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Black Diamonds

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Black Diamonds
Photos by Dhanraj Emanuel

ONCE CONSIDERED A RARE EUROPEAN DELICACY, THE ELUSIVE BLACK PERIGORD TRUFFLE FINDS A NEW HOME IN THE RICH PIEDMONT SOIL OF NORTH CAROLINA

One of Franklin Garland’s favorite side dishes is a large fresh whole black truffle roasted in butter, pretty much like a golf ball-sized potato. Garland does not peel his truffle, preferring instead to relish the rich, nutty crunch of its outer casing the same way one might savor the nutrient- and flavor-packed skin of the potato. Unlike a potato, however, for most Americans, Garland’s truffle preparation would equate to an $800 side dish (or in some markets, $2,000)—the penultimate of gastronomic indulgences. But for Garland, who harvests these musky nuggets of taste from his acres of oak and hazelnut orchards in middle North Carolina, it’s just lunch. A very tasty lunch.

Most people wouldn’t know a black truffle if it hit them on their nose (which, incidentally, is exactly where the powerful earthy aroma hits you before it hits your palate). Truffles are so rare and so highly prized that many of us have never had the pleasure of trying them. They aren’t much to look at, resembling muddy orbs of charcoal, and you might not think that a subterranean fungus could pack such flavor (truffles are literally the “fruit” of fungal spores attached to certain tree roots). But their delicate out-of-this-world flavor makes instant converts of those lucky enough to try them.

It was 1979 when Franklin Garland first heard about truffles. His father showed him an article that had run in the Wall Street Journal earlier that year featuring a French company that was introducing a business stateside selling inoculated truffle trees (hazelnut or oak trees whose roots had been injected with truffle spores). Garland had no idea what the article was talking about—he didn’t even have the culinary wherewithal to keep himself from confusing truffles with the chocolate confections. Still, the truffle industry sounded like a good business model.

Importing From Europe

“It sounded very lucrative, very promising,” Garland says, seated in his living room in Hillsborough, North Carolina, overlooking rows and rows of bushy orchards where truffles silently percolate just inches below the soil’s surface, his standard poodle, Ginger, playfully racing through the trees.

At the time of that 1979 article, truffles were selling for about $25 an ounce. Eager gourmands looked to select regions of France and Italy, the only places in the world where the black Perigord truffle, Tuber melanosporum, was known to grow in the wild. The European harvests were growing smaller and smaller. No one really knows why—perhaps urban flight or aging fields or climate change or the wear-and-tear of various wars. Discerning American chefs would eagerly await their winter shipments from Europe, ceremoniously opening little bags of truffles packed in their own dirt, inhaling that unmistakable intense aroma that makes entire kitchens fall silent. They were willing (as were their customers) to pay top dollar for these “black diamonds,” which included a 100 percent import tariff.

Garland had to wonder, “What’s so special about the conditions in France for raising truffles?” After all, the climate there is not so different from his own neck of the woods in North Carolina. They share the same cold—but not too cold—winter weather. Garland had fallen in love with the North Carolina landscape while visiting his brother there in the mid-1970s. Prior to that, he had led an urban life, graduating from Carnegie Mellon University with a degree in psychology. Though he sports a ponytail, he was hardly the earthy type. He was as surprised as anyone that he felt this compulsion to start growing things.

A Piqued Interest

“It was lush here, it was green,” he says of the Piedmont region. “I really liked being with the dirt.” He spent a few years growing off-season heirloom tomatoes with his brother, but the two were a bit ahead of their time. He eventually returned to school, earning various technological degrees and then teaching electronics at a local community college. Still, that experience showed Garland where his passion resided. “Very rapidly I decided I liked growing things,” he says.

The WSJ article then intrigued him. Garland packed a bag and ventured to California as one of the first potential clients willing to purchase the inoculated trees from the French. They wined and dined him, but nowhere were truffles on the menu. “Too expensive,” he was told.

His interest was further piqued, and he decided to head directly to the source. During a trip to France he toured a number of truffle farms and was finally offered truffles to taste for himself—a taste that literally changed the direction of his life.

“I fell in love with them,” he says simply. He loved everything about them—their aroma, that they tasted unlike anything he’d ever experienced, that they were an aphrodisiac—everything. “There’s a lot of romance to it.”

The Waiting Game

He set to work investing, returning from France with 750 inoculated trees to plant on acreage his father helped purchase in Hillsborough. He was able to sow 1.5 acres of truffle orchard, and he knew it would take a number of years before they would be mature enough to yield any truffles. So he waited. And waited some more. He had no idea it would be twelve years before he would harvest his first Perigord truffle. During those years he focused his career on teaching while continuing to monkey with the soil.

