Carolina Truffles

BY By Richard Leder

Kevin O’Connell the dynamic executive chef at the distinguished Country Club of Landfall has tackled some challenging projects in his impressive culinary career but none as unique as the one he began five years ago in a 2-acre field in Harnett County 30 minutes or so south of Raleigh. On this little farm in central North Carolina the soil is a perfect blend of clay loam and sand the climate is hot but not too hot for too long and cold though not freezing for an entire winter and the latitude and longitude are precisely positioned creating the ideal conditions to grow one of the rarest and most expensive flavor enhancers in the world: truffles.

It’s not the delicate candy that Chef O’Connell is hoping to harvest it’s the extremely dense and pungent fungus that grows 1 – 3 inches out of sight beneath the surface. Where the roots of the carefully placed host plants co-mingle the small mushroom-related delicacy known as a truffle is found if your temperature and rainfall conditions are classic your timing is exemplary and your trusty Truffle Hound is in fine form.

“Since truffles grow sub-surface you can’t see them like you can other mushrooms. You use a Truffle Hound to sniff them out ” O’Connell explained. “Any type of natural scent or hunting dog can be trained — beagles and hounds and even poodles. Pierre the boxer a pound puppy is one of our best Truffle Hounds.” Wild pigs are also often used to locate the hidden culinary treasure until now grown almost exclusively in Europe but truffles are their favorite food so truffle farmers in France and Italy carry big sticks to move the pigs away from the truffles once they’ve found them a battle lost as often as it is won.

O’Connell’s truffle orchard is comprised of approximately 1 000 trees hazelnuts and live oaks inoculated with truffle spores planted in exacting grids — 6 feet between trees 12 feet between rows — because European truffle farming history has shown that the middle ground between the trees beneath the drip lines of the canopy is where the roots meet the ground is highly acidic and truffles grow aplenty… if you’re fortunate.

Truffle season is mid-November through early March but it’s only a 10-day window from the time they bloom (under the soil) until the time they shrivel and die. The farmer is out there walking the orchard up and down the rows with a Truffle Hound or wild Truffle Pig every day during harvest season. O’Connell expects to be out there soon. “A truffle orchard must mature five to seven years before it’s old enough to produce ” he says. “I expect to be in production in another year maybe two.”

Assuming you already own perfectly placed land with ideal soil conditions and a classic climate the up-front investment — inoculated sprigs and saplings irrigation gear and other standard farm equipment — can be substantial. Toss the land into the equation and then add the five to seven year wait the training of the Truffle Hounds and the long hot summers weeding mowing and tending your trees and the question becomes “A truffle orchard? What in the world was I thinking?”

You might have been thinking that fresh truffles sell for more than $1 000 per pound. You read that right from $1 000 to $1 300 per pound. A steep price willingly paid by top restaurateurs in major culinary capitals like New York New Orleans Los Angeles Chicago and Seattle where single entrées costing upwards of $70 in certain exclusive eateries are common. “They’re a big-time commodity because they’re basically unavailable fresh ” O’Connell explains. “A gentleman I know had a good-sized truffle orchard and his only customer was Emeril Lagasse. He bought every truffle that orchard produced.”

A mature well-maintained 1-acre orchard can produce up to 100 pounds per year for at least 30 years. O’Connell has planted 2 acres. The math is easy and the numbers add up quickly. Even a 50 percent harvest would be a successful return on investment.

But money wasn’t the only reason O’Connell became a truffle farmer. He’s an avid outdoorsman — a fisherman who loves the beach and a farmer who loves the land. He had a friend who was starting a truffle orchard and tried to persuade O’Connell to join him. “It was about eight years ago and I was one of the doubters as most people are because it’s just not done in North America ” O’Connell says. He pointed out that there are probably only three producing truffle orchards in the United States right now two of which are in North Carolina though there are about 30 pilot projects around the nation that are trying to get established. O’Connell watched his friend for a few years and then made the decision to get involved.

