This is a transcript of the Gastropod episode, Here Comes Truffle, first released on February 14, 2023. It is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors.
NICOLA TWILLEY: Hi!
JEFFREY COKER: Hey, guys. So this is, this is Laddie and this is WC.
CYNTHIA GRABER: Nice to meet you.
COKER: Nice to meet you.
TWILLEY: So Cynthia and I had driven into the middle of nowhere North Carolina with Jeffrey Coker, and then he introduced us to WC Paynter, who is a farm manager. And Laddie who is a dog.
WC PAYNTER: Laddie has been—we found two pounds this morning. And we got another half a pound this afternoon so far.
GRABER: That would be two pounds of truffles. Laddie is an expert truffle finding dog, and we were there to follow him around a truffle orchard.
PAYNTER: Get your boots back on. Good boy. Good dog. Give me this foot.
PAYNTER: I have to put his boots on so he won’t damage the truffle with his claws.
TWILLEY: Yep, this was as adorable as it sounds. And Laddie is basically the new star of Gastropod: he’s a yellow Labrador, he’s four years old, and his boots are just the standard truffle dog slippers: stylish little slip-on leather booties, with a velcro cuff. Perfect for the fashion forward pup.
GRABER: But of course as you listeners already know, Laddie wasn’t wearing them as a fashion statement. He needed them to protect the precious truffles. Now, that truffle orchard we were wandering around with him—we can’t tell you exactly where it is or else we’d have to kill you—
COKER: There are there are several gates separating us from a truffle orchard on any given day. And it’s surprisingly well protected. It might not look like it going in. But believe me, it is.
TWILLEY: That’s Jeffrey again, Jeffrey Coker, President of Burwell Farms. He’s WC and Laddie’s boss, and he’s the man with the keys to the truffle orchard.
GRABER: We trailed behind WC and Laddie as they walked up and down the orderly rows of tall pine trees. This patch of orchard had more than a thousand trees, they were all eight years old, and they all potentially had some fungus growing underground on and around their roots.
PAYNTER: Show me the truffle buddy. Find the truffle.
GRABER: After only a couple of minutes, Laddie stopped—and that meant he found something.
TWILLEY: And that meant we all got down on our knees. Butts in the air, noses to the ground, for some synchronized sniffing.
GRABER: OK, so I’m going to get down here on my hands and knees and stuff. You go first. Okay. Here we go. Ooh. that definitely has a strong aroma.
COKER: Are we saying we think this is ready?
DAVID CROW: Well, look. I mean, we want to shave it one time to see? Smell wise, I’d say she’s right there.
GRABER: David Crow was the fourth member of the truffle-searching team that day. He pulled out a sharp pocket knife and scraped just the tiniest edge off the top of the buried truffle. He handed it to Jeffrey so Jeffrey could take a look at the color to see if it was as dark brown as it needed to be.
COKER: Ooh, that’s nice right there.
TWILLEY: Look at this Cyntha, it’s enormous.
GRABER: Oh my. Is that all a truffle? Wow, it’s huge.
TWILLEY: At this point, the truffle was still embedded in the dense red Carolina clay. Using his pocket knife, David started digging around it, very very carefully.
CROW: All right. Now or never.
CROW: I think it’s two separate ones.
CROW: That was huge. It’s, it’s a baseball right here.
GRABER: How do you feel?
COKER: Oh, that’s great. That is a lot of good truffle right there.
GRABER: This truffle was absolutely enormous. Most of the ones we’d already found that day were kind of like the size of ping pong balls, but this was way bigger. Jeffrey gently placed it in the paper bag along with the rest.
COKER: That’s a pretty good day. This will probably be, I’m going to ballpark $3,500 worth of truffles.
TWILLEY: Not bad for a day’s work. Especially because truffle hunting is really fun! Yes, you spend a lot of time down on your knees, but the combination of the pine trees, the clay soil and then of course the truffles themselves—it all smells amazing.
GRABER: Sticking my face literally down against the ground to figure out whether a truffle smelled good and strong enough, whether it was ready to harvest, that’s not what my days usually look like here at Gastropod. Yes, you are listening to Gastropod, the podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, I’m Cynthia Graber—
TWILLEY: And I’m Nicola Twilley. And this episode, we’re all about truffles. What are these weird, knobbly, potato-like things that look like animal poo and taste incredible?
GRABER: We had to use a dog to even find this buried treasure, so how did we humans discover the joys of truffles in the first place? And why do they sell for thousands of dollars and inspire shenanigans and fraud today?
TWILLEY: Plus, of course, are they really the food of love? Will eating overpriced truffle pasta with your beloved on Valentine’s Day somehow seal the deal? PS: this is not even a real question, because yes, if you buy *me* truffle pasta, I’m basically yours.
GRABER: But is there any actual science behind truffle’s aphrodisiac reputation? Stay tuned for all that and more.
TWILLEY: This episode is supported in part by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation for the Public Understanding of Science, Technology and Economics. Gastropod is part of the Vox Media Podcast Network, in partnership with Eater.
GRABER: So when I say the word truffle, a strange little fungus that’s hidden underground might not necessarily be the first thing you think of.
PAYNTER: I didn’t. I thought it was candy. You know, that’s the only truffle that I’d ever known anything about.
TWILLEY: WC is not alone here. Zachary Nowak is the author of a book about truffles, and when we asked him if he remembered eating his very first truffle, he certainly did.
NOWAK: Yeah. It was in my grandparents’ living room. And it was Christmas day and my grandfather always asked for truffles. And so he would give me them and they were these little things that were nuts coated with chocolate. And I thought they were great. And then I moved to Italy and someone said something about truffles, and I was like, Oh, I love truffles. They said, You’ve had truffles before? And I said, Of course, I’ve had truffles before. Grew up in Rochester, New York, thriving metropolis.
