Cultivating a Mystique
01-03-06 Seleccionado por: Ali Pebre
By Jane Black
Published: March 1, 2006
The warehouse is part of the Arotz truffle plantation, the world's largest. On more than 1,500 acres of land, with 150,000 truffle-producing trees, the company harvests several tons of truffles a year, according to the managing director, José Barbarin. Though he won't disclose its exact production figures, he estimates that it can make up 15 to 25 percent of the global supply, depending on world weather conditions.
During peak truffle season, which spans January to March, thousands of truffles arrive each day at the warehouse here in Navaleno. Every truffle is cleaned, weighed, labeled and vacuum-packed. Shipments to restaurants and food processors take place within 24 hours to ensure freshness.
It doesn't exactly fit most people's romantic image of how truffles are gathered: the bereted Frenchman trundling through the woods with his trusty dog. Indeed, it's hard to find New York restaurateurs or importers who say their truffles are cultivated, not wild.
The reality, however, is becoming increasingly difficult to deny. The truffle in your aromatic risotto may well be farmed.
"Some restaurants and traders want to keep the myth alive because truffles have such a mystique," said Heidi Stanvick, owner of Vervacious, a company that sells cultivated black truffles from Europe to New England restaurants and online.
After all, would the allure be the same if people knew that truffles were grown on a farm just like potatoes?
Numbers in the notoriously secretive business are difficult to track, but Michel Courvoisier, president of the French Federation of Truffle Growers, said 80 to 90 percent of French truffles are now cultivated. And throughout Europe — from Croatia to Sweden — small growers are buying and planting seedlings whose roots are treated with truffle spores. Wealthier farmers use high-tech growing and processing methods as Arotz does. Others go the old-fashioned route, feeding their inoculated trees with a powder of ground truffles. Daniel Bertolin, president of the truffle association in Teruel, Spain, makes his feed in the kitchen blender with truffles past their peak.
About 100 truffle farms have been started in New Zealand over the last decade and the trend is catching on in the United States, where as many as 30,000 truffle trees are planted annually, according to Charles Lefevre, an Oregon mycologist. The company Mr. Lefevre runs, New World Truffieres, began selling trees inoculated with truffles four years ago to farmers and, increasingly, to notable vineyards like Turley Wine Cellars. On the last weekend in January, more than 400 people attended tastings, cooking demonstrations and truffle cultivation workshops with European experts at the first Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene, where the company is based.
The rise of truffle farming is a matter of supply and demand. Several years of drought combined with a century-long reduction in woodlands in areas of Europe where truffles grow naturally have sharply reduced wild production. The French federation, one of the only consistent record keepers, estimates that annual production in France was 675 tons in the late 19th century. Today, it rarely exceeds 35 tons a year, wild and cultivated. This, just as increased affluence and the spread of formerly epicurean tastes into the mainstream have swelled demand. Modern transportation has also made it possible to deliver truffles around the world. (It has also made it possible for a rampant trade in Chinese truffles, Tuber indicum, which look like black truffles, or Tuber melanosporum, but lack their signature aroma and flavor, and sell for a fraction of the price.)
"There's no better time to get into the business," said Gareth Renowden, a grower who is president of the New Zealand Truffle Association.
Primitive truffle farms began in France almost 150 years ago. The first truffle trees were planted there in the early 1800's by Joseph Talon in woods known as good truffle-hunting grounds outside his village in the Luberon Valley. His logic: already-present truffle spores would infect the new saplings. The technique worked but didn't take off until 1868, after phylloxera, an insect that feeds on grapevine roots, devastated France's vineyards. Peasants in search of a new crop mimicked Talon and planted forests of oak, ushering in France's golden age of truffles.
Back then, truffle lore says, black truffles were as common as tomatoes are today, making it possible for great chefs like Escoffier to create recipes like salade Jockey-Club, which calls for equal parts asparagus, truffles and chicken.
In the 20th century, two world wars and population shifts to the cities devastated French truffle production. Then, in the 1970's, French scientists patented a method to coax the fungus and tree roots to live together symbiotically — the fungus gives the roots more surface area to obtain nutrients from the soil; the roots deliver sugar to the fungus so it can produce truffles.
The exact method is kept under wraps. But growers say it is achieved by precisely controlling the environmental factors to which the tree and the truffle are exposed, including, among others, temperature, light, moisture, nutrients and soil aeration.
France has nearly 25,000 acres of productive truffle plantations, according to the French truffle federation. Within the last decade, 17,000 more acres have been planted but have yet to produce truffles, since trees take 8 to 10 years to bear fruit.
When and why truffles proliferate remains a mystery. While mycologists have observed that truffles need alkaline soil, periodic heavy doses of rain and temperatures that do not dip below 21 degrees, the truffle's growth patterns have made research difficult.
Despite such uncertainty, the high price of black truffles has piqued interest around the globe. The only luxury food products that cost more are caviar and the rarer white truffle, which no one has successfully farmed. And that means even a small black truffle farm can turn a tidy profit. The most productive New Zealand truffle plantation last year harvested the equivalent of 275 pounds per acre, according to Dr. Ian Hall, the mycologist whose technology was used to infect the farm's trees. Even at wholesale prices ($800 per pound) that's equivalent to $220,000 per acre versus around $135 an acre for wheat.
No wonder then that small farmers are rushing to get a piece of the action. In Spain, membership in the Teruel truffle association has skyrocketed from 12 to nearly 150 members since 1997. About 78 percent of truffle orchard owners already have or are planning to expand the amount of land they dedicate to truffles, according to a 2002 study on the socioeconomic impact of truffle cultivation on rural Spain.
Whether cultivated truffles taste as good as wild, as many growers say, is a matter of debate. But they definitely have advantages.
Truffles plucked from cultivated soil tend to grow into more uniform spheres because they can swell without being squeezed by lumpy dirt or stones. While chefs claim that there's nothing like the rich aroma of a good wild truffle, they also favor round truffles because there is less waste. Deep grooves can trap dirt and unsightly knobs must be cut off before the truffle can be presented and shaved tableside.
Perhaps most important for American truffle farmers, truffles' pungent scent begins to fade within 48 hours, giving local entrepreneurs an edge. Franklin Garland, who produced his first truffle in Hillsborough, N.C., in 1993, supplies mid-Atlantic restaurants with next-day service. And according to Mr. Lefevre, "the day is not far off when truffles harvested in Napa in the afternoon will be served the same evening in San Francisco." It can take three days or more for truffles to arrive from Europe.
Of course, even Mr. Lefevre readily admits that there are barriers to true industrialization. For one, it's hard to scale a business that relies on trained dogs and skilled handlers who are only needed on a seasonal basis. Even at a plantation the size of Arotz, a knowledgeable truffle hunter must accompany one of its 17 dogs to each tree and dig every truffle by hand. Pick too early and they will lack that intoxicating fragrance of damp leaves, musk and fresh winter nights. Pick too late and the truffle may go soft or rot before it reaches a diner's plate.
Moreover, starting a truffle farm is a long-term investment with huge risks. Even if, after a decade of incubation, the truffles grow at all, the crop risks being plundered by thieves: in France and Italy, gangs equipped with wire cutters and night-vision goggles have systematically raided farms, as well as kidnapped or poisoned prized truffle dogs.
"The people having great success are not talking about it and who can blame them?" Mr. Lefevre said. "Think of it like having $20 bills scattered thick all over the ground of your orchard. If I had a place like that, I probably wouldn't want other people to know about it either."
One of the few truffle farmers who is happy to talk about his dreams is Larry Turley. In 2004, Mr. Turley, who grew up on a Tennessee farm and went on to found Turley Wine Cellars in St. Helena, planted 2,000 trees in Templeton, Calif., an area well-known for its naturally truffle-friendly alkaline soil.
"There's no guarantee it will work," Mr. Turley said. "But when I found out that Victorians had banned truffles because they believed it inflamed the passions, I said, 'I'm in.' "
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