In the end, it was the pH that was the culprit. Truffles are among the most temperamental of crops, and they refuse to flourish in anything other than 7.9 to 8.1 soil pH. Garland made the connection after analyzing the soil that still clung to the truffles he was importing from France—he had not completely given up and had used those truffles to train his dogs in the hope that one day they’d paw at the dirt hot on the trail of the intoxicating scent. Once he established the right acidity, his trees began to flourish. The moment he discovered that first truffle was a total accident. It was 1992, and he was leading a tour for Duke University students studying mycology.

For years he had successfully been growing cinnamon truffles—utterly unremarkable and native to North Carolina. He dangled a $100 bill before them, a prize for anyone who might find a black truffle. One student asked for a demo on how to dig, and when Garland reached down to the ground to steady himself, he realized he had placed his hand on a Perigord. He had literally hit pay dirt. From that point on, Garland has been in full truffle production. During the harvesting months, he meanders through the truffle orchards about twice a week with one of his dogs: Ginger the aging poodle or Peedee the young beagle, both well-trained truffle foragers. Traditionally female pigs were used to sniff out the fragrant nuggets (Perigord truffles have a scent that mimics a male pig sex hormone, so the girls go crazy for it), but pigs came with drawbacks— it was difficult to keep a pig from eating the truffle (a very expensive snack) or from damaging the root system upon which truffles depend. Dogs have a lighter touch and don’t care for the mushroom as a snack—they just enjoy the hunt. They’re also a lot easier to cart around.

High Hopes For Black Diamonds

Today, the high demand for truffles by chefs is far greater than current yield, so Garland is hoping to grow the industry. In fact, the majority of his business involves selling oak and filbert trees whose roots have been inoculated with the truffle spores. Years ago, he finagled a lesson from a Frenchman willing to show him how to inoculate the trees himself. In return Garland paid a certain amount each year for five years, a deal that was conducive to the Frenchman only because he had a daughter’s wedding to pay for at the time. Garland inoculates trees with the white truffle as well as the Burgundy truffle spores, which are meant to thrive in colder climates. He counts Martha Stewart among clients interested in planting the trees up north. There are high hopes for a thriving stateside truffle industry.

The state of North Carolina gave truffle farming a big boost as a means of helping former tobacco farmers diversify into other crops. In 2004, the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund Commission awarded Garland a $235,000 grant to help distribute inoculated seedlings to fifty farmers and to hold their hands through the process of perfecting the soil and coaxing the subterranean fungi. This hand holding is a luxury Garland himself was not afforded in his early years of pioneering the crop, and yet he is happy to share what he’s learned with farmers new to truffles.

Truffle industries are now burgeoning in Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Oregon, New Zealand, Tazmania, and Australia, not to mention France, Italy, and Spain. But Garland doesn’t worry about the market being flooded. He hopes that if anything, the price comes down so that more people can afford to enjoy them.

It would be hard to imagine anyone enjoying them more than Garland and his wife, Betty. During winter months, when the truffles are freshly harvested, it is not uncommon for the couple to eat truffles a few nights a week. They put them in everything from eggs to ice cream. Even during the off-season, their frozen arsenal lasts them throughout the rest of the year. If there is a downside to eating truffles yearround, it’s the development of a picky palate. The couple says their palates have become so acclimated to the taste of truffles that unless they are fresh, and that means really fresh, as in just a few days old, the flavor just doesn’t sing like it used to. “It has to be a really good truffle for us to appreciate it,” he admits. “I think they’re addicting. Intoxicating is the best word.”

Who’s Laughing Now

Local chefs, to whom the Garlands make routine deliveries, are ecstatic. “They are probably the most beautiful truffles that any of us have ever seen—anywhere,” says Van Eure, owner of The Angus Barn in Raleigh. “I don’t know what his magic is, but these are like so beautiful you can’t even believe they’re real.”

“To think that they’re grown, right here, I’d think you’d never imagine such,” remarks Angus Barn Executive Chef Walter Royal. “Being local, they are a lot fresher.” And using a local source keeps the price down for the patrons. “If he wasn’t a source, it would triple in cost.”

During the eight months of the year when truffles are dormant, Royal purchases them frozen from Garland as well. He’s been ordering from Garland for twenty years. The idea that a Carolina chef could get truffles within days—even hours— of being harvested was a notion that many found unbelievable.

“Everyone thought he was insane,” Royal says. “But look who’s laughing now.”