This past weekend I was back in Eugene for the 4th annual festival (I was giving a talk on truffle cultivation) and it was like seeing a new industry emerge before my eyes. Remember the heady days of the dot.com era? That's the kind of excitement around truffles right now—and not just in foodie circles. Big-idea thinkers in medical research, economics and private investment came together at the festival to plan what they imagine will be a huge future for truffle in America, whatever the current economic situation may be.
The 264 guests at Saturday night's Grand Truffle Dinner devoured Oregon truffles by the pound. The next morning, hundreds more visitors to the festival's Marketplace sniffed egg-sized truffles from the local woods, tasted foodstuffs such as savory truffle shortbread (imagine God's own Cheez-It) and swirled Willamette Valley pinot noirs said by their makers to exhibit "truffle-y" notes.
The real action, though, took place Friday and Saturday before the general public arrived, when 78 participants paid big bucks—ticket packages cost as as much as $1,200—to attend a conference on cultivating European truffles on North American soil. The buzz was all about Tom Michaels, who is growing the so-called "black diamond" or Perigord black truffle near the Great Smokey Mountains in Chuckey, Tennessee. Michaels has harvested some 150 pounds this winter and his haul may top 200 pounds before the season peters out around Valentine's Day. Retail price? Upwards of $1000 a pound.
Another triumphant report came from festival co-organizer Charles LeFevre, founder of a company that grows and sells tree saplings with truffles on their roots. A truffiere he planted 7 years ago for clients in northern California has started to bear. All the clients need now is a trained dog to locate the buried treasure. "We know there are truffles," said the expectant farmer. "We can smell them. We just can't see them."
Marketing truffles to the masses is the name of the game for North Carolina entrepeneur Susan Rice. Rice has launched a line of packaged foods including popcorn dusted with imported black truffles. The stuff is pricey ($8.99 for a bag I gobbled in one sitting) but it's apparently flying off the shelf at Whole Foods stores in the South. (An endorsement from Weight Watchers on the packaging doesn't hurt.) Now, with her son, Rice is gearing up to plant a 200-acre truffiere. The Rices are raising money in part by selling stock in the two ventures: $2 per share for the products company, $3 a share for the truffiere. (Hey, Microsoft used to be cheap, too.) According to Oregon State University Extension agricultural economist Jim Julian, the potential annual return per acre of truffiere is $30,000.
The list goes on: Dr. Marvin Hausman, M.D., a medical researcher whose resume includes developing drugs for major pharmaceutical companies, is now interested in the antioxidant potential of truffles and is already selling a proprietary mushroom-based nutraceutical called Mushroom Matrix. There was even a slick young consultant on hand, a sure sign of an industry coming of age. Robert Chang's American Truffle Company offers guidance to investors who want to launch a truffle business—in return for a 30% equity stake in
the new company.
And if the future belongs to the young, then the OTF suggests that the future of truffles has already arrived. Ian Purkayastha imports European truffles through his company, Tartufi Unlimited, for the restaurant trade, and he came to Eugene to network with domestic growers. He has a passion for what might be called "cult truffles," lesser known varieties such as the
Burgundy truffle, and he pushed his ideas with conviction and charm. Just don't ask him to weigh in on those "truffle-y" Oregon wines. Ian (above) is too young to drink them: he's 16.
Photos: field, Charles LeFevre; close-up, Georgia Freedman.