Truffle Kerfluffle

Many black truffle types can be proliferated by artificial means on spore-impregnated roots in tree plantations. These days they are grown not only in France but also in Italy, the United States, Australia, and New Zealand. Spain’s Arotz truffle plantation in the Pyrenees is the world’s largest, with over 150,000 trees. It produces several tons of black truffles a year.

But, as is true of plantations everywhere, many of the truffles harvested in Spain may be black in coloration but are not of the prized melanosporum variety.

In recent decades, inferior, morphologically similar, highly competitive black truffles have infested plantations across southern Europe, raising doubts about the future of artificial spore-impregnation and the aims of some truffle producers.

Conspiracy theorists see a willful attempt to flood the world market with easy-to-grow, bland truffles that unsophisticated consumers will eventually accept as substitutes for scarce varieties. Among invader species are uncinatum (“Burgundy truffles”) and aestivum (“summer truffles”). Both are pleasant but can’t compare to melanosporum in flavor.

The truffle-grower’s bête noir, however, is called brumale, a black winter truffle that ripens from November to early March like melanosporum, looks almost identical to it, is far less flavorful and aromatic, and up to 10,000 times more competitive and hardy.

“Even an expert has difficulty distinguishing brumale from melanosporum,” growls Pierre-Jean Pébeyre, France’s leading dealer of fresh and conserved melanosporum.

Like many experts, Pébeyre expresses hostility to spore-impregnated trees, the probable source of the infestation. Pébeyre estimates 5 percent of the black truffles he buys at premium prices turn out to be brumale. “You buy truffles when dirty, and you can’t tell. The ugly truth comes out after brushing.” The Pébeyre truffle plant, founded in 1897 by Pierre-Jean’s great-grandfather, is based in central Cahors, capital of the Lot département. The Lot’s pre-Revolutionary name was Quercy, a deformation of the Latin quercus — oak. The scenic, oak-covered Quercy and abutting Périgord are France’s main melanosporum source. Another common name for the truffle is truffe noire du Périgord.

With a sense of humor as noir as the truffles he trades, Pébeyre, in a blue lab coat taut over his stout frame, walks visitors through the truffle sorting, grading, and brushing processes. He held up two black truffles that appeared identical, with rough patterned skin like a dog’s nose. “Brush a brumale and the skin detaches,” he explained. With a pocket knife he sliced the brumale, pointed out the dark brownish exterior and flesh, and the thick, white veins within, and offered a taste. It was crisp, smelled unpleasantly of ether or alcohol, and flavorless.

Pébeyre then sliced a melanosporum, noting how the outside was asphalt-black, the flesh gray-brown, the pattern of veins fine. It was crunchy, smelled pleasantly of mushroom and tasted something like strawberry jam on chocolate.

Pébeyre disapproves of flavor-associations. “Mélanos smell and taste like mélanos,” he said, using the regional abbreviated form for melanosporum. “Why make taste or nose associations?”

The Pébeyre plant once processed tons of local melanosporum. With dwindling supplies, however, sourcing has widened to Italy and Spain. “They’re just as good,” he insists. “The problem is brumales.” Such is the demand for truffles in France that brumales and many undesirable truffle varieties are not discarded. They find their way into pâtés and truffled foods where they cannot be identified readily. France also imports 30 to 50 metric tons per year of Chinese T. indicum.

A realist, Pébeyre sells Chinese truffles worldwide. “Some people actually prefer them because the flavor is mild,” he says. “Everyone likes the price.”

In Europe, Chinese truffles sells for 40 to 60 euros per kilo, a fraction of the price of melanosporum. Boosters say indicum tastes of moss and undergrowth, is not “bad,” merely “different.” However some unscrupulous European retailers and restaurateurs fraudulently pass off lesser truffles as melanosporum. “It’s bad for business,” says Pébeyre. His products are clearly labeled. “In this business reputation is everything.”

Conserved melanosporum are sterilized and packed in jars, or frozen. Truffle juice is sold separately. The 2005-06 French melanosporum harvest was 10-metric tons, a bad year. Pébeyre ascribes the decline to rural abandonment, demographic shifts of farming populations to cities, unsuccessful propagation efforts, and changing weather patterns.

“There are fewer summer storms and to thrive truffles need heavy rainfall in July and August,” he said. “It’s possible that one day we’ll simply run out of melanosporum.”

Due south of Cahors at the government-funded Station d’expérimentation sur la truffe, chief botanist and trufficulteur Pierre Sourzat, an excitable, sinewy man in his 50s, works with spore-impregnated seedlings on two truffle plantations. An affable zealot whose mission is to unravel the mystery of mycorrhization and bring back the days of 1,000-metric-ton melanosporum harvests, Sourzat radiates optimism about boosting truffle production worldwide through scientific methodology, soil preparation and fertilization, and summertime irrigation.

He spoke in a rapid-fire tenor voice, racing to keep up with Boubou, his trained truffle dog, a Golden Retriever. Within minutes, Boubou had unearthed a dozen small brumales, melanosporum, and other truffle types.