GRABER: No offense to Rochester’s culinary scene, but I think it’s fair to say the chocolate kind of truffle is definitely more common there.
NOWAK: And so then I started learning about the real truffles.
TWILLEY: In fairness, chocolate truffles are named after truffle truffles—I mean, they’re both brown, knobbly, and delicious. The fungus kind of truffle has been eaten in France for centuries and chocolate truffles were invented in France in the late 1800s, so clearly French confectioners were inspired.
GRABER: But truffle truffles, those might be dark brown on the outside, but they definitely aren’t chocolate. That’s what Zach quickly realized in Italy.
NOWAK: I found out the truffles that they were talking about were shy mushrooms.
TWILLEY: Shy because the truffle fungus spends its entire life hiding out of sight, beneath the surface of the Earth. That’s different from most fungi.
GRABER: Most mushrooms have an underground part, you can kind of think of it like the root system, and then an above ground part.
NOWAK: Like a toadstool is growing underground, but then when it fruits, when it has to sort of reproduce and, and, have its spores blown all over the forest floor, it has to be above ground. And truffles don’t do that. Truffles stay underground for their whole life.
GRABER: Nobody knows exactly why truffles decided to hide away underground their whole lives—
TWILLEY: Maybe they’re just introverts!
GRABER: But whatever the reason, they found their perfect partner, and it’s the roots of trees. They spend their lives totally entwined together. It’s an ancient relationship and a beautiful one.
TWILLEY: OK, news you can use: we’ve got the relationship secrets of one of the world’s oldest and most equal partnerships. So, listen up. First off all, don’t picture the knobbly truffle bit right now—the bulk of the truffle fungus just looks like little white threads or hairs, and it wraps itself around the roots of its tree partner, and then extends outward into the soil.
GRABER: That means the truffle can help the tree get nutrients. Trees take water and minerals that they need from the soil, but they can only reach as far as their roots extend.
TWILLEY: The little hairs of the truffle fungus—they extend the tree’s reach—they get into every little pocket of soil and they grow out even further past where the tree roots end. And that means more water and minerals for the tree.
GRABER: In return, the trees feed the truffles. The truffles suck sugars and other carbohydrates from tree roots, and they use that food to, yes, grow into the soil and feed the tree. It’s a virtuous circle.
BEATRIZ AGUEDA: So it’s a question of surviving. Both the tree and the, and the, and the fungi, in this case, the truffle, needs this association to survive. And it’s quite impossible, the one without the other.
TWILLEY: So romantic!
GRABER: This is Beatriz Agueda. She’s a scientist based in Spain. She specializes in forest fungi, and she’s also married to a truffle farmer.
TWILLEY: So. I hate to rain on the tree and truffle love parade, but I feel it is my duty to warn you all that as in any happy marriage, there can be issues behind closed doors. It’s the oldest story in the book: One partner in the relationship not getting all its needs fulfilled.
EUGENIA BONE: The truffle had a problem once it’s evolved to grow underground. And that was the problem of spore dispersal.
GRABER: Eugenia Bone writes about fungi and food, and she wrote a book called Mycophilia: Revelations from the Weird World of Mushrooms. You might remember her from our mushroom episode.
TWILLEY: To understand the problem she’s talking about we need to talk about mushroom sex. So those little threads we were talking about, the mycelia—they’re the bulk of the truffle and also the majority of a normal mushroom. And they’re often underground. But then when a fungus wants to reproduce, it needs to fruit. And this is where the truffle being so shy becomes an issue.
GRABER: If you want to know what the fruit typically looks like, well, that’s what we call mushrooms. And that delectable fungi fruit contains tiny mushroom seeds, or spores. The spores are a fine powder attached to the gills underneath mushroom caps.
BONE: Most mushrooms disperse their spore by air. You know, their spores hang off the gills and the animal brushes by, or a puff of wind comes and, boom, the spore go flying around. But in the case of truffles, they’re underground. So how are they going to solve that problem? They still need to get the spore above ground. And so they came up with this, kind of cool solution and that is to produce these aromatic compounds that attract various animal vectors. Different truffles produce aromatics that attract different animals. The animal smells those truffle aromatics and starts digging like mad and eats the truffle. And then the spores are dispersed through the animal’s scat.
TWILLEY: Scat being the zoological term for poo, which I’ve now said twice this episode!
GRABER: You know it’s a good day when we get to talk about poop on Gastropod.
TWILLEY: Indeed. And like Eugenia says, we’re talking about the poo of different species, because we’re talking about all different kinds of truffles, each of which has a different set of animals it appeals to.
GRABER: Some of those truffles make squirrels go mad with food lust. Some truffles send out smells that make rabbits get hot and bothered. And some are famous for making pigs go wild.
TWILLEY: This is where you’re thinking, oh yeah, not just pigs. Truffles have a reputation for making humans horny too, which is why they’re on the menu every Valentine’s Day. One of the arguments for why truffles might actually be an aphrodisiac is because some truffles do contain a chemical that’s the same as a pheromone that pigs give off, and that in turn is similar but not identical to testosterone.
GRABER: So that’s already a few degrees of aphrodisiac separation. And then, even though pigs dig like mad when they catch scent of a truffle, it doesn’t seem to be because it’s making them amorous. A scientist tested this theory by separating out the odor chemicals in truffles. The ones that are supposed to be pig pheromones, those got sprinkled in one area, the ones that have scents like cabbages, which pigs also love, those got sprinkled somewhere else. The pigs ignored the sexy smells and went for the cabbages.
