Truffles: Diamonds in the Tuber Rough
By Gina von Esmarch
The truffle business has long enjoyed the attention of global food connoisseurs. And like many high tech companies, the truffle farming business is about to reinvent itself in California, particularly in the Silicon and Napa valleys.
This highly prized delicacy, a rare bulbous fungus, can be found underground among roots in select oak and hazelnut groves. It is undeniably one of the most expensive foods in the world and is the subject of much lore among gourmands. Black and white truffles are the diamonds of its Tuber genus.
Some old-schoolers might hold tight to the notion that the French and Italian fungus are the créme de la créme, but modern-day chefs are excited by the booming global market offering truffles from Oceania (Australia, New Zealand), Chile and South Africa. This importation business is bustling and Northern California is another key player about to take its place on the stage.
Enter stage left, California Truffle Orchards, a newly emerging business comprised of three key veteran stakeholders: Todd Spanier, founder and CEO of the San Francisco Bay Area’s King of Mushrooms, a wholesale distributor for over 20 years; Stephanie Jarvis, a certified arborist with a master’s degree in mycology and proprietor of Napa Valley Fungi; and Sam Woods, a passionate businessman with an extensive background in real estate/property management and construction.
Since 2007, Spanier has been visiting abandoned and neglected truffle orchards to help landowners rehabilitate them. It became apparent to him that there were strong similarities between truffle orchard and vineyard orchard management. A business plan subtly began to take shape and over the past six months the company solidified as it continued to look after orchards planted 30 or more years ago. California Truffle Orchards virtually opened its doors before it had named itself or applied for a business license. While the company will certainly sell locally grown truffles to Bay Area restaurant chefs, their truffle nursery in Pacifica, part of the Pastorino family heritage, will house vintage potted truffle trees (offering truffles growing in large containers), newly inoculated seedlings and orchard consulting services.
The charming Pacifica nursery sits on a historical plot of land that touches up against the archery area behind Sharp Park Golf Course. Originally, Spanier’s great-grandfather Franco Marcellini and the Pastorino family came from Liguria, Italy, as florists, but slowly that business began to fade away. With old family ties, Spanier was able to propose running the business in this coveted location with the sublime conditions for raising and nurturing truffle trees.
The business is founded on the premise that truffles are of interest for gourmet agricultural application in and around the land where many high tech companies are housed. The orchards offer organic and biodynamic benefits to the land by improving the land for birds and insects, thus creating the desired lower carbon footprint.
“Planting an orchard will increase biodiversity. Not many wineries can boast that,” Spanier enthusiastically explains. “If you want to be successful at growing truffles, you have to be organic. Organic is the only offer, as this is not monoculture—you cannot spray fungicides and insecticides because that kills the soil and the microbial activity, which is necessary for the life of the truffle organism.”
In addition to managing neglected or abandoned orchards California Truffle Orchards can also plant and manage new seedling or mature trees either from their own inventory or from other nurseries.
While I have enjoyed truffles for years, I didn’t have a deep appreciation for how they were harvested. The magic happens not on the branches of oak and hazelnut trees, but beneath them, where a richly flavored mushroom sprouts from fungal colonies laced about the trees’ roots.
“A truffle is a fruiting body, similar to an apple on a tree, with the exception that the reproductive organ is underground and made of mycelium,” Jarvis says. “A network of hyphae threads together to form the main mycelium or connective fungal cells. At a certain time of the year when the temperature and humidity is correct in the soil, the mycelium will create a primordial small-size fruiting body and form a truffle. This is the same basic strategy for all fungus. All fungus grows vegetatively underground.”
Being mycorrhizal, truffles offer reciprocal benefits to their oak and hazelnut hosts. Through their roots the trees use 98% of all soil nutrients and water that mycelium will come into contact with and photosynthesis from the tree leaves will share sugars with the mycelium and then give the soil nutrients back to the plant, creating an obligate symbiosis relationship.
