For $100 a pound, trifling with truffles no trouble at all

Sunday, January 12, 2003

LEARY, Ga. -- The French use hogs and dogs to sniff out the pricey truffles favored by fine chefs around the world.

But managers of the stately Magnolia Plantation rely on Robert Wilkerson, an experienced farmer, to locate and gather the underground mushrooms that are prized for their earthy taste.

Discovered about 13 years ago in the pecan orchards of southwest Georgia, pecan truffles are milder and considerably less expensive than the famous black truffles from France or the even more costly white truffles from Italy.

But at $100 per pound, it still pays to trifle with Georgia truffles.

Truffles grow from a fungus on the roots of certain trees. They form an underground web of tiny filaments that extend the tree's root system. In return, they benefit from the nutrients the tree generates above ground through photosynthesis.

If nature cooperates -- just the right climate, soil and other mysterious conditions that scientist still do not fully understand -- a knobby fruit develops. It's this fruit that causes the global fungus frenzy.

A Los Angeles restaurateur recently paid $35,000 for a huge, 2.2-pound Italian white truffle. Black French truffles can sell for $600 to $1,500 per pound, depending on the size of the crop.

Regular mushrooms spread their spores in the wind, but truffles depend on animals to eat them and spread spores from their manure.

Looks for bulges

Wilkerson, 60, the manager of Magnolia's 400-acre pecan orchard, finds truffles by looking for small bulges in the soil. Some even protrude above the soil.

He has found about 50 pounds in each of the last two years.

"Robert might not be as good as one of those hogs or dogs, but he does a pretty good job," said Magnolia manager Frank Stimpson.

The 12,000-acre plantation, about 20 miles west of Albany, has the largest and most consistent production in Georgia. But even at Magnolia, the truffles are limited to only 100 acres where the soil is unusually dark with clay and organic matter.

"They like the black soil and shade," said Wilkerson, who has managed pecan orchards for about 29 years.

Wilkerson finds only the most obvious truffles, usually from August to November. They mature at a time when most growers are too busy harvesting the state's $100 million pecan crop to bother with truffles.

For years, growers didn't know what they were and threw them out with the debris picked up by sweeping machines that gather pecans.

Tim Brenneman, a University of Georgia plant pathologist, discovered them about 13 years ago and has been trying to develop markets ever since. The species was first identified in 1958 in Texas, which also has pecan orchards.

"They will never replace the high-dollar white and black truffles of Europe," Brenneman said. "But among the chefs who have cooked with them, the consensus is that they do have very desirable characteristics."

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