Tasty Truffles: More Than Just a Mushroom
They’re more than just a mushroom—they’re truffles! These elusive fungi have been gaining popularity among the gourmet sector for years, and now many connoisseurs are branching out into growing their own.
Truffles are underground mushrooms that grow between the roots of trees. North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services Marketing Specialist Nick Augostini says the main difference between truffles and standard mushrooms is that “mushrooms grow above ground in the dark, and truffles grow underground near tree roots.”
Orange County Farm Bureau Member Franklin Garland was first introduced to truffles through an article he read in the Wall Street Journal in 1979. Not convinced that truffles even existed, he was interested enough to do his own research. The results yielded a love for the delicacy and a career for Garland.
“I thought it was a hoax,” Garland says. He inquired about the truffles from a local vendor and was wined and dined and told all about the business, but still had never actually tasted one. “They did a convincing enough presentation that I decided to go to France to see if they were real,” Garland says. “I tried them for the first time and fell in love.”
Truffles have a unique taste that can’t be compared to any other food. They also have a very distinct aroma that is part of their appeal. “They have an intoxicating aroma, similar to a seductive perfume. For many people they’re addictive,” Garland says.
By 1980, Garland planted his first tree stand to begin growing his own truffles.
Garland describes the truffle to tree relationship as a symbiotic one. “It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. They help each other grow. The fungus encases the roots and helps feed the tree, and the tree helps feed the roots, which grows the fungus.”
Truffles grow best on certain types of tree roots, in particular hazelnuts and filberts. Garland notes that it is possible to get a nut harvest from the trees, but the harvests will be small because the focus is on the root system for the truffles. “You want to have healthy trees to promote a healthy root system, instead of the other way around.”
Truffles are commonly grown in North Carolina because of the state’s moderate climate and adequate soil. Most Mid-Atlantic states are ideal because the trees require distinct seasons, which includes 90 days of dormancy, but because the harvest season is from December to February, the ground can’t be frozen or covered in snow for extended periods of time.
Additionally, truffles grow best in well-drained soil that is not nutrient rich and has a high pH. It was initially thought that truffles grew best in poor soils, but through research, it was determined that it is not the quality of the soil that helps them thrive, but the pH. They typically grow best in soils of around a pH of 8.
Garland notes that the process of growing truffles isn’t difficult, but it is work and does require a commitment. “You don’t just plant trees and a few years later have truffles,” he says. “It’s an agricultural crop and it’s farming. We encourage people who are interested in growing truffles to have a handle on farming, or at least intensive gardening.”
While Garland says that truffles are not easy money, they certainly can wield a hefty price tag. On average, a pound of truffles will sell for $800. Many brokers will even buy truffles that are less than perfect for a slightly lower price so they can reuse the spores.
Truffle growers are rarely in short supply of buyers, though. Garland says he’s seen the request for truffles skyrocket in past years. “When we were first getting started in the mid ’90s, Emeril was just getting started too, and he bought all of our truffles, which was about 50 pounds a year. Now, the demand is 500 to 1,000 pounds per week, and that’s unsolicited.