TWILLEY: The point is, the truffle just wants to be dug up and eaten. That’s it’s version of sex, and different species of truffle use different species of animal to get them off.
NOWAK: There are species on all the continents except for Antarctica that are edible.
BONE: But you know, most of them we don’t want to eat. You know, like the squirrels love ’em, but you know, they don’t taste good to us.
TWILLEY: The most famous of the ones that do taste good to us are all from Europe. These are the big four. There are the super expensive white ones, there are the cheaper white-ish ones that are sometimes called bianchetto, there are the expensive black ones, and then there are the cheaper black summer ones. They are different colors, but they share a flavor palate.
BONE: I mean, the ones that we like to eat, they will have this kind of combination of potato, garlic, and BO. Like dirty socks. It’s just divine.
GRABER: Like some of my favorite cheeses. There are also other less famous truffles that we enjoy eating. In the US, there are delicious truffles on the west coast, mostly in Oregon, and there are multiple varieties of these too. Like the European truffle, they’re also known by their color. The most valuable one in Oregon is the black one.
BONE: And it has this weird flavor that’s a cross between a pineapple and like, a fart, you know? It’s really amazing. It’s kind of cool.
TWILLEY: Who wouldn’t go wild for that? But actually, the first truffles that humans wrote about wanting to eat were neither chocolate truffles nor the stinky sock kind nor the pineapple fart kind. They were desert truffles, which is a whole separate species.
GRABER: Desert truffles grow in northern Africa, and folks there enjoyed them for thousands of years, ancient Greeks and ancient Romans ate them too. These truffles grow not along tree roots, but in a close underground relationship with a pretty flowering shrub called the rockrose.
BONE: The ethnomycologist Eleanor Chavit described as tasting like a cross between a pear, and a candle that’s just been snuffed out.
GRABER: Eleanor Chavit even suggested that the original manna, what the Jews ate in the desert when they were wandering for 40 years, she suggested that was in fact the desert truffle.
TWILLEY: Desert truffles are pretty common in the desert. They’re quite big and they’re not super hard to find. So in Ancient Roman and Greek times, they were treated kind of like a potato.
NOWAK: They’re eaten by the common people as sort of a vegetable. In fact, when you see Roman recipes, they’re often boiling these things to death. Or, eating them with, with other things you eat vegetables with.
GRABER: Those truffles are still eaten today in North Africa and still treated sort of like a fancy potato. Because they’re more common and they don’t have as intoxicating a smell as other truffles do, Zach says they cost about 20-30 dollars a pound instead of about a thousand.
TWILLEY: The thousand dollar ones—they grow right there, in Italy, but Zach told us the ancient Romans didn’t really eat them.
NOWAK: Doesn’t seem like any Roman and Greek authors knew the black and white truffles that we know today. I haven’t seen any evidence that they knew that truffle.
GRABER: This seems super weird, we pay thousands of dollars for them today. How were folks living in what is now Italy—which of course is a place we often associate with culinary delights—how were they ignoring these amazing, intoxicating truffles?
TWILLEY: Zach said this is likely because ancient Greeks and Romans were really city people. They were more comfortable with urban areas and then the domesticated area around cities that was farmed.
NOWAK: And then there’s everything else. And that everything else is sort of wilderness. And the Romans don’t appreciate that zone. It’s not like the Romans don’t do any foraging or hunting, but that’s not the favored place for food production. If you’re a civilized Roman, you’re eating in a city, things that have been produced in and the farms around the city. You’re not going and foraging in swamps. You’re not going off into the woods. That’s places where barbarians live.
GRABER: But luckily, as the Roman empire was falling, some barbarians showed up in the region.
NOWAK: The Germanic tribes come into the Italian peninsula starting in the 400s, and they take it over. And it’s that culture coming into Italy that changes at least Italian ideas about truffles. Because the Germanic tribes, they do farming. They’re also farmers just like the Romans. But they also do a lot of hunting and foraging. And so for them, eating food out of the swamps or finding it in the woods is not something that only poor people do.
TWILLEY: These barbarian Germans were also big pork-lovers, and unlike the Romans, they raised their pigs by letting them forage in the woods, too.
NOWAK: Often pigs are out in the wilderness being tended by this lone swine herd, and they’re going through forests, eating acorns, eating whatever fungi they find.
GRABER: And one of those fungi was the truffle. Pigs are one of the species that the truffles are trying to lure in with all the rich odors they’re sending out into the world. And so somewhere, some time, some pig smelled a truffle and dug it up, and the swineherd was nearby and he caught a whiff too.
TWILLEY: We’ll never know the exact who or where of those first human-truffle encounters, but whatever happened, it was one tiny sniff for a pig-herder, one major step forward for humankind. And before too long, it wasn’t just swineherds in the forest enjoying truffles. These humble pig keepers brought them back into the kitchens of the aristocratic landowners whose forests they were roaming and whose pigs they were looking after, and those aristocrats turned out to really like truffles too.
GRABER: Rich lords and ladies quickly realized that truffles were a fabulous new way to make their dinner taste better—as well as seem extra special and super fancy, because truffles were so rare.
NOWAK: The number of truffles that can actually make it from the forest to the plates of the elites is limited. Because before the 1800s, you can’t preserve them in any way. They’re going to go bad within eight days. And so only a limited number truffles are making their way to elite tables.
GRABER: And the elites used those truffles as a way to curry favor with other elites. Especially those in the region of Savoy, which is modern day northwestern Italy near the border of France.
