Domestic bliss: American truffles

Cavan Patterson, co-owner of Lawrenceville's Wild Purveyors, returned to his store late on Dec. 20 from a two-day Pennsylvania road trip. His 16-foot refrigerated truck was packed with artisan-produced meat, cheese and mushrooms he bought from small Pennsylvania farms and producers with whom he has personal relationships.

But he couldn't wait to open a package waiting for him from a more distant farmer he'd only spoken with on the phone. Inside the box was a prize worth bending the rules for: Tuber melanosporum, a delicacy more commonly known as Perigord truffles.

A truffle isn't just any ordinary fungus. Most mushrooms display their spores for the entire world to see with a visible, dramatic cap. Truffles, however, grow underground in symbiotic relationships with tree roots -- hazelnut and oak trees, in the case of Perigords. So, in order to widely disperse its spores like its above-ground brethren, a truffle needs to be eaten and then eliminated. Since they grow underground, this creates a problem for the truffle -- and an opportunity for the epicure.

The truffle emits a powerful odor that allows animals to find it. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that skunks -- one of nature's most famous odor producers -- also are one of the largest consumers of truffles.

The Perigord has what food fanatics consider the most desirable aroma in the truffle family. A Perigord smells of deep earth, forest floor, and lusty abandon. This truffle tastes milder and sweeter than it smells; although it adds a mushroominess to a dish, the deep aroma is what makes it so sought after.

While most Perigords being sold now during truffle season -- at retail prices around $1,600 a pound -- still are from Europe, there are truffles that grow in the United States. You even can find some wild ones near Pittsburgh. For example, Mr. Patterson says he and his brother Tom found what they believe to be Burgundy truffles on a foraging trip in West Virginia. But Burgundy truffles are considered second-tier truffles -- aromatic and tasty, but not divine.

"The varieties that we have found around here are not nearly as aromatic and wonderful as the Tuber melanosporum," said Mr. Patterson.

In order to get prized Perigord truffles, American chefs have long been at the mercy of a small group of European distributors selling Perigords foraged in France and Italy. The price was set overseas, and only the most prestigious restaurants had access to the creme de la creme of the truffle harvest.

The spores of change were planted in 1979 when Franklin Garland, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University, planted an experimental orchard of trees inoculated in France with T. melanosporum spores in Hillsborough, N.C.

The Piedmont region was the perfect location for his experiment. The climate and land are similar to that of the prized European truffle-growing regions: wet springs; warm, dry summers; cool, rainy winters; and highly alkaline soil.

Still, Mr. Garland's orchard languished for years. "The cultivation process is incredibly in-depth. It's not just planting trees," said Mr. Patterson.

Mr. Garland persevered, and, after years of experimentation, harvested a small crop of Perigord truffles from his orchard in 1992. Others slowly followed his lead, including the pioneering researcher Tom Michaels, who is widely credited with spurring American truffle farmers forward with his scientific approach to cultivation.

Still, it's a tough go. The trees need a lot of care and attention to establish themselves, and there's a high rate of failure. To make matters worse, even if a farmer is successful, it takes seven to 10 years to grow a commercial-sized crop.

"Years ago, not too many people thought truffles could be cultivated. It takes a long time [and holds up] an investment, and it takes a certain type of person -- one that loves food and wine, and has a love of the land -- to stick with it," says Jack Ponticelli, president of the North American Truffle Growers Association.

In fact, just about the only thing that's straightforward is harvesting the truffles. Dogs -- no pigs here, they have the undesirable tendency to eat the truffles before people do -- especially the medium-small, curly-haired retriever Lagotto Romagnolo, make eager truffle hunting companions.

"I've learned a lot in the last eight years," says Mr. Ponticelli, who is beginning to eke small yields from the orchard he planted in 2004. Each year, more American Perigord truffles are arriving in the commercial market.

However, because the Southern Appalachian truffle industry still is in its infancy, yields are unpredictable. This makes it difficult for restaurants to forge a steady connection with a grower. Mr. Patterson said it took him several years to cultivate a relationship with the Garlands.

Two years ago when he tried to supply truffles, he "couldn't get anything," and last year his haul was under a pound. It might have been a small start, but Mr. Patterson fondly recalls the day he received his initial shipment.

"That was one of the coolest things ever to get them in for the first time. I still have pictures of it," he said. It also made for one particularly decadent celebration.

Mr. Patterson said that while many area chefs were skeptical that European-quality truffles could be grown so close to Pittsburgh, Justin Severino, who had just opened Cure down the block from where Wild Purveyors was building its storefront, was eager to try them.

"It was pretty much immediate. He had a plan. He made truffled lardo. Airy, and full of the scent of the truffles. It was just fantastic," Mr. Patterson said.

Soon thereafter, word was out that the Appalachian Perigords were equal in quality to European Perigords, and chefs "wanted me to give them all of them."

Happily for those chefs, Mr. Patterson's patience and persistence in establishing a relationship with the Garlands has paid off. This year, Wild Purveyors has a secure pipeline to the Appalachian truffles.

The shipment he received after a long day on the road reflects that: it's a whopping 2 1/2 pounds of truffles cultivated in North Carolina and Tennessee -- and it's the second shipment this year.

Early in the morning on the Friday after his trip, Mr. Patterson opened the refrigerated shipping container and the Wild Purveyors storefront was perfumed with the unmistakable musk of Perigord truffles.

"It's pretty intense. It smells like some good dirt," said Mr. Patterson as he posed for a few photos with his haul. The truffles were firm, irregularly shaped masses ranging in size from bouncy ball to golf ball. Their skin was rough and wrinkled, deep brown-black with a slight, diamond-like gleam. Inside, the flesh resembled marble -- shiny and veined with streaks of cream-white.

