During a vacation to Bordeaux last spring, my wife Nancy and I took a one-day excursion to the Pechalifour Truffle Orchard in the Perigord. It was a highlight of our trip.

Although the harvest for the prized black Perigord winter truffle had ended, owner Edouard Aynaud and his truffle-hunting border collie conducted about a dozen people through the orchard. Aynaud explained how he grows truffles (once wild, today most French truffles are cultivated), demonstrated how the hunt is conducted (truffles grow underground) and truffles are sold.

After the tour his wife, Carole, served us a truffle lunch, including truffle appetizers, truffle scrambled eggs and even a truffle dessert (some sort of truffle-enhanced custard). All was delicious.

Truffles are a fungus, like mushrooms. They grow among the roots of several tree species, including oaks and hazelnuts. Black truffles grow wild in France, Spain and Italy, and sell for about $600 a pound at farmers markets in the truffle-growing regions and up to five times that much in retail stores and online sites. Fragrant white truffles – the queen of truffles, Aynaud said – are even more expensive. They grow in Italy’s Piedmont region.

The tour got me to thinking: Could we grow truffles in Maine? The state has a plethora of oak trees and some hazelnuts. Yes, truffles prefer an alkaline soil of 7.5 or above on the pH scale and Maine’s soil is largely acidic, but surely we could add ground limestone – which many Maine gardeners use to counter the acidic soil.

There is an additional impetus to cultivate truffles outside their native range. According to a Nov. 30 article in Popular Science, black truffles could be extinct there by the end of this century, killed off by climate change. If people want to continue to enjoy truffles, they will have to be grown elsewhere.

So I did a little, ahem, digging, and learned that Maine, unfortunately, is not a likely spot. For starters, the temperature here is far too cold for them, Seanna L. Annis, associate professor of mycology at the University of Maine, said – although that might not be true in a few decades if climate change continues unabated.

Though Americans are establishing Perigord truffle farms in places like Tennessee and on the West Coast, no one is doing so this far north.

Annis thinks it would be difficult to grow truffles of any kind in Maine, but only partly because of the temperature and acidic soil. “There is already a lot of mycorrhizal fungi established in the soil,” she explained, “and that would likely mess up the truffles by out-competing them.”

Robert Chang of the American Truffle Company agrees that the black winter truffle will not grow in Maine. But an alternative, the Burgundy truffle, will, he said.

Though not as tasty or aromatic (or expensive) as the black truffle, experts say, it is good. In his book, “Truffles in the Perigord” – which I bought at the orchard – Aynaud describes the Burgundy truffle as close in aroma to the black truffle but not as strong, with a hint of hazelnut flavor.

The American Truffle Company, based in California, works with farmers to grow truffles commercially – providing the science and techniques – and has established about 300 truffle orchards in the past 30 years, according to Chang himself and to news reports.

“The Burgundy truffle can do very well in Maine,” Chang said. “Our business sends people out to help people establish truffles, and we have helped establish Burgundy truffles as far north as Canada, Finland and Sweden.” One advantage of the Burgundy truffle is that it is harvested in fall, before bad weather hits in these parts.

Part of the American Truffle Company’s business is to help farmers market the truffles once they start producing. To make the relationship worthwhile for the company, it requires that its partners devote at least five acres of land to the truffles.

Chang is upfront in saying that it will cost $20,000 to $25,000 per acre to establish the truffle orchard – so a sum of at least $100,000 to start, and that’s not counting the cost of the land.

Part of the expense is that the would-be grower must plant new trees that have truffle spores inoculated among the roots. In theory, roots of existing trees could be inoculated, Change said, but because the roots cover so large an area that would take a tremendous amount of effort.

“If you inoculate the tree and root system before planting, the fungus keeps pace with the tree’s root system as it grows,” he said.

Irrigation will be required, as well as fertilization and other soil treatments. And it will take almost a decade before the farmer can begin to harvest the truffles.

So, why would people do it?

“Once production starts you are looking at $30,000 to $40,000 profit per acre per year,” Chang said. “That happens year after year for 60 to 80 years if you manage it properly.”

I won’t be taking the risk, myself – and not only because we don’t have enough land.

Even though we won’t grow truffles, we can still eat them. So, I will close with some advice from Aynaud.

Make sure you are getting real European truffles. If you see truffle scrambled eggs on a menu for $10, the dish is probably made with Chinese truffles – which have none of the flavor of European truffles, he said.

But don’t let the price of $600 or more per pound scare you away. Truffles are lightweight.

A single ounce will be enough to flavor a truffle scrambled egg dish for four people and would cost about $40.

For an occasional treat, you’re worth it.

ABOUT THE WRITER

TOM ATWELL is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at: [email protected]

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