NOWAK: The Dukes of Savoy start using truffles as early as like, the 1600s. In their diplomacy. They’re sending truffles all over Europe. It’s sort of like the Austrians are constantly marrying to like get more territory? The Savoy are sending truffles to like, get in good with the greater powers of Europe. And I think it just, it’s, you know, it cascades, it just becomes one of those things that if you’re the elite, truffles are part of your cuisine. Because it’s a way to demonstrate your eliteness, that you can get truffles to your table.
TWILLEY: Given how exclusive and desirable truffles became, it’s not surprising that people wanted to secure a larger supply—by trying to farm them.
AGUEDA: People were putting the truffles in the earth, like you put the seeds in the earth and they were waiting for the truffles to grow, but it was impossible.
GRABER: Truffles don’t grow that way. But, eventually, it did take a few centuries, but in the early 1800s, a guy named Joseph Talon figured something out. He discovered that he could take the seedlings that germinated under oak trees where truffles were found, and he could move those saplings somewhere else—and then he’d get new trees with truffles under them.
NOWAK: And so he’s busily buying up wasteland in the south of France and replanting these areas with these truffled saplings. And he, he’s a businessman, so he doesn’t tell anybody about it. But there’s another guy who figures out the same process a little bit later. And not only does he figure out how to do this process with truffling the roots of these saplings, but he also figures out a new way to seal truffles in a can.
GRABER: So there’s two breakthroughs: people figured out how to find baby trees that already had truffles living on their roots and move them somewhere else to grow new truffle trees. And they figured out how to extend the truffle’s shelf life.
TWILLEY: But then there’s another thing. At this point, in the early 1800s, large parts of France were deforested and kind of barren for a couple of reasons—first, in an era before fossil fuels and concrete, a lot of trees had been cut down for wood. And then, especially in the south, the vineyards had all been ripped out due to an infestation that was killing them.
GRABER: And so then in the mid-1800s, another guy had a brilliant idea: replant the barren hillsides with truffled saplings, and basically turn his whole home region of Provence into a truffle orchard. He planted baby oak trees that came from truffle oaks, and in only a few decades, that region was super productive, there were thousands of trees and truckloads and truckloads of truffles. That, plus the cans?
NOWAK: It’s these things together that really transform truffle cuisine in Europe. And take it from being something that only the richest people in Europe could enjoy. And this is a radical, radical change in truffle culture.
GRABER: What it meant is that truffles became all the rage in the 1800s.
NOWAK: I mean, it is exponentially more truffles being produced back then. It was a good way to make money. It’s not super capital intensive. You just need a dog that you’ve trained, and time to walk through the woods. There were lots of people living in rural areas.
TWILLEY: And with this enormous increase in truffle production came a predictable economic response.
NOWAK: The price drops. Truffles are very popular already with most French people because they see them as this elite product. You know, it’s like all of a sudden if the price of caviar dropped dramatically, I’d probably eat more caviar. Okay, sure. Or like champagne. If it were like a dollar a bottle for a really good champagne, I’d probably have it for dinner more often. Sure.
TWILLEY: Just to give you a sense of how big this European truffle boom got, that region of Provence with the truffle saplings—by 1900, that one area was producing 700 tons of truffles a year.
GRABER: Truffles galore! Truffles everywhere! Truffles for weeknight dinner! So many truffles that French candymakers named a new chocolate candy after them!
TWILLEY: Happy days! But today, the entirety of France only produces 30 tons. Down from 700 tons in just Provence. So what went wrong?
GRABER: We have that story coming up, after the break.
TWILLEY: So, the truffle was everywhere, and yet today the truffle is not. And part of that story is just the normal story of trends. Once everyone could have truffles whenever they wanted, they weren’t quite as desirable anymore.
GRABER: But that’s not the only reason. France was industrializing, and more people were moving from the countryside to the cities.
NOWAK: So there are just fewer people out in the countryside to do the harvest.
GRABER: And then things went further south.
NOWAK: World War I and World War II both are major, major events in truffle hunting because it’s kind of dangerous to go walking around out in the, out in the woods. And there are lots of people that go to the front and never come back who knew where the best truffle areas were. Young men and old men are often the repositories. And young men died in the trenches and the old men just died, without anyone to pass on the knowledge to.
TWILLEY: Then because there were fewer people living in the countryside, there were also fewer people using the forest, gathering brushwood for fires, grazing their animals under the trees. And that meant the forests got more overgrown.
GRABER: That might sound good in theory—but it was actually bad news for the truffle. Truffles like the forest floor to be kind of clean—other shrubs and weeds and grasses compete with them, and truffles seem to prefer having a little light come through the forest canopy and hit the ground. And long story short, Europe’s new more dense forests were not such happy places for them.
TWILLEY: All of these reasons combined meant that there were a lot fewer truffles being harvested. By the 1920s, French truffle production slipped down to a tiny fraction of what it had been.
GRABER: Truffle production dropped in Italy, too, for a lot of the same reasons. But some people were still eating truffles, they still loved them. In Alba, in Italy, truffles were an important part of local cuisine, and they were a way to honor the local elite and even the local royalty.
TWILLEY: And it was here in Alba that the truffle staged its comeback. What happened was, as a way to try to keep truffles on the map, a guy who ran a hotel and restaurant in Alba decided to launch a truffle exhibition in the late 1920s.
GRABER: The festival took off and became a huge event, and it did help truffles become trendy again. Today, the Alba festival is a scene.
NOWAK: And they hand out the biggest truffle every year to somebody famous.
TWILLEY: Like Alfred Hitchcock or Sofia Loren or Marilyn Monroe. Penelope Cruz was the lucky recipient recently.
NOWAK: So they, they bring in people and it’s just, it’s just a huge publicity stunt.
GRABER: And it’s a huge party. You might run into famous celebrities like George Clooney, Catherine Zeta Jones, Oprah. Tens of thousands of people show up. Everyone wants a piece of the truffles.
TWILLEY: This kind of hype isn’t just for the festival. Today, when really big truffles are found, it’s a national news event.
BROADCASTER: Tomorrow, Sotheby’s Auction House is selling the largest truffle ever recorded. The white truffle, nicknamed Big Boy, was found in the Umbria region of Central Italy. Well, this morning it’s right here in Studio 57. And Don Daler shows us how it got here.
DON DALER: Inside a terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport, the Sabatino Truffle Company waited for its precious cargo to clear customs. Found a week earlier, the enormously rare white truffle traveled 4,300 miles to the US from Italy.
FEDERICO BALESTRA: Everybody hold your breath, this is the box. Bella di mamma. In Italian mean the beautiful mommy.
GRABER: And that mamma does not come cheap.
DALER: It could go for close to a million dollars, and Federico Balestra says he’s donating every dime to charity.
TWILLEY: Side note, I actually went to the auction of this truffle at 9am on a Saturday morning at Sotheby’s in New York. When an assistant opened the box holding the truffle, it was intense. There was this audible groan in the room as everyone inhaled and then just kind of melted.
GRABER: And so when you have something that big a deal, that desirable, that expensive, well, you can imagine, there’s a lot of incentive to pull a fast one. Jeffrey told us that fraud has been around maybe as long as we’ve been enjoying truffles.
COKER: Yeah, the first truffle book was written by an Italian named Cacorelli. And he sort of set the tone because he was a famous fraudster. And he plagiarized some in the first book about truffles, and then he went off, eventually got beheaded, because he plagiarized some government documents and got caught. [LAUGHS] So, that sort of set the tone for the next 400 years.
TWILLEY: But today, given the price of truffles, the shenanigans around them have become even more widespread. First, there’s the competition among truffle hunters for the prime hunting grounds. This has been getting a little out of hand lately, which has been getting a lot of media coverage.
VOICEOVER: It’s a veritable land of plenty. But in winter, things take a nasty turn here in the idyllic woodlands around Alba. That’s when the white truffle season comes.
[FOOTSTEPS, QUIET SPEAKING IN ITALIAN]
VOICEOVER: Mino is still on the go, even in the early hours of the morning when the woods are still shrouded in fog. He’s angry about the so-called truffle wars.
TRUFFLE HUNTER: (translated over Italian) It’s gotten so bad that dogs are being poisoned. Eight dogs were poisoned within the space of three weeks in this region alone. That’s incredibly painful for us.
GRABER: There’s dog poisoning, there’s break-ins and thefts. And obviously that’s all horrible. But the bigger picture is that there’s even more opportunity to play dirty when it comes to consumers. Most consumers aren’t super familiar with truffles because they don’t eat them frequently—so one thing that truffle sellers might do is have maybe one great truffle in a bunch, but alongside they’ll have cheaper kinds of truffles that don’t taste as good thrown in with the expensive one.
TWILLEY: Like maybe they mix in some Chinese truffles. These are much cheaper but usually less fragrant. And they happen to look identical to more expensive European black truffles.
BONE: So it’s very easy for people to purchase the wrong thing.
TWILLEY: Eugenia says the sheer amount of this kind of deception going on in the truffle world is kind of outrageous.
BONE: Humongous. [LAUGHS] Humongous. There’s all kinds of scallywags at work.
GRABER: But Eugenia says the most common fraud is something probably all of us have fallen for, and that’s buying truffle oil.
BONE: Because of the expense of the truffle oil one thinks, oh, that’s because it’s got truffles in it. But actually it usually doesn’t have truffles in it. Or if it does, they’re just in, you see a few scrapes in there for show.
GRABER: This isn’t fraud in the same way as selling a cheap Chinese truffle and pretending it’s a super expensive Italian truffle. But it is a bit of tomfoolery. If you buy truffle oil you might think you’re getting olive oil that gets its flavor from that beautiful piece of truffle floating in it—but no.
BONE: Mostly the oil is flavored with a chemical called bismethylthio methane, it’s like, food flavoring, you know, it’s. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with it. I just have a problem paying more than it’s worth. I mean, it costs like five cents to, to, flavor an eight ounce jar of oil. So, you know, charge what it actually costs and put it on your popcorn. It’s fabulous.
GRABER: It’s perfectly delicious, but Jeffrey and Eugenia say it’s nothing like the real thing.
COKER: The fake stuff in the right hands can make good dishes. I’ve had things that I like. But it’s not, it doesn’t have the complexity. It’s not special in the same way that a real truffle is. Ppart of the specialness is rarity, of course, but it’s it’s more than that. I mean, a really good authentic fresh truffle will blow your mind. It sets off neurons that just aren’t getting set off otherwise. There’s no way to describe it.
BONE: The truffle flavoring is like a harsher taste. It has almost a sort of benzene-y, kind of. Like benzene or gasoline kind of quality. It’s just a little harsher. The natural truffle aromas are very round, full, soft, enveloping. And, and in a way kind of complex. Because you’re getting that funky thing, but there’s also these other notes of the woods and of underground and of potatoes and, and the tanginess of garlic and things like that. So, it’s just a higher grade experience in terms of flavor.
TWILLEY: So there’s actually a difference in taste, not just in price. But Eugenia told us it’s completely legal to label truffle oil that has been flavored with this flavoring, this petroleum-derived chemical, as truffle oil, and put the words truffle aroma or truffle essence on the label. I admit to enjoying a truffle fry as much as the next bougie gastropub lover, but you should just know that that’s what you’re getting if that’s what the label says. And judge the appropriate price accordingly.
GRABER: But part of why everything connected to truffles is so expensive is that truffles are rare. But so what happened to all those truffle saplings that had been planted in France, and everyone’s newfound truffle knowledge?