A seedling of a tree that has been inoculated is similar to that of a grape vine—for both the tree and the truffle to mature there is a five- to seven-year wait. However, exports out of Oceania have become extremely commercially viable exporting over 10 tons in less than 10 years. Spanier explains, “At hundreds of dollars per pound that is a lot of money. In a country like Australia, where the government is actively backing the truffle industry by providing farmers tax breaks, we could see exportation grow to nearly 20 tons. Last year alone they exported 15 tons.”
Undeniably, the excitement is in the hunt of the truffle. When the diamond-clad tuber starts to mature in soil, it gives off gasses, hermetically. Foragers traverse the soil carefully with dogs trained to sniff out and dig up the pungent tuber. Dogs and pigs have good noses to pick up this sent and there are also some visible signs of a mature fruit. Through water retention the truffles become large and engorged and create cracks as they push up into the soil above them. Insects are attracted to the release of the underground aromas and when the truffles are really ripe, flies and rodents try to slip into these cracks in the soil to get to the alluring, pungent-smelling underground fruiting body.
While hunting with trained dogs is the most productive way to find them, traditionally female pigs have been used. But this was actually quite dangerous since one of the gasses released by truffles is same as a pheromone of male pigs in breeding season, so females looking for their mate would not easily be pushed aside once the truffle was located.
“When the hunter tried to rescue the truffle from the pig it was an all-out fight with the hunter often losing fingers,” says Jarvis. “In the 18th century, they tried muzzling the pigs but gradually migrated to using Lagotto Romagnolo dogs. Pigs were subsequently outlawed in the ’80s in Italy but not in France. Newly introduced to the hunting scene is a pygmy breed from Southeast Asia which is much more manageable than the hefty Hampshire pigs weighing several hundred pounds,” Jarvis explains.
Prices fetched for orchard-grown truffles tend to be among the highest since they tend to be large and well rounded. Often those found in the forest are smaller and misshapen containing more dirt and pebbles in their crevasses as the fruit grows around masses of a gnarly root system. With over 20 years experience in the business Spanier knows his customers well.
“Chefs tend to seek out large, uniform truffles to shred and shave onto dishes. Hands down, the largest, most shapely truffles command a much higher price on the market than their smaller, irregular wild counterparts. While there is never any type of genetic manipulation involved, by design, truffle orchards are particularly well suited towards offering this varietal, as the well cultivated soils they grow in allow the fungi to breathe, and thus grow in a circularly round shape.”
Will the truffle orchard business be the next big trend? If the European truffle supply continues to not meet the increasing demands, it seems quite possible. According to experts, in the early 1800s France produced approximately 1,000 tons of black truffles, which has vastly diminished to approximately 35 tons today. According to Jarvis’ expert opinion, this could be attributed to climate change; less rainfall equates to lower water saturation levels in trees and soil, which is where the fungi flourish. Global warming comes into play as warmer weather means less surface evaporation equating to less water reaching the tree roots. For those pondering California’s epic drought and underlying concerns about investing in a few box trees or an orchard, both oak and hazelnut trees have evolved to survive drought. Admittedly seedlings are a bit thirstier but not to any extreme.
For many, truffles are an acquired taste. But in our coastal foodie mecca, this pungent tuber aroma is a familiar delicacy. As described by Chef Josiah Slone of Sent Sovi in Saratoga, “The tuber releases a very strong pheromone smell that is both attractive to animals and very strong to humans. The earthy aroma deceptively conceals their complex yet delicate taste. Just a few slices sprinkled over a simple dish can conjure up an umami experience.”
California Truffle Orchards contact information:
Stephanie S. Jarvis, M.Sc
Gina von Esmarch is a Bay Area–based food writer and fourth-generation San Franciscan, whose family has run one of the city’s oldest fine-dining restaurants at Fisherman’s Wharf—Alioto’s #8, founded in 1925. In her free moments she enjoys spending time around the table with her family and friends and can often be found blogging at Bowl Licker.