Florida may be entering the truffle scuffle.
This fruiting body of a subterranean fungus — similar to a mushroom— is Fed Exed around the world, shaved over pasta, swirled into risotto and soft scrambled eggs, infused into fragrant oils that gloss fancy pizzas. This nubby brown lump is synonymous with luxury in the manner of beluga caviar or fine Champagne.
But this fancy food is found in the grubbiest places.Last week, University of Florida professors published a paper in the journal Mycologia, announcing that two new species of truffles were recently discovered on the roots of pecan trees in Florida orchards. Scientists here found them, named them, then corroborated that they’re also found in other parts of the country and world.
Yes, you can eat them, said associate professor Matthew Smith. Bad news? They’re small and a little stinky.
Ideally, you want truffles that are golf-ball sized for commercial sale, and these tend to be about an inch wide, Smith said. While he hasn’t eaten Tuber brennemanii (named after plant pathologist Tim Brenneman at the University of Georgia) and Tuber floridanum yet — the ones he found were too important as specimens for a little nibble — he can comment on their aroma: Nutty but, sadly, maybe a little turpentine-ish.
Even if these two species don’t become a gastronomic sensation, Smith still has hope for Florida truffles. He found those two by accident while studying pecan truffles, a species he thinks is commercially viable in the state.
"It tastes good, can get large and is prolific," he said. "You can find a pound at a time. And we can make pecan seedlings that are inoculated with the spores. We’re at the beginning stages — we know we can do it in the greenhouse."
Pecan farmers in North Florida who inoculated their seedlings with the spores could develop a secondary revenue stream, Smith said, with pecan truffles selling for $160 to $300 per pound.
Brennemanii and floridanum may have gone undetected all this time, he said, because they fruit at a different time of the year than the pecan truffles, and because animals may have been eating them all. And also, perhaps, because fungi are understudied in general.
That may be, but truffles remain fetishistic objects of desire worldwide. There are reasons they are so prized.
"They’re very mysterious, growing underground," Smith said. "It’s exciting; you just never know where they’re going to be. Truffles depend on animals for the dispersal of their spores. They’re trying to have us find them, that’s their goal. So as soon as they’re ready to be found they give off this smell that’s meant to attract animals. And we’re animals."
In 2017, St. Petersburg chef David Benstock of Il Ritornopaid $1,200 to $1,400 per pound for tuber magnatum, better known as white Alba truffles from Italy. That was at the beginning of the season. At the end of the season, that price skyrocketed to $5,200 per pound. Single truffles sell for as much as $300,000 at auction. Sabotage, midnight heists, Chinese knockoffs and the strategic assassination of competitors’ truffle-hunting dogs add to the hysteria and fetishism that surrounds them.
Black Perigord truffles, maybe $750 to $1,500 per pound and not as spectacularly fragrant and aromatic as white truffles, are commercially sold in Spain, France, Italy and (a newish market) Australia, while Oregon has emerged as a producer of its own native truffle species.
At Il Ritorno, Benstock serves truffles to the animals he calls customers. Would he buy a Florida truffle?
"I’ve never in my life heard of Florida truffles," he said. "I’ve heard of American ones from Oregon. Would I buy them? I would have to see them first and test them out. There are so many different varieties. We have one called a honey truffle right now which has intense sweetness. I’d only use them for dessert."
What about one that was admittedly stinky?
"Stinky in a white Alba truffle way, or like manure? When I serve truffles, it’s something super simple with fresh shaved truffle on top. That’s the flavor we want right in front of you."
Benstock sounds unconvinced, but Smith thinks the time might be right for Florida truffles.
"People are much more interested in local foods than they used to be," he said. "There’s a growing market in the Pacific Northwest, and there could be a market for the pecan truffle."
Still, these stinkers?
"It’s never going to be the European white truffle in terms of how much people want to get a hold of it."
Contact Laura Reiley at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley.