Because they are such a mystery, and intersect various of our interests in these pages, we feel compelled to share this:
Has a Start-Up Found the Secret to Farming the Elusive Truffle?
The American Truffle Company has a new technique that it says can expand the range of the Perigord truffle in North America, but success is proving costly.
NAPA, Calif. — Gig the truffle dog zigzags with her nose to the ground among hundreds of oak and filbert trees. Her goal is to sniff out the Perigord truffle, a fungus so prized by chefs it is called the diamond in the kitchen.
This is a training run: Gig is looking for — and eventually finds — a bit of truffle planted by her owner, Alyson Hart, at the behest of the vineyard’s owner, Robert Sinskey. Soon, Mr. Sinskey hopes, the English shepherd will be searching for the real underground McCoy.
Mr. Sinskey is a winemaker who is branching out into a new field: truffle growing. It can be a challenging business. Truffles, which grow underground among the roots of certain trees, are famously difficult to domesticate, and then require trained animals like Gig to find them by scent. Once unearthed, they lose flavor quickly.
Yet they foster deep devotion. Black Perigords can sell for anywhere from $600 to $1,200 a pound, depending on the season. Only white truffles, which have eluded domestication entirely, are more prized and expensive.
There are some large Perigord farms in Europe, New Zealand and Australia, but things haven’t gone quite as well in the United States. A few years ago, a successful truffière (truffle farm) in Tennessee was badly damaged by a filbert-tree blight. Since the 1970s, millions of dollars have been invested, and lost, by people who have tried to cultivate high-end truffles in America.
Mr. Sinskey, who has planted 588 trees that he hopes will eventually bear fragrant and valuable black truffles, watched Gig work. He acknowledged the risk of his plan: “It’s more the romance right now.”
Five years ago, Mr. Sinskey became a client of the American Truffle Company, which sells trees that have been inoculated with the truffle fungus. The company is the brainchild of Robert Chang, a former Yahoo executive, and Paul Thomas, a British mycologist (a biologist who studies fungi).
Their idea is to expand the range of the truffle in North America using a proprietary new technique, developed by Dr. Thomas, for inoculating the roots of trees to more reliably grow the fungus. Dr. Thomas declined to describe his method, but said that it had been successful in other foreign markets, including Macedonia, England and Wales.
In the United States, the company has lined up a few prominent grower-partners over the last several years, including top regional vineyards like the Robert Sinskey Vineyards, Peju Province and the Rocca Family Vineyards.
Another early adopter here is Paul Otellini, who retired as chief executive of Intel a couple of years ago. He and his wife, Sandy, are partners with the American Truffle Company and planted 1,500 to 2,000 nut and oak trees in 2011. “The demand seems very solid,” Mr. Otellini said.
The company has also planted orchards in Sonoma and in North Carolina, Alabama, and Ontario. This winter, farms in Kentucky and New Jersey will plant trees. But the company has focused much of its efforts on Napa Valley, with its constellation of high-end vineyard owners, chefs and other foodies.
One of the largest Perigord producers in the world is the Truffle and Wine Company, in the fertile valley of Manjimup in Western Australia. The company produces about seven tons of highly acclaimed winter truffles a year. It’s a model for what Mr. Chang, 45, and Dr. Thomas, 35, hope to achieve in Napa: a farm that grows a combination of wine grapes and truffles.
Each acre of truffle orchard can produce 30 to 50 pounds or more of Perigords and can earn seven times or more what an acre of wine grapes does. But it takes a minimum of five years for truffles to begin emerging after the trees are planted, and seven to 11 years to achieve peak production.
Truffles are fungi that process nutrients for trees in exchange for sugars secreted by the roots. They start out covering the roots as a glove covers fingers, and send threads into the soil that form larger masses that become truffles. Perigord truffles — black, knobby and redolent — are found a few inches underground and can range from as small as marbles to as large as softballs. Also called black truffles or winter truffles, they sell for top dollar at the peak of the season, wintertime, when the flavor is richest.
Only the white Alba truffle, which grows wild in Italy and has so far defied domestication, fetches more — up to $2,000 to $3,000 a pound. In 2014, a four-pound-plus white truffle sold at a Sotheby’s auction for more than $61,000 for its unusual size as well as its flavor. Another high-end variety, Burgundy truffles, bring $300 to $600 a pound, but trees produce two or three times as many of them. The prized black truffles once grew only in the Perigord region of France. But France figured out how to domesticate them 40 years ago. Now most French Perigords are farmed and are no longer gathered wild.
As a child, Dr. Thomas loved foraging for nuts and berries at his Manchester, England, home, and was particularly entranced by fungus. “Mushrooms are so bizarre — they appear for a few days, and then they’re gone — and it quite fascinated me,” he said. He learned about truffles while studying the methods that plants use to send messages to one another, called signaling. Mychorrizae (the technical name for the fungus) assist in plant-to-plant communication. “It was like James Cameron’s ‘Avatar,’ here on Earth,” he said, referring to the sci-fi movie.
“These plants are talking to each other, sharing information and sharing resources through these fungus connections,” Dr. Thomas said. “I became obsessed.”…
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