Savoy Truffle

The fruit of this subterranean fungus is big business. 

Virginia Living Magazine Virginia Truffles Kyle LaFerriere

Photography by Kyle LaFerriere

When thinking about their retirement, John and Pat Martin didn’t dream of days playing golf or watching sunsets on a beach. Instead, they envisioned fungus—Tuber melanosporum, to be exact. Truffles, to you and me. So, they bought land in Culpeper County and embarked on the long-term project of cultivating a truffle orchard. Field studies in France, Italy, and Spain, where truffles have been harvested for centuries, would provide additional know-how and inspiration.

It sounded like a simple plan: Plant some trees with an infected fungus on their roots, wait a few years, and then start collecting truffles to eat and sell. (Some truffles sell for $600 per pound to restaurateurs.) After attending truffle-growing seminars in Europe, the Martins realized that to be successful in the business, they would have to be part microbiologist, nurseryman, dog trainer, irrigation engineer, salesperson, culinary advisor, chemist, and educator. And they’d have to be patient; it would take five to 12 years before they could see their first crop.

Virginia Living Magazine Virginia Truffles Kyle LaFerriere

Freshly dug truffles.

“Truffles are the fruiting bodies of a fungal network that lives on the roots of various types of trees that the fungus uses as a host,” explains the Martins’ daughter, Olivia Taylor, who joined the endeavor in 2018 as a partner and the farm manager. She holds degrees in biology and environmental science and policy, and has served as the president and the secretary of the North American Truffle Growers Association. “The tree and the fungus have a symbiotic relationship. The fungus derives sugars from the tree, and the tree gets nutrients via the fungus that the tree cannot retrieve itself from the soil.”

There are at least 200 species of truffles in America, Taylor says. Some have value in both the culinary and the medicinal/herbal worlds. “We grow the Tuber melanosporum, also known as the black or Périgord truffle, primarily for its high monetary value and because there has been a lot of success worldwide in that particular species’ cultivation.”  

To cultivate a truffle orchard, soil conditions must be exactly right. The smell of a truffle is determined by the bacteria in the soil, just as the soil affects the smell and taste of wine. And, as with planting a vineyard, it takes time before an inoculated tree starts producing truffles; at the Martins’ farm, it took eight years. Even once a tree starts producing, says Taylor, “The fungus that produces the truffles only does so at certain times of the year, depending on the species. It takes almost a whole year for a truffle to grow and then ripen.” Fortunately, she adds, “most trees can produce multiple truffles at a time during the season.”

The fungus that produces the truffles only does so at certain times of the year, depending on the species. It takes almost a whole year for a truffle to grow and then ripen.

Another challenge for truffle producers? Trees sometimes become infected with native, or “contaminant,” truffle fungus, which easily outcompetes the imported gourmet truffle species. Says Pat Martin, “So, if a grower is not careful, he or she could wind up with a whole orchard of contaminated truffles.” Although they don’t necessarily taste bad, there isn’t a market for native truffles, adds Taylor, so they don’t have much value. 

In addition to growing truffles, the Martins sell inoculated trees to those who want to grow their own truffles. They offer site evaluations, management consultations, and seedlings, and will bring their truffle dogs over to help with the harvest. Tempted to try it? Taylor notes that you need at least two trees, “but probably more” to guarantee production.

Virginia Living Magazine Virginia Truffles; Kyle LaFerriere

Nadine sniffs out truffles in the Martins’ orchard.

The Martins harvest black truffles from November through the end of March. They start by looking for small mounds in a brûlé, or “burned,” area under the host tree, where the truffle fungus retards growth of other vegetation. Once they locate a likely area, it’s time for the truffle dogs to earn their keep. The Martins have two dogs, which smell the truffle underground and alert their handler to its exact location. Dogs with good scenting ability and an eager-to-please attitude, such as Labrador retrievers, can make good truffle dogs, says Taylor, who also advises owners and growers about training a dog to sniff for truffles. She says it takes “a couple years” to train a solid truffle dog.

Newly dug truffles must be scrubbed thoroughly with a brush and cold water, and then allowed to dry for proper storage. A sold truffle is cleaned, inspected, and shipped the next day.

The Martins sell primarily to local restaurants, “but we have shipped all over the country,” says Taylor.

Why not just buy truffle oil instead of using a real truffle? As Taylor points out, “There is no truffle in truffle oil. Truffle oil is a synthetic.” That might be sufficient for casual home cooks, but patrons at high-end restaurants expect to eat the real thing. “Some chefs will quiz me to see what I know about truffles, both to make sure I know what I am selling and to make sure they are getting what they are paying for,” Taylor says.

Virginia Living Magazine Virginia Truffles Kyle LaFerriere

The Martins store eggs with truffles so they absorb the flavorful essence.

That said, truffles are generally an accent, not a stand-alone dish; uncooked truffles are shaved onto or mixed into recipes. “To capture the truffle essence,” says Taylor, “they are stored in sealed containers with eggs, creams, butter, or other high-fat products.” Those products absorb the aroma of the truffle and are then incorporated into decadent dishes like lobster Thermidor and truffled Virginia shrimp and grits. Visit the Martins’ website for recipes. 

This article originally appeared in the December 2020 issue.

June 11, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
July 9, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum
August 13, 2022

Star Gazing and Laser Nights

Virginia Living Museum