You don’t have to be a professional horticulturist or an executive chef but you do have to like gardening. For the first several years when the inoculated saplings are small and fragile and the all-important root systems are in their infancy all the weeding and tending is done by hand. “During the summer it’s hot it’s tiring and your back hurts but it’s good for the tan a good time for soul searching and collecting yourself ” the chef half-jokes before seriously adding “It’s a pretty unique thing to do pretty neat to be involved in the cutting edge of a new crop for North America and definitely for North Carolina.” He travels from his home on Harbor Island to his truffle orchard nearly every week to tend the trees train the dogs work the land and visit with his family who still call the area home.

Originally from Raleigh O’Connell was a student on the famed Johnson and Wales campus in Charleston (since moved to Charlotte) apprenticed in the hotel kitchens of the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta owned and operated a small high-quality independent seafood restaurant and oyster bar south of Raleigh called the Crow’s Nest consulted for numerous large-scale commercial culinary operations and one year ago donned the tall executive chef hat at the Country Club of Landfall a massive food service operation including five operating kitchens (and two more under construction) catering to its more than 1 200 members. Bustling year-round because of Wilmington’s mild climate and abundance of activities the Country Club of Landfall is the second busiest private club in North Carolina and one of the very busiest in the entire Southeast. There’s no downtime for O’Connell who plans to add some singular pungent power to his menu in the very near future. “I’m excited to use my own truffles here for dishes. I’m looking forward to that very much so ” he says.

Okay so those are some fortunate eaters out there in Landfall but what exactly will Chef O’Connell do with his truffles what do they taste like and how are they used?

“First of all ” he explains “I’ll primarily be using black truffles which is mostly what I’ve planted though I recently put in about 150 saplings inoculated with the burgundy truffle.” Black truffles or as they’re appropriately nicknamed Black Gold are the most common variety for culinary applications and France is reputed especially by the French to have the best black truffles in the world. Burgundy truffles are popular when they’re available and white truffles generally considered to be the specialty of Italian truffle farmers are the most uncommon of all.

Minute quantities are utilized in foods as varied as eggs potatoes seafoods and sauces giving whatever dish they accompany an abundance of earthy pungent flavor. “You grate it finely or make an oil and infuse the distinct truffle flavor into the food ” O’Connell says. “You would never bite into a fresh truffle; it would be like biting into a clod of earth it’s that intense.”

But truffles quickly lose their flavor after harvesting and most chefs agree that it’s best to use them within a few days after they are removed from the earth. It’s true there are dried canned and jarred truffles available but most top chefs will only use fresh truffles which when flown in from France or Italy are an extremely expensive proposition. Kevin has used both canned and dried truffles on a few occasions to give his Landfall members at least a hint of truffle flavor without making the cost prohibitive but in a year or two he’ll use the real home-grown deal in for instance a Truffle Omelet or Truffled Potatoes and was generous enough — generosity being one of his unique executive chef personality traits (a laidback nature and a sharp sense of humor are two more) — to provide us with his you-can-prepare-this-one-at-home recipes.

We’ll pass them along to you with this proviso from President Teddy Roosevelt who unbeknownst to his closest friends relatives biographers or anyone for that matter was probably once-upon-a-time a truffle farmer. When hunting Black Gold with your wild Truffle Pig President Roosevelt must certainly have said “Speak softly and carry a big stick.”

Truffle Recipes

Truffle Omelet

3 eggs
1 small truffle
1oz. your favorite cheese
1 tsp. truffle oil

Scramble the eggs. Preheat a nonstick omelet pan with the truffle oil and add the eggs. Shave four to five small pieces of the truffle add to pan and cook as you would any omelet. Add cheese melt and serve.

Truffled Potatoes

2 large potatoes
1 small truffle
1 cup milk
1/4 stick butter
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper

Peel the potatoes and cut into large cubes. Boil until soft (12-15 minutes) and drain. Shave 8-10 medium-size pieces of truffle into the pot. Add the remaining ingredients and mash by hand or with a mixer until combined and serve.