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The Fungus Among Us

by Brian Clarey

TRUFFLES GROW IN THE NC HEARTLAND

A cross-section of a French black Perigordtruffle reveals a marbledcountenance with a texture somewhere between a nut and an apple.

Father and son Johnand Tom Osborne from Wilmington consider the truffle as a long-terminvestment. INSET: The brulee of barren earth around this filbert treeindicates subterranean fungal activity.

Garland Truffles 3020 Ode Turner Road, Hillsborough 919.732.3041; w w w.garlandtruffles.com

What you’ve experiencedis a taste of the French black Perigord truffle, those noble fungi,mystical and rare. They flower in darkness. They flourish in secrecy.They are one of the most valuable commodities in the world, commanding$800 a pound or $100 an ounce on the open market. A good one, uncooked,combines the deep flavor of a nut and the crispness of an apple. Butgood black winter truffles are like nothing else. like nothing else.

Theyare rare because for centuries the only place they grew was thePerigord region in the southwest of France, among the roots of oaks inthe alkaline, limestone-rich soil.

They are coveted because the metaphysical things they can do to a dish are undeniable.

Buthere in Franklin Garland’s Hillsborough living room, you can’t escapethem. He’s passing out photos of them, casting the image of the Frenchblack Perigord truffle onto a projection screen — dark and foreboding,like shrunken heads or giant, vile berries. On his glass-topped coffeetable, next to a framed dollar bill that’s been folded to look like amushroom, sits a pound of good butter laced heavily with the fungus; adollop smeared on a slice of fine baguette induces an approximation ofbliss. And there’s another couple of them over yonder on the kitchencounter, waiting to be diced and folded into a sauce, dropped into anomelet.

Garland’sgot French black Perigord truffles coming out of his ears, in a mannerof speaking. And if you listen to the pitch long enough, you start tothink that you can too — all you’ll need is some land in a sympatheticgrowing climate, enough agricultural savvy to maintain a crop and a fewtrees capable of supporting the fungi, which it just so happens Garlandcan sell you for a reasonable price.

It’spossible, he’ll tell you, because he’s done it — is, in fact, doing itright here in the North Carolina heartland. It took almost 15 years oftrial and error, but Franklin Garland has captured magic in the redclay soil.

The truffle is a fungus, like a mushroom, except it grows underground.

Thereare infinite varieties, and all of them are edible, but not alltruffles are created equally. There are white truffles and blacktruffles, truffles indigenous to North America and Asia, fragranttruffles, mild truffles and truffles that don’t taste like much ofanything at all. The Chinese black truffle, for example, is one Garlandcalls an “imposter” and “a scourge.” The flavor is nonexistent, whichis why they go for about $15 an ounce. The French black Perigordtruffle, which Garland has successfully cultivated, has gone for about$800 a pound, or $100 an ounce, for about five years now.

Alltruffles benefit from a symbiotic relationship with trees, morespecifically the roots of certain trees that can survive in soil with ahigh alkaline content and mild — but not too mild — winters.

Theway it works in nature is that a truffle is consumed by an animal,which drops the spoor as waste. Some of the spoor eventually makes itdown through the soil to the tree roots where it germinates and beginsto grow.

Thetruffle metabolizes minerals from the nutrient-poor soil and feeds itto the tree. The tree in turn supplies a rich store of polysaccharidesduring the dormant phase of its cycle upon which the fungus feeds.

Humanshave been cultivating truffles for about 200 years, but they’ve beenprized as a delicacy throughout our history, written about by poets andphilosophers, depicted in art and song for centuries. The ancientGreeks believed they were the product of lightning striking the ground,creating this bit of delicious fruit from soil and heat. The RomanCatholic Church thought them evil, black and scary looking, emergingfrom the earth with their tantalizing funk. French revolutionariesrebelled for, among other reasons, access to what they called the“diamond of the table.”

