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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

You trufflin' fool!

Mmmm, truffles...
  • Lee Clarke, Wiki Commons
  • Mmmm, truffles...

Truffles are weird. And delicious. And exorbitantly expensive. Pigs snort around in the dirt for hours at a time trying to find them and gobble them up. Humans are much more sensible about it—we just pay $800 to get our hands on a pound of 'em.

NPR recently ran a story on truffles, exploring the advent of specialized orchards in the U.S.

So, it must be clarified that not all truffles are $800 per pound. That price applies to the black Perigord variety, which is widely considered the crown jewel of the truffle family. These bad boys are small and dark brown (vaguely resembling animal feces) and are primarily grown in France. However, a few Perigord truffle orchards have cropped up not too far from here. Appalachian soil holds potential for truffle cultivation, and farmers have set up camp in places like Tennessee and North Carolina.

But why only a few orchards, you ask? Why aren't more people cashing in? Well, they are. They just haven't succeeded yet. There are probably upward of 200 orchards in the U.S. The problem is, it takes a few years for truffles to even start growing. YEARS. That means there are a whole bunch of farmers waiting with bated breath. So, the only ones doing the literal and figurative reaping right now are the vanguards who started this trend a few years back.

Oh, and also, it's extremely difficult. The AJC ran a story describing the process in detail. It involves digging up trees and looking for cryptic signals in the soil and making your dog sniff around. Really. It doesn't even sound like the type of thing that could happen in this century.

But of course, there are those who are passionate about truffles and willing to take the pains to cultivate them. Just a couple weekends ago, from Feb. 23-25, a few of these experts gathered up in Asheville for the National Truffle Fest. Guests tasted culinary creations that featured truffles as an ingredient and sampled several different varieties, including the lusted-after Perigord.

But if you're stuck around here, you probably haven't gotten the chance to taste a fresh truffle recently—or ever. As noted in the AJC story, most truffle oil doesn't ever come into contact with real truffles! That stuff is good, but flat-out synthetic. Some restaurants, like Sotto Sotto, serve truffle specials when they are in season. And you can occasionally get sliced or whole truffles at Whole Foods. But other than that...you might just have to wait 10 years for the next harvest.

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