Truffle Cultivation Part 1: A History

by Graham on January 6, 2011

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Truffle, Truffle, who’s got the Truffle? Tuber spp. are ectomycorrhizal ascomycetes that produce ascocarps known as truffles. The origin of the word truffle appears to be the Latin term tuber, meaning “lump”, which became tufer- and gave rise to the various European terms: French truffe, Spanish trufa, German Trüffel, Dutch truffel and Croatian tartuf. These ‘lumps’ fetch quite a high price. In 2001, Tuber magnatum truffles sold for between US$1,000 and $2,200 per pound on average! However, the record price paid for a single white truffle was set in December 2007, when Macau casino owner Stanley Ho paid US$330,000 (£165,000) for a specimen weighing 3.3 lbs!

So what makes these mushrooms worth so much money? Truffles are an ecto-mycorrhizal mushroom that grows underground. Ecto-mycorrhizal fungi are notoriously difficult to cultivate, as they must be in association with a specific plant/tree to survive. But to top it all off, they are very difficult to find as they are always underground. Many truffle hunters must use dogs or pigs to sniff them out.

However, truffles can be cultivated. As early as 1808, there were successful attempts to cultivate truffles, known in French as trufficulture. People had long observed that truffles were growing among the roots of certain trees, and in 1808, Joseph Talon, from Apt (département of Vaucluse) in southern France, had the idea to sow some acorns collected at the foot of oak trees known to host truffles in their root system. The experiment was successful: years later, truffles were found in the soil around the newly grown oak trees. In 1847, Auguste Rousseau of Carpentras (in Vaucluse) planted 7 hectares (17 acres) of oak trees (again from acorns found on the soil around truffle-producing oak trees), and he subsequently obtained large harvests of truffles. He received a prize at the 1855 World’s Fair in Paris.

These successful attempts were met with enthusiasm in southern France, which possessed the sweet limestone soils and dry hot weather that truffles need to grow. In the late 19th century, an epidemic of phylloxera destroyed many of the vineyards in southern France. Another epidemic destroyed most of the silkworms in there, too, making the fields of mulberry trees useless. Thus, large tracts of land were set free for the cultivation of truffles. Thousands of truffle-producing trees were planted, and production reached peaks of hundreds of tonnes at the end of the 19th century. In 1890 there were 750 square kilometres (190,000 acres) of truffle-producing trees. In the 20th century however, with the growing industrialization of France and the subsequent rural exodus, many of these truffle fields (champs truffiers or truffières) returned to wilderness.

The First World War also dealt a serious blow to the French countryside, killing 20% or more of the male working force. As a consequence of these events, newly acquired techniques of trufficulture were lost. Also, between the two world wars, the truffle fields planted in the 19th century stopped being productive. (The average life cycle of a truffle-producing tree is 30 years.) Consequently, after 1945 the production of truffles plummeted, and the prices have risen dramatically. In 1900, truffles were used by most people, and on many occasions. Today, they are a rare delicacy reserved for the rich, or used on very special occasions. In the last 30 years, new attempts for mass production of truffles have been started. Eighty percent of the truffles now produced in France come from specially planted truffle-fields. Nonetheless, production has yet to recover its 1900s peaks. Local farmers are opposed to a return of mass production, which would decrease the price of truffles. There are now truffle-growing areas in the United States, Spain, Sweden, New Zealand, Australia, Chile and the UK.

In 1999, the first Australian truffles were harvested in Tasmania, the result of eight years of work. Trees were inoculated with the truffle fungus in the hope of creating a local truffle industry. Their success and the value of the resulting truffles has encouraged a small industry to develop. A Western Australian venture, The Wine and Truffle Co, had its first harvest in 2004, and in 2005 they unearthed a 1 kg truffle. In 2008, an estimated 600 kilograms (1,300 lb) of truffles were removed from the rich ground of Manjimup. Each year The Wine and Truffle Co. has expanded their production, moving into the colder regions of Victoria and New South Wales.

In June 2010, Tasmanian growers Michael and Gwynneth Williams harvested Australia’s largest truffle from their property at Myrtle Bank, near Launceston. It weighed in at 2 lb 6.2 oz. Ms Williams told ABC Radio in Australia that it is valued at approximately AUS$1,500 per kilo.

Next week in Part 2, we will discuss the lab techniques needed to grow Tuber spp. in vitro. I hope you all had a very Happy New Year and will check back with us soon.

(adapted from the Truffle- Wikipedia article)

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