Ever hear the one about Tennessee-grown French truffles?
In 2007, the proprietor of Blackberry Farm in east Tennessee (a resort destination on a National Geographic Traveler Tour of a Lifetime), took a call from Tom Michaels, an academic who had recently moved into the area. After studying Tennessee’s soil, Michaels believed the climate and terroir (slightly acidic, with a lot of limestone) would be a great place to cultivate the second-rarest truffles in the world, the black Périgord from France.
Now, truffles cost thousands per pound, partly due to their rarity. It’s not easy to find truffles, which grow underground. Foragers search using specially trained animals who can sniff out the distinct musty aroma feet deep, a time-honored process that is time-consuming and often fruitless. (Humans can’t find ripe truffles on our own; it would be like walking into a forest and telling someone to find a potato that was planted out there.)
Another reason truffles are expensive: They are hard to cultivate and, even if you’ve discovered their growing secrets, a fickle crop. Foragers can wander all day with sniffy animals without ever finding a truffle.
Eight years later, the experts with Blackberry Farm may have found a way to finally, reliably farm and find the black Périgord. The Farm has pumped its considerable resources into studying black Périgord Truffles and training Lagotto Romagnolo dogs (a.k.a. Italian truffle dogs) to find those truffles for the farm’s James-Beard-Award winning restaurant.
Eight years ago, when Blackberry’s animal caretaker Jim Sanford was asked to train dogs to find truffles, “I didn’t know what a truffle was,” says Sanford. When Michaels called the farm saying that he was cultivating local Périgord truffles, “It was sort of like getting a call to see if you wanted to buy Rolexes out of someone’s garage,” says Sanford. As far as anyone knew at the time, the only local truffle was the pecan truffle, which has much lower culinary value.
Truffles, fruiting bodies of fungal organisms, grow underground and have a pungent, earthy aroma prized worldwide. They are generally associated with Italy and France, where trained dogs and pigs sniff them out for human hunters.
Périgord truffles always grow in symbiotic relationship with a tree, and one of their preferred trees is the European hazelnut. Michaels started his trees from seedlings in a sterile environment, so he could introduce only the spores of the Périgord truffle. He theorized that this process, called inoculating the roots, would result in the Périgord truffles growing around the mature hazelnut trees in about seven to ten years, thereby creating the first cultivated truffles of its kind.
Dr. Michaels now has 138 European hazelnut trees located right outside of Blackberry Farm that are inoculated with Périgord truffle spores, and truffles surround them. But that doesn’t mean the cash just rolls in; truffles are a fickle bunch. There’s a lot to learn, and a lot that can go wrong. There are competing fungi and a blight that attacks hazelnut trees that doesn’t exist in the Mediterranean. According to Sanford, an attempted truffle orchard in Idaho with 10,000 trees has had success with only a couple so far.
But local Périgord truffles would be a revelation, because with truffles, freshness is critical—Périgords from Tennessee wouldn’t have to make the trip across the Atlantic, arriving in the United States already at least hours, usually days, old. The older a truffle is, the less aroma it has. Without aroma, truffles are worthless.
Truffles begin to set in the early summer, but they become fragrant in winter, and it’s the aroma that makes truffles prized. Harvest a truffle too early and it’s a useless hunk of fungus that tastes like Styrofoam—and it won’t ripen or gain scent after it’s been dug up. Harvest too late and they are “gelatinous, fermented messes,” according to Jim. That’s why, even if truffles are cultivated, hunters still need dogs to smell out exactly when the truffles are at their peak—humans just aren’t sensitive enough. And the truffle’s powerful aromatics can transform overnight. A dog-found fresh truffle is guaranteed flavor, and where Blackberry Farm’s Lagotto Romagnolos come in.
Training the dogs is a crucial step. Dogs can smell truffles on their own because the truffles send out a pungent smell that mimics a pig’s sex pheromone. “But without training they would dig them up and eat them,” Sanford says. He trains them by letting them smell truffles (“I may or may not shave some over scrambled eggs first”) and then burying truffle-scented tubes under ground. Dogs learn to swipe the ground when they smell truffle aroma.
“I can train any dog to find truffles. You could point to a dog at an animal shelter and I could teach it to find a truffle,” says Sanford. But Lagotto Romagnolos come with cache, known for centuries in northern Italy as truffle dogs. The breed almost went extinct in the 20th century, and there are now about 500 in the United States. (You can take one home, if Sanford thinks you would be a good owner, for $8,500, with obedience training included and you get to go to the reunion dinner. Danny Meyer has one. David Chang is on the waiting list, which is two years long.)
Why not use pigs? “Because pigs are 400 pounds and eat like pigs. Grizzly bears have an amazing sense of smell but are not user-friendly,” Jim notes. His best dog. “Tom the Wonder Dog”—who found 200 pounds of truffles in his first year of training—died this spring at 12 years old, far short of the 15 years the dogs are predicted to live. Sanford gets misty when he speaks of Tom, whose tombstone is on Blackberry Farm’s property. Bocce, his son, will be trained as one of the dogs to take his place.
Truffle aficionados in Europe are skeptical, Sanford says. “When I talk to people about what we’re doing here, sometimes they look at me like I’ve asked, ‘Have you tried Tennessee chardonnay?’” And he laments that still no one has mastered cultivation of the most prized truffle, the white Alba. “The only place to get the Italian white truffle is where God put it. It won’t give up its secrets.”