In the old days they hunted them with pigs — humans and wild boars are the only animals known to ingest them, and pigs have an olfactory sense keen enough to detect them where they grow.

Garland tells the tale in his living room, Power Point images clicking off on the projection screen.

Truffles,he says, are reputed to be an aphrodisiac, sharing a similar scentprofile to a pheremone exuded by wild male boars and also to aningredient in our own saliva.

“We’re so tuned out to our own body odors that we’re not aware of it,” he says.

Theflavor is said to awaken something primal in our psyches, he says,something sexual, and its effect lingers long enough that sometimes youcan still taste truffles days after eating them. He’s not buying intothe legend, though.

“Ifyou take someone out to dinner and you buy them truffles, you betterget lucky afterwards,” he says. “A two-karat diamond ring is anaphrodisiac too.”

CLOCKWISE FROMABOVE: Franklin Garland “wines and dines” guests to his truffle orchardwith truffle omeletes and asparags with truffled Hollandaise sauce.

Garland’s living roomopens into his kitchen, a working foor-preparation laboratory where theworld’s finest ingredient is always on the menu. On one counter, amicroscope reveals the mycorrhizae stage of fungal development, wherethe burgeoning truffle looks, Garland says, like a little corn dog.

Atopa butcher-block island at the center of this room sits a few Perigordtruffles diced down into a pile; Garland whips eggs and pours them intothree castiron skillets that go on the stovetop. His wife Betty popscorks on champagne and red wine, pours them out.

Sixagritourists gather at the edge of the room: a couple writers, atagalong and three genuine leads — investors with land, vision andenough disposable income, at least, to spring $300 for a look at thisbusiness opportunity.

Themath is there: In France they’re getting up to 200 pounds of trufflesper orchard acre per year. Here in the mid-Atlantic region of NorthAmerica — Garland says truffles are currently growing from Georgia toPennsylvania — acres are producing slightly less, but that in a smallMebane orchard he has already broken the 200 pounds per acre mark.

Garlandsells the trees — already inoculated with the fungus and immune fromtree rot — for about $20 per, but his proven method for trufflecultivation runs a bit more: $10,000, or free with a 250-tree order.

Johnand Tom Osborne, a father and son from Wilmington, seriously considerthe proposition. They have some family land that was used for cottonback in the 1700s, maybe four acres, and they see potential in thetruffle market, though they’re also mulling another proposition, forshellfish.

Garland’sproof is in the omelet, or maybe the truffled hollandaise sauce, orperhaps the truffle ice cream. But even those with taste buds dumb asdoorknobs can appreciate Garland’s place in truffle history: He was thefirst to successfully cultivate French black Perigord truffles in NorthAmerica.

The storygoes way back to 1978, when Garland began experimenting on hisHillsborough land with filbert and oak trees from France. The treeswent into the ground during the waning days of the Carteradministration, and grew through eight years of Reagan and a few withBush 41, and still no truffles.

Garlandsays that the French truffle companies he dealt with were less thanforthcoming about the specificities of growing the fungus. He had amajor breakthrough around 1990, when he scraped the dirt off trufflesfrom France and analyzed it for mineral content and pH balance. In1992, he produced the very first commercially grown North Americantruffle crop for sale on an already booming market.

“Weused to sell all our truffles to Emeril [Lagasse],” Garland says. Bettyhandles the business end, selling product to restaurants and purveyorsthe world over, as well as to truffle brokers in New York City whoBetty says will “take 1,000 pounds a week if we can get them.”

“The market price is still commanded by Europe,” Garland says. “It’s still in its infancy here.”

Theomeletes get filled with truffles, cheese and cream, get quartered andplated with bunches of asparagus, graced with the truffled hollandaise.Amid much clinking of china and cutlery, plates empty at the lunchtable and the guests sit back and take in the fungal buzz while Garlandrecounts the joys of the truffle hunt.

