Entire White Truffle 'Orchards' Could Be Possible, New Research Finds
The relatively rare fungi can be cultivated and grown outside of its natural habitat.
White truffles are incredibly expensive (even when prices hit record lows in 2018, the coveted fungi was still over $1,000 per pound) due to the basic economics of supply and demand. These rarest of truffles only grow in specific areas under specific conditions, meaning the availability of the delicacy was limited to whatever could be harvested during white truffle season—and the effects of climate change have further added to the uncertainty in recent years.
However, all that could be about to change: In what's being billed as "a global first," a team of researchers has demonstrated the controlled production of Italian white truffles—known scientifically as Tuber magnatum Pico—at an orchard in France outside of their natural distribution range.
The project is over a decade in the making, and the first batch was harvested in 2019, but the paper confirming the research was only published this week in the journal Mycorrhiza. Specifically, the authors confirm that these farmed white truffles survived for three to eight years after planting, resulting in successful harvests in both 2019 and 2020. And even more importantly, the researchers present the conditions under which these truffles were grown, which they write "demonstrate the feasibility of T. magnatum cultivation worldwide."
"Truffles are fungi living in symbiotic association with trees; this symbiosis is called ectomycorrhizal association. So to cultivate truffle you need to have both: the tree and the fungus," Claude Murat, a research engineer at the French National Research Institute for Agriculture, Food and Environment (INRAE) in Grand-Est and co-author of the paper, told me via email. This association is what makes white truffle cultivation so difficult: Truffles not only need to be seeded within the root system of particular trees, but they also need to thrive in these conditions to grow into something edible.
And while black truffles had been cultivated since the 1970s, white truffles were more stubborn. "Tuber magnatum in natural fields forms very few ectomycorrhizal; this is a difference with black truffles that form many ectomycorrrhia," Murate continued. "To solve this challenge, INRAE with [the truffle specialists at] Robin Nurseries started a joint research program in 1999, and they obtained the first mycorrhizae plant four to five years later."
From a culinary perspective, white truffle lovers may wonder if farming affects the quality, but Murat says not to worry. Comparatively, he says over 80 percent of black truffles are now cultivated, without any change to how they taste. "Cultivation occurs in the field and not off-ground under a greenhouse," he adds.
And what about white truffles other best known attribute: their price? Again, Murat cites black truffles, which he says have seen little change in price as cultivation has grown. "There is no risk of a decrease of the price [in white truffles] since the demand is very high," he told me. "You also need to consider that the production that occurs now in forests in Italy and the Balkans is decreasing due to the climate and forest management."
So instead, while diners may not see a huge drop in prices, INRAE suggests spreading the cultivation of white truffles could be a huge benefit to farmers. The institute wrote that adding the fungi could allow them "to diversify their activities while respecting the environment [with] an agroecological crop that does not require chemical inputs and favors biodiversity." And though it's not explicitly mentioned, white truffles could also be a nice new source of revenue, too.