There’s always been a whiff of insanity around truffles, the subterranean fungi coveted for their extraordinary fragrance, but this fall, the nuttiness has reached new heights. Devastated by a summer drought, white truffles are having their worst season in memory, and prices have mushroomed from a relative “bargain” of $1,000 per pound two years ago to $6,000 per pound and higher, cementing their status as the world’s most expensive food. Walk into a top New York restaurant, and the egg with polenta and a few grams of white truffle that used to run an outrageous $175 will cost an even more outrageous $275 now. Some will glumly cross truffles off their holiday list; others will pony up.
At the root of this truffle kerfuffle is climate change, as with so many other agricultural woes lately: White truffles grow in the forests of Italy and Eastern Europe, tethered to tree roots, with which they share resources. They fruit in the fall, but only after adequate summer rains. If forest floors get too hot and dry, no truffles. Unfortunately, the Mediterranean was scorched in 2021, with summer temperatures shattering records set in the previous few years. The truffle harvest wobbled during those earlier heat waves, but this year, it seems to have collapsed.
That’s a tragedy for many European countries, where truffles have always punched above their weight, culturally and economically, but it might finally force American truffle aficionados to discover some treasures that have long been hiding in plain sight: our native truffle varieties.
If so, the benefits could be substantial. Truffles are much more than a luxury food. They’re essential to the health of forests and the human communities that hunt them. Through scent, they bring disparate networks of organisms into relationship, allowing us to listen in on an ancient sylvan conversation. They help make forests meaningful.
Truffles are the fruiting bodies of mycorrhizal fungi — the kind celebrated in books such as Richard Powers’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Overstory” — that live as masses of microscopic threads in the soil, connected to tree roots. The fungi mine water and minerals for the trees, in exchange for sugars the trees make through photosynthesis. They also shuttle resources and information between the trees in their network, strengthening the entire forest.
Many of these fungi reproduce by making truffles, buried balls of spores. To spread these spores through the forest, truffles produce some of the most riveting and irresistible scents in the natural world. Honed by millions of years of evolution, a stunning embodiment of what one might call the creative genius of forests, those scents cause animals to drop whatever they are doing and tunnel down to eat the truffles, later spreading the spores. A perfect lure, it works on mice, squirrels, pigs, bears and many other animals, including us.
For centuries, Europeans have hunted truffles with trained dogs, selling the pricey nuggets through a cryptic but robust network of traders that mirrors the underground networks of mycorrhiza. In rural parts of Europe, truffle hunting is a prized livelihood, an essential source of cash and identity, and truffle forests are revered.
The United States has never had any truffle traditions of its own, because nobody thought there were any truffles to find. But that’s not the case. At least half a dozen delicious species grow in North America, and probably more. It would be more accurate to say that America never had a tradition of enjoying stinky subterranean fungi, or the means of finding them.
That seems to be changing, and just in time. As the price of European truffles soars toward absurdity, perhaps we should finally embrace our native truffles — a move that would pay off economically, ecologically and gastronomically.
American truffles can be found in many regions, mostly wetter ones less susceptible to climate change than the fiery Mediterranean, and they can be very, very good. The Oregon white is the most pungent truffle in the world — too strong for some but catnip for others, including me. The Appalachian truffle has a suavity and sophistication that only a few European varieties can match. (Frank Ruta, the D.C. chef who is the only restaurateur in the world to regularly serve the truffle, considers it top notch.) The Parmesan-scented pecan truffle grows everywhere you find pecan trees. And there are more to be discovered. Last month, in Quebec, I sniffed a truffle new to science that smelled powerfully of smoked sausages. If it grew in Europe, it would already be a star.
Why aren’t these truffles better known? In a word: dogs. Hiding underground, truffles emit beacons of scent to alert animals to their presence, but of all the animals that love truffles, we seem to be the only one incapable of following our noses to them. For that, we need trained dogs. Hunters used to use pigs for this work, but they grow too large and are too insistent about eating the truffles they find. Dogs work for treats.
Europe has tens of thousands of truffle hunters and truffle dogs. New dogs and new hunters learn from established ones. It’s a beautiful relationship, dog and hunter communicating through word and gesture to find the elusive prize, but it’s not an easy life. You might wander the woods all day and not find a single truffle. I’ve hunted with experts in half a dozen countries, and as often as not, we’ve walked out of the woods with nothing. On the other hand, one time in Hungary, we walked out with four and a half pounds of white truffles. A good dog makes all the difference.
But America has always been a truffle-dog desert. No one was finding truffles, because no one was looking, and no one was bothering to train dogs, because there didn’t seem to be anything to find.
Now things are slowly improving. Credit goes to the Pacific Northwest, where the Oregon Truffle Festival began promoting its regional truffles in 2006. Before then, there were only a handful of mushroom hunters in the Northwest finding truffles, and they used rakes to harvest them, digging up all the unripe truffles along with the few ripe ones. Those aromatically challenged unripe tubers gave Oregon truffles a bad name, and no chefs were interested. Hunting by scent, though, dogs hit on only ripe truffles.
In 2015, the festival added an annual truffle dog competition to gin up interest, and it worked. The Northwest now has a small but burgeoning tradition of truffle dogs, and chefs have learned that a dog-harvested truffle is, by definition, high quality. Today, Seattle’s Truffle Dog Company offers both in-person and online classes, in which participants receive a training kit and participate in Zoom workshops from home, making it easier than ever to get started.
Still, the rest of the country lags far behind. East of the Mississippi, you can count on one hand the number of dogs with a demonstrated ability to find truffles in the wild. I can count on two hands the number of people who even know there are truffles worth finding.
Remarkably, this is not for lack of targets. For weeks, my inbox has been flooded with tantalizing photos from two hunters who have been unearthing pecan and Appalachian truffles throughout the Southeast and Mid-Atlantic. There seem to be enough truffles out there to support a cottage industry — maybe even a pretty big cottage. On the rare occasion when these truffles are for sale, they sell for about one-tenth the price of the European white truffle. If you’re hunting on your own, of course, they’re free. In the coming years, I expect many more people to discover the truffles in their own backyards.
This could be a great thing. A grass-roots network of hunters, chefs and festivals — like the ones in Europe — would be a big win for the small communities and rural areas where truffles are found. It would also be good for the trees: A truffle forest is more valuable standing than cut, and dog-harvested truffles are the very picture of sustainability. But the biggest winners of all might be us amateurs and our dogs. There’s no happier hound than a truffling hound, and no better fun you can have than trailing your faithful companion through the woods, senses sharp, letting your noses lead you to something sublime.