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Smells Like $500

Move over, Perigord: The black diamonds known as truffles are quite happy to grow in North Carolina.

By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 23, 2005; Page F01


A gray minivan bumps down an unmarked lane one recent morning and pulls into what appears to be a neatly groomed, dormant orchard. On the sloping, one-acre plot stand 500 filbert trees, bushes really, that produce hazelnuts. It's harvest time. But no one is here for the nuts.

Farmer and entrepreneur Franklin Garland and his dog Ginger, a 5-year-old standard poodle, get right to work.

AN EXPENSIVE AROMA: Washington chef Todd Gray takes in the pungent smell of Garland Gourmet truffles on an expedition to a North Carolina orchard. Below: Farmer Franklin Garland and his truffle-sniffing dog Ginger walk along the filbert trees, whose roots are friendly to underground truffle growth. At top right: Ginger, hard at work. (Photos Karen Tam For The Washington Post)

"Find a truffle, Ginger. Find a truffle, Ginger," Garland repeats as the pair start down the first row, both heads tilting toward the ground.

Ginger uses her sensitive nose to detect aromatic, farm-raised black truffles -- Tuber melanosporum -- the highly prized, irregularly shaped fungi that are native to the Perigord region of France. Under the right conditions, they grow underground in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the filbert tree (Corylus avellana). But this day, friendly Ginger is distracted by strangers nearby and can't seem to focus on fungus.

"She's being a total dingbat," says Garland's wife, Betty. "We should have brought another dog. In 20 minutes, we would have two pounds."

At her side is Todd Gray, chef and owner of Equinox restaurant in downtown Washington. Gray is a relatively new Garland customer who pays $500 per pound for the odorous truffles harvested yearly, from mid-November to mid-March, in this flat region of the state on the eastern edge of the Piedmont.

At Equinox, Gray shaves truffles over pasta dishes, minces them into sauces for beef and veal, and sprinkles tiny truffle batons on grilled scallops. Last Wednesday night, at the James Beard House in New York, Gray served a creamy Carolina truffle risotto with bacon-wrapped monkfish.

Today he's come for the first time to see the source for himself. "This is the real deal," says the chef, a native of Fredericksburg who is noted for his use of regional and seasonal ingredients. "I couldn't believe it when they sent me a sample. It had that great pungency, with that characteristic nutty, eucalyptus and tobacco smell."

Such truffles aren't thought to grow in the United States, let alone within a day's drive of Gray's restaurant. "Man, I was thinking," he says, "this is too good to be true."

And the price is right -- at least for the high-end restaurants that feature truffles. Imported black truffles from France would cost around $800 per pound this year. Other species of wild black truffles from Oregon and imports from China are far less expensive but, for Gray, they lack flavor and aroma. In winter at Equinox, he uses about a pound per week.

Truffles are expensive because they are difficult to find and harvest yields have progressively lessened over the past 100 years. In 2002, United States imports were 9,806 pounds, according to the Department of Commerce. In recent years, most of the Perigord harvest from France and Spain has come from oaks that have been inoculated with spores. Historically, pigs were used to find the truffles. But dogs trained to find a specific scent have proven less temperamental and less likely to damage the goods.

Eventually, Ginger stops and gives the soil a scratch. Sure enough, Garland digs down and up comes what looks like a muddy, walnut-sized charcoal chunk. He says some of the truffles found in this field are the size of a tennis ball.

The Garlands together operate Garland Gourmet Mushrooms and Truffles, a company Franklin Garland started in 1992 to produce truffles as well as train dogs to find them. A graduate of Carnegie Mellon University and a sophisticated farmer who shops for suits "only on sale" in Milan, Garland got the idea to raise this unusual cash crop after reading a newspaper article in the late 1970s.

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