In season: pecan truffles

Imagine rooting around the base of a pecan tree and finding small knobby “things” the color, but not the shape, of pecans. Pick one up and sniff. It smells like good Georgia clay with a mushroom overtone. And it has a little give to it.

Definitely not a pecan. But what is it?

Turns out, it’s a pecan truffle, a different species but the same genus as European truffles.

Tim Brenneman, plant pathologist at the University of Georgia, was studying pecan diseases when he ran across his first pecan truffle 26 years ago. “I literally kicked one up out of the ground with my boot. I’ve always had an interest in fungi, and sure enough, it was a truffle,” he remembers.

“We have a couple hundred thousand pecan trees in Georgia. In the right spot, you can find hundreds of truffles. At that time they had no recognized value,” Brenneman said. “They were being swept up with harvesters and thrown away.”

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His chance introduction to the pecan truffle was the start of what is now an evolving industry in Georgia. “The development of dogs trained to find the truffles is what made the difference. You can walk around an orchard and spend 90 percent of your time not finding a thing. But if you have a dog who can go right to them, that makes all the difference,” he said.

Which leads us to Eric Cohen, a Georgia pecan farmer based in Whigham on the Florida state line. His truffle hunting companion is Tate, a Labrador retriever with a nose for truffles. Tate is 3 years old and for Tate, going truffle hunting is the equivalent of a quail or Easter egg hunt.

Cohen heard Brenneman talking about pecan truffles, and then he bought Tate. “I bought Tate on faith. I didn’t know if I had a truffle or not. But I absolutely fell in love with him. I cannot believe the owner sold me this dog.”

There was a brief moment when Cohen thought it was a gamble that wouldn’t pay off. “We went out looking at in the first orchard, we found nothing. But when we got to the second orchard, his body language changed immediately. It’s like he’s pointing at a covey of quail. That’s the way he acts when he’s getting close to a truffle. When he finds it, he lays down and points to it with his paw. Then sits there dead still while I dig it up.”

Cohen has pecan groves from Monticello, Florida, to Thomasville, Georgia. “We have about 1,400 acres of pecans on seven or eight parcels of land. But we’ve found that where we have sandy soils, there are no truffles. A clay soil or heavy black dirt? That’s where I find my truffles.”

Cohen and Tate start finding truffles around the first of July and can keep finding them into late November. When conditions are good, they go out two or three times a week to the orchards, where Cohen knows they’re most likely to find truffles. What he doesn’t sell right away, he freezes for later sale.

Cohen also sells pecan halves and pecan oil through his website, www.pecanridgeplantation.com, at Jaemor Farms in northeast Georgia and in stores throughout south Georgia. He’s in the last stages of testing pecan truffle oil, as well.

Pecan truffles have a mild flavor. Cohen likes to cook eggs and add grated truffles just at the end of the cooking. “I add the truffle about a minute before the eggs are done. That amount of heat is just perfect to bring out the flavor. But really, we only eat them once every two or three weeks because the demand is so strong that when I find them, I sell them.”

And that leads us to Scott Foster, chef and owner of Liam’s in Thomasville. “Eric came to Liam’s one day to talk to me about his pecan truffles. I had heard of pecan truffles 12 years ago but was skeptical,” Foster said. “Not knowing much about this ingredient, I went on the Internet to find out as much as I could. My search led me to websites from the University of Georgia where they’ve had done studies on pecan truffles and their viability in the current culinary market. Their research showed that they had no toxins and were safe to consume. Since Eric purchased Tate, he and I have become friends. We look forward to his harvests every year now and his family’s truffles always make their way onto Liam’s menu.”

Liam’s Pecan Truffle, Shiitake and Ricotta Tartine

Chef Scott Foster and his wife Rhonda opened Liam’s restaurant in Thomasville, Georgia, as a place where they could serve fresh, seasonal dishes and showcase local farms and their ingredients.

Foster says these toasts would be a perfect accompaniment to a salad of mixed greens tossed with a light vinaigrette. Sounds like a delicious lunch, even if you haven’t gotten your hands on a local truffle. No pecan oil? A light olive oil will do.

4 1/2-inch slices artisan sourdough bread

1 cup ricotta

1 (1-ounce) pecan truffle

Sea salt and cracked black pepper

Pecan oil

1/2 pound shiitake mushrooms, trimmed

2 watermelon or other radishes, thinly sliced

Flower petals or chopped chives, to garnish

Under a broiler or in a toaster, toast bread until golden on both sides. Set aside.

Put ricotta in a small bowl. Shave in as much truffle as you like. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside.

In a medium skillet, heat a thin layer of pecan oil. Add mushrooms and saute until tender. Season to taste.

When ready to serve, assemble tartines: Divide ricotta mixture between toasted bread slices. Toss mushrooms with radishes and divide between toasts. Garnish with petals and chives and shaved truffle, if desired. Serves: 4

Per serving: 396 calories (percent of calories from fat, 29), 15 grams protein, 60 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams fiber, 14 grams fat (4 grams saturated), 21 milligrams cholesterol, 238 milligrams sodium.

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