One of the most expensive food items in the world is the elusive truffle, a species of mushroom prized by top chefs and eaters alike with a price tag to match. It can be a highly lucrative crop but the trick to successfully growing the “diamond of gastronomy” is as elusive as the truffles themselves. One company that seems to be having some success is American Truffle Company® (ATC), which helps growers across a surprisingly wide swath of the U.S. launch their own truffle orchards.
The only thing I really knew about truffles is that they are expensive and that they use pigs to find them! They are actually a type of subterranean mushroom that are found within the living roots of chestnut, oak, hazel, and beech trees. The word truffle comes from the Latin word “tuber”, which means outgrowth. The hunters that sell them consider them “black gold” with some varieties bringing selling for hundreds of dollars an ounce. Much like Morel mushrooms, a lot of people in areas where truffles grow traditionally hunt for them during the peak season. They use pigs or dogs to help sniff them out.
From what I understand, most American chefs import their truffles from Europe, with the most in-demand being French black Perigord truffles and Italian white Alba truffles. They begin to degrade in quality and price as soon as they come out of the ground, however, with taste and aroma declining within a week. Truffles also lose about -5% of their weight every day. The winter Périgord is the most expensive and sought-after black truffle in the world, bringing as much as $1,000 to $2,000 per pound, depending on the success of the season.
North America has a surprising number of agricultural regions that will support the growth of truffles. They prefer alkaline soils but unlike most agricultural crops, they cannot be coaxed into production. Growers start with tree seedlings that have been inoculated with truffle that need to be planted in just the right conditions. And this is where American Truffle Company comes in. ATC supplies hazelnut or oak tree seedlings and “cutting-edge truffle science” that is customized for the grower’s specific soil, microclimate, and other conditions. It takes about 6 or 7 years to get a harvestable truffle crop.
ATC says its partnership program is designed to help client-partners “every step of the way,” including assistance on site selection and preparation, continuous scientific monitoring of planted seedlings, and access to the latest truffle science and knowledge “that are unavailable anywhere else in the public domain.” They also provide distribution of the truffles through their network and brand, if desired. Chief Scientist with American Truffle Company®, Prof. Paul Thomas is also the lead researcher and managing director of Mycorrhizal Systems Ltd. in the UK. He’s been actively researching them since 2001 and pioneered a new system to inoculate trees.
Prof. Thomas and his idea for a truffle-growing business was a winning pitch on the BBC’s Dragon’s Den program, the forerunner of ABC’s Shark Tank program, though the deal ultimately fell through. He founded ATC with Robert Chang in 2007 and in 2018, they announced the first harvest of a Périgord black truffle (Tuber melanosporum) from the Otellini Truffle Orchard in Sonoma County, California. According to the company, it marked “the first black truffle harvested in the U.S. resulting from the application of a proven scientific methodology that is reliable and reproducible.”
The founders now say the U.S. truffle industry is less than a decade away from becoming firmly established in its own right, and ATC is continuing to ramp up to produce truffles in commercial quantities for professionals as well as home chefs. The company had 200 acres growing truffles worldwide and plans to cap it at 500 to maintain the market and high-return for the product. The company has developed a “harvest on demand” process, so that truffles are only taken from the orchard when an order is placed and then shipped overnight via FedEx to help preserve freshness.
In other countries where truffle cultivation has been adopted only recently, such as Spain, Chile, and Australia, crops have been successful. Truffle Hill (formerly Truffle & Wine Co.) in Western Australia harvested its first truffle in 2003, and today, it has nearly 25 miles of truffle-tree lines and reliably produces several tons of crops annually, valued in the millions of dollars.
You can learn more about American Truffle Company HERE. They aren’t the only ones supplying inoculated trees, either. The two other main players are New World Truffieres and Mycorrhiza Biotech , both of which have also reported notable crops in the last few years. (Sources: Eater, MountainX, Farmers Weekly)