The gastro-economic potential is tantalizing, and it may already be at hand. Last February Tom Michaels, a plant pathologist who graduated from the same Ph.D. program as Lefevre, harvested a crop of Périgord black truffles from his Tennessee orchard. Michaels’s crop, from trees he had inoculated himself, did much to prove that American truffles could match the glorious fragrance of the French. No less an authority than star chef Daniel Boulud told The New York Times, “This Tennessee truffle is the real thing.”
If Lefevre is disappointed that Michaels got there first, he doesn’t betray it. “Oh, they were phenomenal,” he says of Michaels’s specimens. “They had a sweetness that the imported truffles just don’t have.” And it certainly hasn’t hurt business: As of May he had sold out of his entire stock for the year, with the average order running as high as 1,000 plants. (Current prices are $22 a plant, and while Lefevre guarantees that truffle fungus exists on the tree roots, he makes no promises that they will yield truffles.)
Lefevre is by turns showy and secretive, not unlike the truffle itself. He loves to recite truffle lore—some believe that the biblical manna may have been truffles—but is outright bashful about the truffle’s reputation as an aphrodisiac. “A chef in town once said people who don’t like truffles don’t like sex,” he says uncomfortably, sounding like a teenager admitting he knows the facts of life.
After the foraging expedition, Lefevre drives into nearby Eugene for dinner at the acclaimed Marché restaurant, where forager Jim Wells, owner of Oregon Wild Edibles, waits in the kitchen, guarding a box of white truffles. Wells, who wears suspenders and has a Walt Whitman beard, began delivering Oregon truffles to San Francisco–area restaurants 25 years ago. It irks him that Alice Waters and other big names haven’t yet embraced the ingredient. He suspects that some were scarred by bad experiences with immature specimens; while most Europeans employ pigs or dogs to uncover only the ripe fungi, many Americans use rakes, which unearth truffles at all stages of development. But snobbery, no doubt, also comes into play. Wells relates the sniping of one top European chef: “She said the truffles were very good, but of course they weren’t French.”
A more measured assessment comes from Marché’s executive chef, Rocky Maselli. “For me, it’s all about terroir,” he says, using the vintner’s term for that confluence of soil and climate that gives a wine its character. “If you’re in Alba or Périgord, you’re tasting the local wines and eating the local food. What we have here is equivalent.”