By Cat Holmes
University of Georgia
In Europe, the black truffle season is under way, with prices for the hard-to-find delicacy ranging from $600 to $1,000 per pound. Here in Georgia, truffle season has just come to an end. Pecan truffle season, that is.
Not to be mistaken for the "truffles" in candy shops, black and pecan truffles are a kind of fungus that grow underground among the roots of trees, with hard-to-describe flavors related by connoisseurs as both "earthy" and "delicious."
Tim Brenneman, a plant pathologist with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, discovered pecan truffles in Georgia 13 years ago.
They were originally found in Texas in 1958 but are not as common there. So named because they're found among the roots of pecan trees, pecan truffles are gradually gaining the attention of fine regional restaurants and truffle merchants throughout the country.
Pecan truffles are of the same genus as the highly prized black and white truffles of Europe. But they're a different species, Brenneman said.
"They will never replace the high-dollar white and black truffles of Europe," he said. "But among the chefs who have cooked with them, the consensus is that they do have very desirable characteristics."
"I sent some to Elizabeth's (restaurant) in Savannah several years ago," Brenneman said. "They were interested because they showcase unique ingredients from the Southeast. Once they tried them, they were ready to add them to the menu."
Featured menu item
Indeed, pecan truffles have been on the Elizabeth's menu for two years now. They're featured in a dish called "Southern creamed rice with country ham and vegetables with shaved pecan truffles."
"Pecan truffles are a little milder than European truffles," said Morgan Schaff of Elizabeth's. "They're not quite as rich, and they have a nuttier taste. They're very, very good."
Elizabeth's buys pecan truffles for $100 per pound from Magnolia Plantation, near Albany. Brenneman has found more pecan truffles there than in any other pecan orchard in Georgia.
You have to find 'em
Because truffles must be foraged -- a good, stiff-tined garden rake is the tool of choice, said Magnolia Plantation manager Frank Stimpson -- they're not as consistent as cultivated crops.
"It's a natural product that depends on the cycles of nature," Brenneman said. "We've found close to a pound of pecan truffles under some trees and none under others. They're not uniformly distributed. We're making efforts to propagate the truffles, but so far we haven't harvested any (from these attempts).
"Of course, there has been an intensive effort in Europe for decades to produce the European truffles," he said. "And while there has been some success, they're still not delivering them by the truckload."
Pecan truffle season
The pecan truffle season in Georgia begins in July-August and winds down in November or early December, Brenneman said. To find them, use a stiff-tined garden rake among the roots of a pecan tree. Typically, he said, the tines will catch on the truffles, if any are present.
Brenneman cautions that many other types of fungi grow under pecan trees. Folks often confuse puff balls with pecan truffles. Pictures of pecan truffles, which look like small potatoes, can be found at (ht tp://www.plant.uga.edu/mycology-herbarium/GAascos.htm).
Pecan truffles are in the early stages of commercialization, Brenneman said, and "the potential to make pecan truffles a viable business is clearly there. The task at hand is to develop it as a commodity. To really make a go, someone in private industry would have to take it by the horns."
For commercial pecan growers, Brenneman said, truffles could evolve into a lucrative commodity. "The truffles are easier to spot in commercial pecan orchards because herbicide applications eradicate weeds," he said.
"Part of the mystique of the truffle is its scarcity and novelty," Brenneman said, adding that truffles probably won't supersede pecans themselves in popularity. "Personally, I'd rather eat the pecans than the truffles."