For decades, the truffle market in Aragón has been an under-the-table sort of operation. Now, the region is making pointed efforts to organize the trade, making it more lucrative and more transparent.
A black truffle, one of about a handful of varieties used for cooking, is the fruiting body of an underground fungus found around tree roots. The efforts required to find the elusive tubers married with their popularity in the culinary world means they come with a hefty price tag.
"The flavor of a truffle is strong, earthy and unlike anything else," said Jorge Alfonzo Liesa, head chef at Rokola, a restaurant in Graus, Aragón. "It tastes of the soil, the mountains and the forests. It brings a depth to a dish and, if balanced well, enhances the taste of all the other ingredients."
It used to be that these culinary gems were abundant in Spain. Around 1945, the folks working the land in Aragón started to find truffles in the wild. Not knowing much about them, or their value, they sold them to a savvier crowd from France and the nearby Spanish region of Catalonia. Before that, farmers thought they were bad potatoes and threw them out.
For the next 35 years, the fungus grew plentifully. The trade also grew, and the Aragónese people learned more about where to hunt truffles, how to sell them and at what price point. But the success Aragón had experienced for so long started to fade in the late '80s. The truffles just weren't showing up, possibly due to the weather or over-foraging.
This is when the community started thinking about controlled cultivation, which means that those involved with the truffle trade gave Mother Nature a hand by planting trees where truffles typically grow.
This method of cultivation wasn't immediately successful, but in the past few years the efforts have paid off. Truffles are growing and the market is becoming more organized, professional and defined.
Jose Vicente Girón Coscolla, president of the Aragonese Association of Truffle Farmers and Gatherers, said the association started in 1999 with 24 people and 50 hectares of land. Now, there are 270 people involved and 1,300 hectares of land being cultivated for truffles.
The association's first goal is to help farmers plant the oaks whose roots host the fungus and to help them maintain the land through government aid. (They also help with commercializing and marketing.)
One truffle hunter who began independently but now receives government subsidies, Jose Vicente Azlor Arasanz, began foraging when he was 9 years old. He would give the truffles to his dad to sell, and spend the profits on chewing gum and candy.
Now, Arasanz works 1 hectare of cultivated land with his golden Labrador retriever, Fun. It was a slow start.
Fifteen years ago, he planted rows of oak trees, then waited the seven years it takes for truffles to sprout underground at the trees' roots. Nothing appeared. Year after year, he and Fun returned to sniff the treasures out, hunting every week during the season that runs from November through March. Still nothing.
In 2013, he finally struck gold, and this past season was his most successful yet.
In fact, the 2014-15 season was a boon for everyone. Truffles were bountiful. And they started to appear on the local restaurant scene.
Culinary veteran Miguel Aso Sipán owns a trendy restaurant, Rokola, that serves both innovative and classic truffle dishes and hosts at least one wine and truffle tasting dinner per season. This year's menu included nests of fried potato strings topped with a truffle-infused fried egg, foie gras laced with the tuber's earthy flavor and a tennis ball-sized sphere of truffle-spiked milk and white chocolate. That was only half of the meal.
"If you have a restaurant in Graus, you're going to have to cook with truffles," he said. "The people demand it."