TWILLEY: The problem with those saplings is they were planted as forests, and like we said, they became overgrown and neglected, and they stopped producing. And lots of them were then cut down as cities grew.
GRABER: But today, people are planting new truffle trees in organized farms, in truffle orchards, all over the world.
AGUEDA: South Africa, North America. In South America, Argentina. Australia, Australia, you know, Australia is now one of the sites where more truffles grow.
TWILLEY: So if there are all these truffle orchards all over the world, I’m going back to my big question, why are truffles too expensive for me to have for dinner? If there are all these truffle farms, surely truffles should be cheap and common? And yet they’re not.
GRABER: Part of the problem is that even though there are more and more farms out there, truffles are still not actually all that easy to grow.
AGUEDA: We know a lot of things, but there are still a lot of things to know. If you talk with the farmer, one say, I do this, but the other say, I don’t do this anymore. So there are not a clear book about how to do.
TWILLEY: Traditionally, farmers who have figured out how to grow truffles successfully haven’t been super forthcoming with their secrets. This is something Jeffrey ran into when he was trying to figure out how to grow truffles in North Carolina.
COKER: You can’t get a straight answer that you can believe about practically anything. You just have to get a kind of, here’s the perspectives that are out there from different scientists and different growers.
GRABER: And that’s only for the truffle species that people have figured out how to farm. We haven’t figured out how to farm every variety of truffle—like, for instance, the famous Italian white truffle has been impossible to grow in the past. It was just this past year that some scientists even started to crack its mysteries.
COKER: I think there’s only, in one spot and I think it’s France, where an experimental plot has generated some, some white Albas. But that has been difficult to impossible across history. Black perigords have been successful on other continents. That has a long history of failure in North America.
TWILLEY: Black perigords are the expensive kind of black truffle, which a lot more people have tried to grow than have succeeded at growing. Beatriz’s husband grows this kind of truffle, and Beatriz told us scientists and farmers still don’t know for sure all the factors that go into whether the truffle fungus actually fruits or not. There’s so many factors all intertwined: whether you prune the trees, how much water the orchard gets, the temperature and pH and oxygen levels of the soil—it all seems to matter, but a lot of it is still pretty much guesswork.
BONE: It’s really, I mean, even to call them cultivated truffles, it’s a, it’s a little bit more like, a zoo. Where you know, you’re not really cultivating the way we do corn. It’s more like you are creating an environment and hoping that they, you know, put up with it. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: And often they don’t put up with it.
COKER: Yeah, there’s, there’s a lot of opinion, and not many truffles. That’s the reality in the United States right now.
TWILLEY: But somehow Jeffrey and his team have cracked the code. So how? That story, after a word from our sponsors.
GRABER: We told you that Jeffrey and his colleagues have managed to do what few American farms have done, and that’s create a truffle farm that produces truffles year after year. One way they’ve done that is by farming a different kind of truffle.
COKER: So we are growing bianchetto truffles, or bianchetti if we’re in Italy. The species name is tuber borchii.
TWILLEY: These are the white-ish ones, they’re still in the big four, but they’re less expensive than the white ones from Alba. No one else was growing these white-ish truffles in the US and Jeffrey says they are a little less finickity than the black ones in terms of their preferred growing conditions.
GRABER: To be honest, Jeffrey’s truffles aren’t considered in quite the same realm as the Alba white, frankly it’s considered a slightly more downmarket truffle, if there is such a thing, but we’re talking about truffles, so it’s still awesome.
COKER: They’re both great truffles.
TWILLEY: The seasons don’t overlap so Jeffrey’s never been able to taste his white-ish truffles and the white Alba truffle side by side, and obviously he’s biased. But he thinks a lot of the Alba’s superior reputation is for other reasons, not because it tastes any better.
COKER: One is marketing. That region of Italy has done a great job of marketing their, their truffle. Number two is size. They’re able to get big ones. And three is rarity. So there’s not many of them, and so that tends to drive the price and the allure up.
GRABER: But the slightly second rate status didn’t stop Jeffrey from trying his hand at the bianchetto—which nobody had grown in America before he and his colleagues were hired by a wealthy businessman to figure this all out. The first thing they had to do was get the truffles to hook up to the roots of the local North Carolina pine trees.
COKER: I love being out here. This is one of my favorite places.
TWILLEY: Jeffrey led us into a small greenhouse. Every surface was covered with tiny little pine seedlings in pots. Rows and rows and rows of them. Some were no bigger than a pine needle, and others already had delicate light green fronds.
COKER: So we inoculate seedlings. And then there’s several, you know, actually lots of scientific challenges related to doing that, that has taken us years and years to perfect. But there’s the process of getting the fungi to attach to the roots in the first place, and then to keep them on the roots and thriving and growing along with the plants. That’s a delicate, that’s a delicate thing as well.
GRABER: As Jeffrey said, it took the team several years to make this all work. They had to tweak the pH of the soil, they had to put in air conditioning because the greenhouse got too hot. And they had to make sure that the trees were a little hungry and thirsty. The trees had to need the truffle.
COKER: The point is that you’re, that you’re maximizing the truffle growth and to do that the tree has to be under some stress.
TWILLEY: But even after they figured out how to make the trees hungry enough to hook up with the truffle babies, that doesn’t mean they just dump the truffle spores in there and everything works out fine first time. Jeffrey introduced us to Richard Franks, the farm’s chief scientific officer. Richard told us he puts the truffle spores right in with the potting mix when they first plant the seedlings, and the he inoculates them four or five times more after that, just to make sure.
RICHARD FRANKS: See the roots, on this? That is an uninoculated seedling.