Peak truffle production in France coincided with the phylloxera outbreak that decimated European vineyards in the late 1800s. “Desperate grape growers replaced vast vineyard tracts with truffle-oak plantations,” Sourzat explained. “They bore fruit for decades but after World War II weren’t well maintained or replanted, and we’re suffering the

Host trees take five to 15 years to bear truffles, producing for up to 40 years. “If we hadn’t reforested with spore-impregnated trees decades ago we might have no truffles at all by now,” Sourzat concluded. “Spore impregnation does work. Look at Spain. Soon plantations in Oregon, Texas, and New Zealand will be commercially viable.”

At Lalbenque, southeast of Cahors, legendary truffle-hunter Marthe Delon awaited with her spotted pig. “This is Kiki the 59th,” she laughed. “Every year I change pigs, they grow too big, but I always name them Kiki.” Delon, a mythical character now in her 80s, cooked truffle omelette at Lalbenque’s Lion d’Or café for 30 years.

Before widespread spore-impregnation started in the 1980s, Delon said, she rarely found brumales. Truffle growers used natural propagation methods. Host trees were grown from acorns taken from known truffle-bearing oaks. The new hosts were always replanted in spore-rich areas. The process was continual.

Delon ascribed falling harvests primarily to lack of summer rainfall. The use of truffle dogs also may be part of the problem. “Once upon a time everyone had pigs to find truffles with. You ate the pigs afterwards, like my Kikis. There was no need to train them. Pigs love truffles, but only ripe truffles, so they don’t dig up immature ones the way dogs do. How are immature truffles supposed to reproduce?” Freezing wind blew down Lalbenque’s slanting main street as sellers set out wooden benches and wicker baskets for the town’s century-old Tuesday truffle market, held from early November to mid-March. Deals were being done quietly even before the whistle blew at precisely 2:30 p.m., officially opening the market. Wholesale buyers, chefs, and individuals inspected the truffles, always sold by the basketful, dickering with sellers then scribbling offers on paper strips. When a seller pockets a paper strip it signals a sale. Within minutes the market was over. From parked cars buyers pulled out old-fashioned scales, checked weights then paid sellers.

Scrupulously noting the day’s 92 basketfuls, totaling 45 kilos (just under 100 pounds), veteran French-government agricultural-statistics recorder Odet Bazalgues tipped back his cap. “Down again from a year ago,” he sighed.

Tons of truffles used to be traded weekly in Lalbenque. It is still among France’s main markets. Wholesale prices for the rest of the country are set here. The day’s top-quality truffles sold for 850 euros per kilo — more than $2,000 per pound.

“Good news?” Bazalgues ironized. “There are fewer brumales this season than last.”

At the Thursday truffle market in nearby Limogne-en-Quercy there was an even lower melanosporum yield.

Le Balandre is a handsome, century-old restaurant housed within Cahors’ Hôtel Terminus. Both restaurant and hotel are owned and operated by chef Gilles Marre and his family. Marre is renowned for his truffle recipes, including Belle-Epoque-style poached eggs and foie gras in puff pastry with shaved truffles, the house specialty since before World War I. He also makes a heady shepherd’s pie of leeks, potatoes, bacon, and truffles. For dessert, Marre offers an extraordinary glace aux truffes that looks and even tastes like earthy chocolate-chip ice cream. Given the long-running truffle crisis, however, the restaurant’s century-old stained glass and polished brass might suggest the deck of a truffle Titanic.

Marre agrees with most experts that the European passion for truffles shows no signs of abating. However truffle scarcity will continue increase unless truffle plantations worldwide succeed, as some predict. Quality will become the key issue.

The truffle axis may already be shifting from France to Spain, America, China, and New Zealand. More competitive, less flavorful truffle species may eventually prevail. Current trends suggest that global consumers may come to prefer “milder” truffles and their relatively low prices.

David D. Downie is the author of Paris Paris: Journey into the City of Light.

4 Phrases ... on Truffles

Don’t believe that four phrases in a foreign language you can barely squeeze into submission through your Texas twang’ll save your dog-paddlin’ arse in a freezing fjord? (Try “Behager direkte meg til den nær varm toddy” — “Please direct me to the nearest hot toddy.”) Truth be told, we wouldn’t send you ice-skating in Norway with only the services of, but here’re Four Phrases on Truffles that might actually come in handy at your next gourmet destination.

• Truffles are the fruiting portion of an underground fungi. The fungi form symbiotic relationships with the root systems of trees and are instrumental in helping the trees absorb nutrients from the soil. They are usually found between 2 and 16 inches below the surface.

• Unlike mushrooms, no truffle fungi are known to be toxic to humans. But some poisonous mushrooms that begin underground as “eggs” can appear similar to white truffles.

• Truffles rely on animals to eat them and spread their spores by pooping, which is probably why they evolved a strong scent that can be detected aboveground by pigs and other four-legged truffle fans — an ingenious system thwarted by humans’ preference for indoor plumbing.

• Truffle oil is a more-affordable and accessible option for many gourmands, and can be purchased at Central Market and Whole Foods. Try it in this fabulously easy and versatile vinaigrette from New York’s Balthazar: Slowly whisk 1/2 c. olive oil into the juice of two lemons. Slowly whisk in 1/4 c. white-truffle oil. Add salt and pepper to taste.

— Elaine Wolff


Sources: North American Truffling Society and Wikipedia