in season -- truffles

Up in the northwest corner of North Carolina, trained dogs are sniffing the bases of oak and filbert trees hoping to find treasure. They’re looking for black truffles, Tuber melanosporum, whose season is now until early March.

We may think of truffles as a European export, but Jack Ponticelli, president of the North American Truffle Growers Association, says truffles are indigenous to North America and have been harvested in the wild for centuries.

“The Johnny Appleseed of truffles is Franklin Garland who went to France to learn the process of how to cultivate truffles. He came back and started growing truffles in Hillsborough, North Carolina,” said Ponticelli.

Ponticelli, looking for an alternate crop to help small farmers stay on their land, heard about Garland and became intrigued with the idea of growing truffles. Now the two, along with Ponticelli’s son Aron, are partners in Piedmont Valley Truffles in Surry and Yadkin counties, North Carolina. They started farming in 2002.

The process begins with oak and filbert trees grown from seed. When the trees are 3 to 6 months old, they’re dug up, roots washed and inoculated with truffle spore and then replanted. It’s at least five years before there are any truffles for harvest, and at least 10 years before there’s an appreciable crop.

Inoculated trees are sold in the United States by Garland Truffles, available for anyone interested in trying their hand at truffle growing

How does Ponticelli know when the truffles are ready? The first sign is that when the truffle spore is active, it kills the grass around the base of the tree, he told me. Some truffles will crown the surface, but most will be buried in the soil. His dogs can find truffles buried up to 7 inches deep.

Ponticelli has scent-trained his dogs, Labradoodles in his case although many breeds can be trained, so they will only find truffles that are ripe. “Each dog has a different way of telling you he’s found a truffle. Some dig, some sniff, you have to learn your dog,” said Ponticelli. And yes, if you’re not quick enough, your dog just might eat that truffle before you can snatch it away.

Ponticelli has about 30 acres of truffle orchard with around 500 trees to the acre. He’s hoping that when the trees mature, his crop will yield an average of 75 pounds of truffles per acre. Right now he’s not harvesting anywhere near that amount and most of his truffles go to his restaurant clientele.

Fresh truffles are not widely available. I found an Oregon truffle packed in a plastic clamshell filled with Arborio rice at Whole Foods Market. If you want a southeastern truffle, check the websites for Piedmont Valley Truffles, www.nctruffles.com, or Tennessee Truffle, www.tennesseetruffle.com, and call for availability. The cost should be in the neighborhood of $40 to $60 an ounce, and the truffle will have a shelf life of about two weeks.

How do you make the most of your expensive purchase? Ponticelli packs a sealable plastic container with a dozen eggs and a truffle and leaves it overnight. The truffle aroma penetrates the egg shells and he ends up with truffle-scented eggs.  You can do the same thing with any variety of rice. And you still have your truffle to garnish the cooked eggs, rice or some other dish. Black truffles should not be cooked, but simply chopped or shaved to garnish other dishes.

And what about truffle oil? Many folks, including Ponticelli, say that most truffle oil never sees a truffle at all, but gains its flavor from an infusion of an aromatic organic compound that’s derived from petroleum. It is possible to find truffle oil made with real truffles, but expect to pay handsomely for it.

To really immerse yourself in truffles, head up to Asheville for the National Truffle Fest Thursday, February 23 through Saturday, February 25. Atlanta’s own Cynthia Wong, executive pastry chef for Empire State South, is one of the celebrity chefs appearing there. For more information: www.frankielemmonschool.org/events.

For sale

Vegetables: arugula, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, chard, collards, endive, herbs, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mushrooms, onions, radishes, rutabagas, spinach, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, turnips

From local reports

Truffled Deviled Eggs

Hands on: 15 minutes

Total time: 1 hour

Makes: 24

1 dozen eggs, room temperature

3 tablespoons mayonnaise

1 tablespoon truffle oil

Salt

1 small black truffle, chopped

In a large saucepan, arrange eggs and cover with water by 1 inch. Cover pan and bring water to a boil over medium-high heat. As soon as water boils, turn off heat. Leave eggs in pan for 15 minutes.

Drain off water and peel eggs. Cut eggs in half. Remove yolks to a small bowl and mash with mayonnaise and truffle oil. Taste for seasoning. Transfer yolk mixture to pastry bag and pipe into egg whites. Garnish with chopped truffles and serve immediately or refrigerate covered up to 4 hours.

Per serving: 57 calories (percent of calories from fat, 75), 3 grams protein, trace carbohydrates, no fiber, 5 grams fat (1 gram saturated), 107 milligrams cholesterol, 45 milligrams sodium.