GRABER: Richard picked up a seedling and pulled it out of its little plastic pot so we could see into the soil. The uninoculated naked seedling had really smooth brown little rootlets. They looked just like normal skinny roots, poking out of the soil. Then he pulled another seedling out of a pot, this one was inoculated.
FRANKS: See those little Y-shaped bodies?
FRANKS: That is the fungus. You can see that root has them from here all the way down.
TWILLEY: The inoculated rootlets had little white nobbles all over them. Richard said when the spores germinate, they stretch out little arm threads and whenever they hit a root, they wrap themselves around it and form little Y-shaped nodules.
GRABER: Richard told us he and his colleagues visually spot check a certain number of trees to see if the spores have taken root, so to speak, and they also send root samples out for DNA tests just to make extra sure.
TWILLEY: When the inoculated seedlings get big enough, they transplant them out into the farm, and then they wait. Years.
GRABER: And in the years while they were waiting for their first harvest, they had to plan for a truffle forest future, and that meant they needed a dog to help find the truffles, and that meant they had to find someone to help train a dog. They worked with a dog training company called Highland Canine.
TWILLEY: This is the weird thing about a truffle farm. You can’t see your crops. Hence the specially trained dog.
PAYNTER: They can train a dog to do anything. They train, you know, drug dogs, cadaver dogs. They train. They can train dogs to find anything.
TWILLEY: Here’s what’s good about dogs when it comes to truffles. They can smell the truffles, but they aren’t crazy about the smell the way pigs are. So whereas a pig wants to eat all the truffles it finds, a dog will happily let you take the truffle and give it a different treat. Laddie was initially trained that whenever he found a truffle, you’d throw a tennis ball for him.
PAYNTER: That worked pretty well the first year or so when we didn’t have many truffles, but when they started coming in, you get 3000 truffles in the field. You don’t have time to play ball. So, I had to retrain him to work for food.
GRABER: Today, Laddie gets a bacon bit when he finds a truffle. That seemed like a good solution, but the problem now is that he’s so good that he eats a little too much bacon during truffle season.
PAYNTER: And the last time I took him to the vet, he weighed over 100 pounds, so they said he’s getting too big. It’s because he’s getting so many treats in the field. It’s a two pound bag of treats the last two days.
TWILLEY: What can you do—Laddie is just really good at finding truffles. Not every dog has Laddie’s talents.
PAYNTER: The guy at Highland told me that Laddie was the best dog he’d ever trained. The smartest dog he’d ever trained. And his brother was, could not be trained. He just wanted to play, did not want to work.
GRABER: But Laddie? He is a star.
PAYNTER: He could be a million dollar dog in a few years. We hope. Find a million dollars worth of truffle.
TWILLEY: But as important as Laddie is, like most stars, he couldn’t do his job without a team. Which meant that WC and David also needed some training. They had to learn what a ripe truffle smells like.
PAYNTER: I mean it’s a unique aroma. So once you, you smell it and you know what is ripe, yeah, you can tell. It just hits you in the face.
GRABER: But even before WC and David stick their noses in the ground to see if a truffle is ripe, they can actually find a lot of unripe truffles just by looking.
COKER: Our staff are really, really good at what they do. And they figured out how to find them just by looking for, for signs of them on the ground. So looking for little bumps where you can tell that something’s growing underneath the soil, or little cracks.
TWILLEY: Jeffrey told us the truffles start forming underground in June and July, and from August, WC and David are out walking along the rows, looking for those little clues that a truffle is forming, and marking each spot with a flag. By the time harvest season rolls around in December, they have a couple of thousand flags peppered around the orchard.
GRABER: And they have it all mapped out with a numbered and lettered grid system.
PAYNTER: Let’s go to J-52.
GRABER: WC and David and Laddie check on the flags regularly to see if underground truffles are ripe. So we walked with them to one they hoped was finally ready to come out of the ground. They scraped at the ground a bit, we all stuck our noses to the ground, they carved off a tiny bit of the truffle to check its color…
TWILLEY: It smelled and looked great to us. But we haven’t had the full training. Turns out it wasn’t quite ready yet.
CROW: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah, it’s not it’s not as defined as what I expected it to be.
PAYNTER: The marbling, it needs to be a little darker. And, more gray and white stripes kind of thing.
GRABER: They covered the truffle back up with some dirt, and we moved on. WC let Laddie take the lead on the next one.
PAYNTER: Let’s go find one more. Search!
PAYNTER: So he hit on that one. Good boy.
TWILLEY: Laddie found a truffle that hadn’t been flagged. And while he enjoyed his bacon bit, we all got down on our knees again.
GRABER: I’m really getting into being a truffle dog here.
COKER: Oh, that’s beautiful.
GRABER: That is gorgeous. It’s much darker. Yeah, I want to—
TWILLEY: Look at that. It’s gorgeous.
GRABER: It really does smell amazing.
CROW: That’s why it’s almost a must to have a dog at this stage, this is what we would be missing without him.
GRABER: And it’s worth finding every single truffle. Only about half the trees produce truffles in any given year—again, nobody really knows why. Jeffrey told us that they get either zero or up to a pound from each tree, so in the orchard we were walking through, that would be about 500 pounds of truffles.
TWILLEY: Depending on the market price, each pound of truffles could sell for between one and two thousand dollars. So if you do the maths, that’s good money.
GRABER: And so it’s not surprising that, given the fact that the team can and do grow truffles successfully, well, they’re expanding their own business and they’ve also started selling inoculated trees to would-be truffle farmers up and down the East Coast and even in California.
TWILLEY: Jeffrey actually wants more competition because he thinks there’s a big market out there. Bigger than his farm can fulfill. He has high hopes for the future of truffles in America.
COKER: I’ll make a prediction that you’re going to see a slow ramp up over the next five to ten years and then you will see a boom. Right now, I would predict that we’re where the vineyards in the wine industry were in California—I don’t know exactly how many decades ago, but decades ago—when you could see it coming. People were doing the proof of concept and then you see this big ramp up. And then all of a sudden, American grocery store wine racks are full of California wine and American wines. I think that’s what you’re going to see with truffles.
TWILLEY: At the moment, there’s still way more demand than supply for truffles. Jeffrey describes a lot of his job as just crowd control—trying to manage the flood of orders coming in against what the orchard can produce. People get disappointed.
GRABER: And this is where China could come in. We told you that cheap, plentiful, Chinese truffles are often passed off as European truffles, and frankly China often gets a bad rap for lower quality. But Zach says the problem isn’t that Chinese truffles are necessarily bad, it’s just that they’re harvested when they’re not yet fully ripe. But that could be changed with some training.
NOWAK: And I think the people who are snobs and terroir-ists, I would say, are going to say, oh, it doesn’t taste as good, blah, blah, blah. But the closest relative to the expensive black truffle, genetically speaking, is the Chinese truffle. And so I think China could make a play for the market. But they need the expertise
TWILLEY: This is exactly what I was wanting to hear. The future looks truffley. I’m excited. The more truffles the merrier, as far as I’m concerned.
GRABER: And that might make us all go a little truffle mad.
COKER: I mean, its purpose in the soil, it’s in this buried earthen environment, its whole purpose is to lure animals to it, to consume it, and to lure mammals specifically. So if that’s its purpose, then maybe we ought not be surprised that people go a little a little crazy for it, because it’s sort of chemically and biologically built to do that.
GRABER: As we’ve said before, the truffle wants you to eat it, it’s goal isn’t to help you get in the mood. But you know what? Having a delicious dinner with something kind of rare and expensive and super tasty with someone you love or at least are into really might help you get in the mood.
TWILLEY: Works for me. Truffles have a long history of being exclusive and desirable and as we’ve seen, a lot of that is just PR and rarity value. But Jeffrey says truffles really do deserve the hype.
COKER: There are some things that are, that we hold special, that are that are just special, because they’re symbolic, and you look deeper and deeper, and it’s just sort of superficial and silly. With truffles, the more you understand about them, the cooler they are and the more and more special they are.
GRABER: We thought they were so cool and special that we considered reaching our hand into one of Jeffrey’s paper bags to take a sample back with us. But, no, listeners, we were brought up better than that, we were not going to steal his truffles. Luckily, though, he handed us a small one and a metal utensil dedicated to shaving truffles, and he told us not to wait to taste it, truffles taste best when they’re super fresh.
TWILLEY: So, the very next morning, we bust out our truffle.
GRABER: The smell as soon as you open the bag—Wait, wait, wait. Ahhhhh. Here we are, in a little parking lot, in North Carolina. Morehead City.
TWILLEY: We’re opposite the PNC Bank and—
GRABER: Dairy Queen.
TWILLEY: Just past Walgreens. And I’m about to shave some truffle on some scrambled egg.
GRABER: And grits. There’s grits there too.
TWILLEY: And sour cream. It’s all the fatty deliciousness that we need.
TWILLEY: In my entire truffle-deprived existence to this point, I had never shaved a truffle, but where better to start than outside a coffeeshop in a North Carolina parking lot.
GRABER: Oh, there we go. Beautiful.
TWILLEY: Wow, look at this. I’m shaving a truffle.
GRABER: We were told that truffles go well with rich foods like butter and sour cream and eggs and a kind of creamy blank canvas, which is where the grits came in. And that was not a lie.
TWILLEY. Oh god, that mouthful. It was so—
GRABER: Wow, that’s so good.
TWILLEY: Living our best lives. [LAUGHS]
GRABER: We are indeed living our best lives.
TWILLEY: See now I’m like, I’m glad I got out of bed.
GRABER: It’s very delicate. It doesn’t have that overwhelming kind of truffle thing that that you often have when you’re out—
TWILLEY: It makes cheese more cheesy. It adds savory notes. There’s something else, I can’t quite put my finger on and it’s really good.
GRABER: But it’s not like oh, I’m eating a truffle dish.
TWILLEY: No, no, no, it doesn’t taste like truffle fries at all. No.
GRABER: No, it’s that kind of indescribable, like earthy. [LAUGHS] You look very happy right now.
TWILLEY: Like I said, aphrodisiac or not: if you shave a truffle over something, I’m yours.
GRABER: I am yours as well. So about the truffle, I have to say one of the best parts was the aftertaste in my mouth, and weirdly it lasted for hours.
TWILLEY: Honestly, our random truffle breakfast was one of the most memorable breakfasts of my life. Like Jeffrey told us, truffles make everything more fun!
COKER: There’s a high probability that if we ship somebody a truffle, it’s going to end up on social media somewhere, because it’s an event. People, people think of it as an event, hey, look at what I got in the mail, you know, you don’t do that if you ordered tomatoes [LAUGHS]. Or whatever. Hardly anything makes me happier than to see how people are, how our truffles are bringing people joy.
GRABER: Thanks this episode to Eugenia Bone, Zachary Nowak, Beatriz Agueda, Jeffrey Coker, WC Paynter, David Crow, and of course, Laddie the dog. You can find links and photos on our website, gastropod.com. And thanks as always to our superstar producer, Claudia Geib.
TWILLEY: We’re back in a couple of weeks with the story of a drug-addicted pharmacist who invented one of the most popular drinks in the world.
GRABER: ‘Til then!