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Virginia Truffles

For thousands of years Black Perigord truffles have been the purview of European cuisine, specifically of France and Spain. But a perfect storm of enthusiasm, demand, and production could soon make Virginia a source for truffle production.  WMRA’s Amy Loeffler has the story.

The scientific name for black truffles, tuber melanosporum, may not sound very sexy, but truffles are one of the most coveted items of gastronomes and chefs for their sensual fragrance and je ne sais quois that they impart to foods flavored with them.

Truffles are not technically mushrooms. They are a fungus that grows below ground in a symbiotic relationship with trees and their roots, feeding off of the sugars of the root plant while the tree roots feed themselves through the fungus.

Pat and John Martin own and operate a truffle orchard outside of Charlottesville on a property they have dubbed Le Clos de La Rabasse, or the cul de sac of the truffle.

WELLINGTON: [Sniffing and panting]

That’s Wellington you hear, the Martins’ 6-year-old truffle hunting yellow lab, putting his sniffer to work.

The Martins want to add Virginia to the roster of states in the mid-Atlantic where truffles are cultivated.  Right now North Carolina and Tennessee are the only two states that are currently producing viable truffle crops. The Martins started their orchard of beech trees in the mid aughts and are due for a harvest anytime now, making Le Clos de La Rabasse ground-zero for Winter Black Perigord truffle production in the state.

PAT MARTIN: We would say never invest your life savings or your retirement or any of it into this ‘cause it is high risk. But it is an adventure. We talk about this from time to time, just how did we get into this.

Agriculture is the commonwealth’s number one industry -- and according to the governor’s office, generated more than $3.35 billion in exports last year. And a lucrative crop such as truffles could be an economic boon for farmers willing to take the risk of planting an orchard. The crop could also attract younger farmers who could reinvigorate the rapidly aging farming population in the commonwealth and across the United States.

Cultivating truffles is not complicated but it is risky. Truffles that are cultivated get their start from inoculated seedlings that are planted in soil that drains well. With a little luck from Mother Nature, truffles start to develop and can be cultivated within five years. A tell-tale brulee or burnt area develops around the roots of the trees, indicating truffle activity is present.

Even if Virginia might be a few seasons away from producing the black diamonds of the kitchen, the enthusiasm is there on the part of chefs for a local product that can fetch up to $800 per pound, and is highly perishable.

Executive Chef Jarad Adams of Charlottesville’s Clifton Inn has worked in the hospitality industry for more than 16 years and would welcome the opportunity to incorporate a locally grown truffle into his gastronomic offerings.

JARAD ADAMS:  That would be a really amazing thing to have a local truffle orchard nearby, primarily for freshness reasons. Everything we buy now is either from Oregon or imported from overseas.  We’re looking at how North Carolina and Tennessee have grown with their truffle orchards. I think there is definitely a viable market for it. Chefs who especially  foster the philosophy of buying local, buying fresh would relish the opportunity to have their hands on the product and smell it and be able to serve that to their guests.

Back at Le Clos de La Rabasse the Martins reflect on how far they’ve come since their first planting.

MARTIN: Now of course the real satisfaction will come when we pull our first truffle out of the ground.  Then we’ll know it was all worth it because it does take a lot of time and patience is important and not my strong suit. I guess it’s like starting any new endeavor, and probably something like this that is largely entrepreneurial, it always takes more time and more money than you think it’s going to, but when you get it, when you get what you’re after when you achieve the goal, and we can see it coming, it’s coming. So it’s very satisfying.