Mr. Patterson didn't have time to admire the beauty because nearly the entire shipment was spoken for before it arrived: Cure, The Porch at Schenley, Salt of the Earth, Bar Marco, Vivo Kitchen, and two Wild Purveyors customers claimed all but 6 ounces of the haul. This time, Mr. Severino ordered a full pound.

As Mr. Patterson headed to The Porch to deliver them, the car picked up the intoxicating truffle funk. "I felt like a drug dealer the first time I delivered them," he recalled. "I was rolling a cart with a cooler and a scale."

Considering that Wild Purveyors' retail price is $100 per ounce, it's easy to see how delivery can indeed resemble a drug deal. Or the transfer of precious gems.

Mr. Patterson was buzzed in through the back door of The Porch and hustled to the kitchen to meet Executive Chef Kevin Hermann. "You went big this time," Mr. Hermann said as Mr. Patterson placed the truffles -- and a jeweler's scale -- on a prep table.

"You can have your pick," Mr. Patterson said.

Mr. Hermann cites the quick turnaround from ground to plate as the chief advantage of the Appalachian truffles. Truffles have a short shelf life; within two weeks they lose their pungency. "It was hard to get good ones. They would taste good the first few days you'd have them and then they'd fizzle out," he said of his difficulty trying to source truffles while working in New York City kitchens.

The challenge for chefs is that it can take several weeks for European truffles to run the gantlet of harvest, sorting, consolidating, customs, shipment, and delivery. Mr. Patterson said the truffles in his package were still in the ground the day before they were shipped.

Mr. Hermann believes that his restaurant's casual atmosphere is a perfect way to introduce diners to truffles. Indeed, there are no extravagant truffle dinners planned for The Porch. Instead, the chef will incorporate the truffles into pasta dishes, eggs and winter salads.

"It's great to have a chance to educate my staff and guests who come in who haven't really had a chance to see them," he said, noting that many of his chefs, who hadn't prepared truffled dishes before, were learning to appreciate what they could now add to a meal.

For the moment, however, he purposefully transferred the treasures into a plastic container marked "Truffles: Do Not Touch." He'd filled the container with Arborio rice, which is the traditional way to store the spore sacs. The rice has two purposes: it wicks away moisture from the truffles, and, in turn, the truffle aroma permeates the rice.

Truffles are such a precious commodity that chefs try to stretch them as far as they can. In addition to the rice method, Mr. Patterson suggests placing eggs into a bag of truffles and leaving them overnight. "It's amazing how much flavor they pick up."

Sam DiBattista, owner and Executive Chef of Vivo Kitchen in Sewickley, has been using truffles in dishes since he started cooking professionally.

"I was born in Italy and it's part of what I do. I wanted to bring some of that Italian luxury to the restaurant," he said. That luxury will be featured on his menus through January, and he'll also stretch the truffle season by taking advantage of truffles' strong relationship with fat by making truffle-infused oils.

Mr. DiBattista, who tries to source as much food as he can from Pittsburgh-area farmers, especially likes the locality and traceability of the Garland truffles. "When Caven called me and told me he had truffles from Tennessee, I said, 'Oh my God that's great,'" he said, adding, "It's important we get them from the East Coast."

It might be more important than any of the American truffle growers realized when they started cultivating the delicacy, because Perigord truffle yields in Europe have been decreasing at alarming rates. In the early 1900s more than 1,000 tons of truffles were harvested per year in France, but by mid-century it was half that, and now annual yields hover around just 25 tons.

Although the reason for such a dramatic decline isn't certain, scientists are beginning to believe that climate change is a factor.

The authors of an article in the Nov. 27 issue of the journal "Nature Climate Change" examined summer temperature and rainfall levels for the past 40 years and concluded that there is a correlation between summers that are hotter and drier than they were in the past, and the significantly smaller (and more expensive) truffle harvests.

To make matters worse for American chefs, a recent report on "60 Minutes" revealed that fraud is ever-increasing in the truffle industry; shady suppliers are slipping lesser-quality Chinese black truffles into their shipments. And while a chef who knows her Perigords can easily sniff out the imposters, it still buoys the case to "Buy American."

Of course, there's no guarantee that the American truffle industry will fare any better. "There's a lot of stuff you have to contend with, and Mother Nature is very fickle," said Mr. Ponticelli of the North American Truffle Growers Association.

For example, he said that this season started slowly because "it just hasn't been very cold," and truffles need a burst of cold, but not freezing, air to ripen.

For his part, Mr. Patterson plans to continue his quest to supply regionally grown truffles to Pittsburgh restaurants. "It's one of those things that's so wonderfully unique and seasonal."

Restaurants supplied by Wild Purveyors -- Cure, Dish, The Porch, Salt of the Earth and Vivo -- should have truffle dishes on their menus for a few more weeks (the season generally lasts until early February).

And, for customers willing to experiment with a bit of luxury in their own home, he will have extremely limited quantities available at the Wild Purveyors store (call ahead and place an order if you want to buy more than an ounce, but he should be able to sell you lesser quantities).

He does offer a bit of caution to the novice: "It's easily wasted if you don't know what you're doing or have a good plan for it."

So while a truffled lardo a la Severino might be out of the question for a beginner, a classic omelet laced with a quarter-ounce of musk, earth and farmers' ingenuity could make for a decadent winter meal.

Hal B. Klein holds a master's in food studies from Chatham University and is a freelance writer for The Allegheny Front, Pittsburgh City Paper and other outlets:


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