I easily can see domestic truffle production meeting or exceeding the amounts we import from Europe.”
Truffles fetch $1,000 a pound for European Tuber melanosporum and $800 a pound for the Tennessee version. Yet to enjoy a fresh truffle is a multisensory experience that transcends the mushroom’s aroma and taste. On my honeymoon near Alba many Octobers ago, I first sampled Italian white truffles (Tuber magnatum) shaved over a plate of warm gnocchi drenched in cream. It was cold and rainy outside. The room was warm, the wine flowing, and everyone was indulging in the season’s “it” ingredient. First came the giddy anticipation of the dish, followed by the drama at the table—the snowfall of truffles floating down over the warm gnocchi, the bewitching scent rising from the plate, and finally the raw moment of gustatory pleasure.