The Trouble with Truffles 

Editor Chris Nolan recently sent me a link to a contest being conducted by MarxFoods, a gourmet mail-order company specializing in fresh foods. They're giving away 1/4 pound of fresh truffles - worth about $250. Nolan's subject heading on the email was, "...while Rome burns?"

As it happens, I was arranging a visit to a truffle farm. Was I fiddling while Rome burned? Nolan's snark aside, I don't think so.

The farm/orchard belongs to Dr. Thomas Michaels (Dr. Tom as his customers call him) is a fanatical fool for fungi and, in particular, truffles. He spent most of his professional life as a professor at Oregon State University studying truffles - figuring out how to cultivate this supremely wild and uncooperative (and therefore outrageously expensive) organism. In 1999 he moved to upper East Tennessee (because of it's climate and soil) to try his hand at making a commercial venture of his obsession.

I learned of Michaels two years ago in a New York Times article and immediately called him, but by then the harvest season, which runs from December through January, was over so we chatted and discussed a visit the following season. For various reasons that trip didn't pan out, but this year - last Monday in fact - it happened.

I'm a pseudo-chef, a genuine food lover, and someone who is as fascinated by the details of raising a great tomato as by a recipe for Ciopino or the history of the Dutch oven. Who cares if Rome is burning? I arose especially early on Monday morning and drove for two hours through flying snow to freeze my ass off tramping around chasing a bunch of curly-haired dogs who were cuckoo for truffles - or at least the treats their trainer fed them with each success.

Truffles are ugly, knobby little things. Fresh from the soil and covered with mud you might wonder how anyone could imagine eating one. But even fresh from the soil and covered with mud the smell is deeply sensuous - to me they smell like sex. Musty, musky, and deeply desirable. So deeply desirable that in 2007 a Macau casino owner paid $330,000 for a huge 3.3 pound specimen (over $6,000 an ounce). Now, admittedly, the size of the "truf" (as we pseudo-chefs sometimes call them) was the primary reason for the outrageous price, but even a one-ounce French Perigord truffle sells for about $90 an ounce. Outrageous? Perhaps.

But a one-ounce fresh Perigord truffle will make an unmistakable mark on a dish that serves eight people. It's still an expensive ingredient, but nowhere near as bad as it sounds; a little goes a long way. Dr. Tom's truffles sell for half that price and, according to the (genuine) chefs I've spoken to and who have more experience with this ingredient than I, the Tennessee Truffles are superior to the French variety because they're only days, instead of a week or more, old.

Does this sound like a sales pitch? In the interest of full disclosure, I did come home with a free truffle, but I was quite willing to buy it. Having tramped around in the snow and having my olfactory nerves assaulted with that miraculous scent every time one of the dogs found a nubbin there was no way I was going to come home without a sample.

In my first column here, "Belly Battles", I began with Brillat-Savarin's statement: "Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are." As I noted then, this isn't the common misquotation which is, "You are what you eat." Instead Brillat-Savarin is noting that what we eat describes our cultural and personal background, our economic circumstances, and even our religion and philosophy.

I can feed myself six to eight extraordinary meals for $40 and yet I was willing to pay that much money for a single ingredient (albeit for multiple dishes/meals). I do hope to earn some income in articles from the trip, but that's still speculative. No, the main thing this says about me is that I love exploring food - Rome afire or not. But it also reflects my upper-middle-income/academic background, my general openness to foreign foods, and the lack of any personal religious or philosophical objections to any food. Some may well turn up their noses at the idea of a truffle that's not logged a few miles on trans-Atlantic flight but, well, those are the same folks who wouldn't touch domestic caviar either, I'll bet.

The opportunity to see Dr. Tom's efforts to make this rarified treat more affordable and available appealed to the populist in me; even firemen have to eat. How could I not go? And by the way, the truffles are awesome.

Copyright (c) 2007, SteelWill, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Spot On is a trademark of SteelWill, Inc.

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