In season: Tennessee truffles

The fragrance of a fresh Perigord black truffle, only a few days out of the ground, may be the most amazing aroma in all the plant or fungi kingdom. A truffle from Oregon or shipped from Europe pales in comparison with one that’s been locally sourced. Luckily for us in Georgia, black truffles are available from our neighboring states of North Carolina and Tennessee.

Ten miles from the North Carolina border, in Limestone, Tenn., Tom Michaels runs Tennessee Truffle. He has 2,500 trees on 18 acres, all inoculated with French truffle stock. ”My initial commercial groves were planted in 2000 and 2001. Six years later, to my great surprise, I accidentally almost stepped on my first truffle,” he said.

Here in the Southeast, truffle season starts around mid-December and can continue for about two months, maybe until Valentine’s Day or perhaps into early March.

Michaels finds his truffles with the help of Brenda, a Lagotto Romagnolo from Hungary, a breed of dog often used to hunt truffles. “She doesn’t hunt truffles to please me. She hunts them to eat them,” Michaels said. “If I’m not careful, before I know it, the truffle she finds is gone.”

Brenda isn’t totally deprived of truffles. Michaels puts bits of culled truffles into her pull toys. “Now there’s a real gourmet doggie treat,” he said with a laugh.

Each truffle they find is carefully cleaned to remove every speck of dirt. “I use a Waterpik, microscope and food-grade disinfectant like those used for carrots and other root vegetables to be sure my truffles are totally table-ready,” he said. Then he packs each truffle in an individual container and lets it sit overnight.

The next day, he can judge the aroma of the truffle and match that truffle to his chefs and other customers. Michaels says the truffle on one side of the tree may be very different from one on the other side. In the spirit of the farm-to-table movement, he’s made it a practice to know what aromatic profile appeals to what chef and to provide each with truffles that meet his or her requirements.

How does a truffle grower enjoy his harvest? “Truffles are best in simple food where they can stand out on their own. Don’t cover them up with strong flavors. Tucked under the skin of a chicken breast, the aroma goes all the way through the meat. It’s awesome,” Michaels said. “But my favorite is shaving them into creamy scrambled eggs.”

He finds the best way to preserve any bits of truffle that are left is to shave the truffle into butter. Mixed together, then well-wrapped and frozen, this truffle butter will keep for several months.

Truffles command a premium price because there’s more demand than truffle growers can supply. That’s one reason more farmers are giving truffles a try, including those trying to grow truffles on pecan trees in Georgia.

Michaels says it takes a certain temperament to be a truffle farmer. “You have to put up with the uncertainty. Unlike, say, growing tomatoes, where you can pick the variety and know the spacing and how to manage the crop, we’re clueless about how to standardize truffle growing,” he said. “And then you have to wait seven years to see if you’re actually going to get any truffles.”

He counts it as a good day if he goes out into the groves and picks a basket full. “Theoretically, you should get a ton of truffles per acre, but that’s going to be 50 years from now, if ever,” he said.

In metro Atlanta, Star Provisions sells French Perigord truffles and Whole Foods frequently carries Orgeon truffles. To try a Southeastern truffle, you’ll have to order from the farm. Because of their scarcity, customers order truffles by calling first to see whether there are any available. For the details, visit Michaels’ website:

For sale at local farmers markets

Vegetables: arugula, Asian greens, beets, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, carrots, celery, chard, collards, endive, escarole, fennel, frisee, herbs, green beans, Jerusalem artichokes, kale, leeks, lettuce, mushrooms, mustard greens, olives, parsnips, potatoes, onions, radishes, rutabaga, spinach, spring onions, sweet potatoes, turmeric, turnips, winter squash

From local reports

Brian Jones’ Creamy Carolina Gold Rice with Tennessee Black Truffles

Hands on: 50 minutes

Total time: 50 minutes

Serves: 4

A dish featuring a fresh local truffle deserves homemade chicken stock. No canned or boxed stock for this recipe. Brian Jones of Restaurant Eugene prefers to make this risotto-style dish with Carolina Gold Rice, milled by Anson Mills. The rice can be ordered online or is available in Atlanta at Star Provisions. If you like, you can substitute Arborio.

Jones recommends storing the truffles in the rice before you prepare the recipe. “This is done to draw moisture from the truffle and to extend its shelf life, and it gives the rice the truffle aroma, which comes through when cooked. I like using Tennessee black truffles because of the freshness. When I call Tom, he isn’t always sure how many truffles he will find. I give him my wish list and he goes out and hunts,” Jones said. “Whatever he finds he will send out, and I will have them the next day.”

The egg yolks will cook slightly as they’re stirred into the hot rice. If you have any concerns about raw egg yolks, eliminate them from the dish.

3 cups homemade chicken stock, divided, more if needed

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, divided

1 small yellow onion, minced (about 3/4 cup)

Kosher salt and a pepper grinder

1 cup Carolina Gold Rice

1/4 cup white wine

1 sprig thyme

1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley

1 ounce Tennessee black truffle, julienned

4 egg yolks

In a small saucepan, heat 3 cups chicken stock over low heat. Keep warm.

In a heavy-bottomed medium saucepan over a medium-low flame, melt 6 tablespoons butter and add onion. Season with a pinch of salt and one twist of pepper grinder. Simmer until onion is translucent, about 5 minutes. Do not let onions brown.

When onions are ready, use a wooden spoon and stir in rice. Cook, stirring rice, until rice grains are translucent, about 8 minutes. Constantly stirring will ensure rice cooks evenly and releases starch, which helps create the creamy consistency. Season with a pinch of salt and one twist of pepper grinder.

Stir in white wine. Season with a pinch of salt and one twist of pepper grinder. Add thyme. Continue cooking until rice absorbs the wine, about 2 minutes. Stir in 1 cup chicken stock and season with a pinch of salt and a twist of the pepper grinder. Continue cooking the rice, stirring frequently. Once the rice has absorbed the stock, about 8 minutes, stir in second cup of stock and season with a pinch of salt and a twist of the pepper grinder. When rice has absorbed the stock, add the last cup of stock, season with a pinch of salt and a twist of the pepper grinder and cook, stirring frequently, until all stock is absorbed.

Discard thyme. Taste rice to be sure the grains are tender and creamy. If not, add more stock until rice is the texture you prefer. When rice is ready, stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons butter, majority of the truffle and parsley. Divide the rice between serving dishes. Garnish with an egg yolk and remaining black truffles. Serve immediately.

Per serving: 510 calories (percent of calories from fat, 55), 15 grams protein, 45 grams carbohydrates, 1 gram fiber, 33 grams fat (17 grams saturated), 278 milligrams cholesterol, 50 milligrams sodium.