Q. I was at a restaurant in Washington, and they had a $90 plate of pasta covered in truffles. I have no idea what these are. Why are they so expensive?
Truffles are the aromatic, earthy, fruiting body of an underground fungus. These fungi live in symbiosis with a variety of trees, most notably birch and oak.
Truffles come in two main varieties: white, Tuber magnatum; and black, Tuber melanosporum. White truffles are more prestigious and vastly more expensive, sometimes retailing for as much as $3,000 per pound. They're usually shaved very thinly over a dish just before it's served.
Black truffles, also called Perigord truffles, are less expensive, $800 per pound, depending on market conditions. You can purchase jarred and canned truffles, usually from shavings, for a bit less.
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Traditionally foraged in the wild with the aid of pigs or dogs, more black truffles are now being cultivated by inoculating the roots of saplings with truffle spores. The first truffles appear four or five years later, with the trees reaching production capacity – around 75 pounds per acre – after eight years. This process was developed in France.
The first black truffle farm in the United States is right here in the N.C. Piedmont. Franklin Garland started growing Perigord truffles in 1997 in Orange County, where the cool, damp fall and relatively mild winter provide perfect growing conditions. A second farm, Black Diamond French Truffles, has been started by Susan Rice in Vass, about 50 miles from Raleigh, that is expected to start producing in the next several years. Find information about that at www.bdft.com.
Fresh black truffles are available through Garland Truffles from December until February, by calling 919-732-3041; availability is limited. Jarred truffles are also available, $50 for a half ounce at www.garlandtruffles.com.