Truffles, where do they come from and why do people make such a big deal out of a little mushroom? (Yes, truffles are a type of mushroom.) Several weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to go truffle hunting. It was a bit wet and rainy, but since the dog didn’t mind, neither did we.
Périgord is an hour drive east of Bordeaux (you know, that region that’s so well known for it’s wine). We actually traveled 3 hours, by bus, to make this trip. I know a 3 hour bus ride sounds awful, but since we left so early in the morning, I just got 3 more hours of sleep. Besides, there was no way I was going to let 3 measly hours stand in the way of me being able to hunt for truffles then have a 3 course truffle meal. No Way!
When we arrived we were greeted by a very happy border collie named Farah. We were pre-warned that we could not play with her because it would interfere with her truffle hunting ability. (Which just means she would only want to play and not hunt for truffles. We were able to pet her afterwards.) Farah was eager to get on with her work and wasted no time (and barely waited for our bus to unload) before she darted off to find her first truffle.
Off to the first live oak tree, a sniff, and a quick scratch at the dirt meant that Farah had probably found something and we needed to get digging…more like scratching at the dirt with a small pick ax. After just a couple of scrapes, we found the truffle she had hunted out and marveled at it’s tiny size (about the size of a penny). Into the basket it went and we were off again to another tree. This time it was my turn to scratch. I kept scratching, hoping not to break the truffle (which I did) but managed to come up with one about the size of a nickle. Not all truffles are huge, in fact most of them are really quite small.
You might be surprised to read that we were using a dog to find the truffles. Tradition holds that it is a pig that does the truffle hunting. Unfortunately, pigs also like to eat the truffles and getting a large pig to move off a truffle takes a lot of effort. Dogs don’t like to eat truffles. The other way to find the black gold is with flies. A specific type of fly likes to find the truffles so that it can lay its eggs in the fungus. This method of truffle hunting is a bit hard to use because you need to get to the truffles first and following the flies gets to be a bit tricky (like not able to do it all).
You might think that a truffle orchard is a place where truffle producing oak trees have been planted. You would be wrong. There are many elements that make up a truffle growing area including the trees (oak, hazlenut or lime), the earth and the other foliage in the area. There’s actually a fine bit of science behind the successful growing of truffles that influences the success or failure of growing truffles in an area.
You’ll notice, in the picture, that the tree doesn’t look very big…it’s not. While the tree is about 15 years old, it is pruned to stay short and so that the root system grows very wide. The truffles need the root system to grow and truffles don’t grow very deep, so it’s important to have lots of shallow roots.
For the best results of winter truffle hunting, you want a dry spring. If this happens, the truffles begin to reproduce. In the summer, the truffles begin to grow and aren’t so dependent on the trees anymore. They’re growth depends on rain and heat. This is where the farmer steps in and watches for the needs of watering and mulching (mulching keeps the humidity up). In the fall, you will begin to see some cracks in the dirt surface. This means that the truffles have grown in size and are having an impact on the dirt above them. They still must be watched for water and mulching needs. In the winter, it’s time to harvest the truffles. Any truffles that are not harvested will then begin to decompose and release spores. The spore to root contact sets off their germination and begins the creation of mycelium that spreads amongst the tree roots and starts the truffle growing process all over again. (So all of the truffles that are under a tree are not harvested each year.)
Our guide through all of this was Edonard Aynand. He inherited his love of the truffle from his father who worked on both the local and national level for truffles. Edouard now travels the world teaching others how to establish their own truffle orchards. Stateside he has set them up in Oregon, Texas, New York and Virginia with more to come. One of the easiest things to remember about truffles, aside from how good they taste, is that if you live in an area that can grow wine, you can grow truffles.
Hints about truffles
- If you find a box marked truffles that seems too inexpensive, it is probably a Chinese truffle and won’t have the same flavor or aroma. Look for the word Indicum on the package and you’ll know that it’s from China.
- Brushed, washed and dried and you can freeze your truffle for future use. When you go to use it, use it while it is still frozen.
- Do not heat truffles too much or you will lose much of their flavor
- Make truffle flavored eggs by dropping a truffle into a sealable container along with 4 eggs (in their shells). Seal the container and let it sit for 3 days in the refrigerator. When you make scrambled eggs with those eggs, they will taste like truffle.
- Store unwashed truffles in a sealable container with a paper towel or tea towel. Gently wash with a nail/toothbrush just before using.
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