Hedoesn’t use pigs because, he says, dogs do the job just fine. Trainthem with fresh truffles, he says, which have a more potent smell, anduse the word “truffles” a lot. After the dog gets the smell, put oneinside a paper sack and hide it in the orchard. When the dog finds it,he says, “reward him with something he only gets when he findstruffles.”

Garland says Labs do a good job, and he used a standard poodle for years.

When his dogs got too old for the hunt he trained a neighbor’s dog, a beagle

named Peedee, to snifftruffles out. The hunts for winter truffles begin some time inDecember, he says, and it’s the most exciting part of the venture.

He recalls the thrill of pulling an eight-ounce truffle from the ground. “It’s like finding a piece of gold out there.”

Afterpolishing off a round of truffle ice cream popsicles with gusto, thecrew piles into cars and heads west to Mebane, where under Garland’stutelage gentleman farmer Charles Bradley is gradually transforming hisfield into a truffle orchard.

Truffle dogs scamper amongst the oaks and filberts as Bradley and Garland squat by the trunks of trees and study the soil.

Garlandpoints out the brulee, the ring of barren earth that surrounds eachtree, evidence of subterranean activity a couple inches down. Trufflesleach all nutrients from the soil, to the detriment of anything elsethat tries to take hold.

TheRoman Catholic Church used the brulee as evidence that truffles werethe fruit of the devil, but to Garland it is the one tangible clue inwhat is otherwise an act of faith.

Aftertaming the French black Perigord truffle, Garland has set his sites oneven more elusive game: the Italian white truffle, which has beencultivated successfully in the Italian Piedmont and can go for as highas $200 an ounce.

In European restaurants, he says, waiters will grate some over your dinner for 10 Euro a pass.

He’s thinking they’ll grow on olive trees, so he’s got some in his greenhouse getting ready for spring.

“I’mgiving it a shot,” he says. He points out promising truffle grounds toBradley as the two walk the grounds; Peedee noses at the tree trunksand occasionally crunches a filbert.

Like Garland, Bradley lets the tiny, succulent acorn-like nuts fall to the ground.

“You get 80 cents a pound for them, 800 for the truffles,” Garland explains.

“They fall to the ground.”

Once a year, he says, he and Betty will gather a bushel or so and make Christmas gifts of them.

“The filberts I give away,” Garland says. “The truffles I keep.”

TRUFFLED WHITE BEANS

Ingredients:

= 2/3 pound shelled cannellini beans = salt = 3 ounces black truffles, scrubbed =1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil =1/2 pound pancetta =pepper

Directions:

Cook the beans for fiveminutes in a pot of boiling water. Drain. Cover with cold water, addsalt, return to gentle boil and cook until nearly tender, about 45minutes. Meanwhile, grate 2/3 of the truffles. Drain the beans,reserving half of the cooking water. Add the olive oil, gratedtruffles, pancetta and pepper. Cook 10 minutes or until tender. Slicethe remaining truffles with a truffle slicer. Serve the beans hot,garnished with the truffle slices. Serves four.

AT FIRST, THE TASTE IS SUBTLE, WOODSY AND NUT-LIKE. WORK IT INYOUR MOUTH A BIT AND THE FLAVOR BLOOMS, RIPENS LIKE A PERFECT PLUM OR AFINE EAR OF CORN. YOU FEEL IT IN YOUR SINUS CAVITY — STILL SUBTLE, MOREOF AN ESSENCE THEN A FLAVOR — AND DEEP IN YOUR MEDULLA OBLONGATA AT THEBASE OF YOUR BRAIN. THE TASTE EFFUSES INTO SOMETHING TRANSCENDENT, AFEELING OF WELL BEING, AN AFTERGLOW. AND IF YOU DIDN’T KNOW YOU WEREINGESTING THEM YOU MIGHT JUST LOOK AT YOUR HOST AND SAY, “WHAT THE HELLWAS IN THOSE EGGS?”

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