The Trouble with Truffles

Not much longer than a century ago, truffles were plentiful in Europe and used in many different foods. However, they have since become increasingly difficult to find and are so expensive that they are now associated with wealth and/or very special occasions. According to Time Magazine, global warming and the leaching of fungicide into soil have been blamed for the diminishing crop of truffles.

The unique way in which truffles grow also contribute to their rareness and the difficulties in cultivating them. Truffles depend on a symbiotic relationship among the truffle, a tree, the soil, and animals. Truffles grow entirely underground; therefore, their spores do not spread with the wind. Instead, truffles have a heavy scent, which attracts rodents that dig them up, eat them, and spread the spores through their waste. Truffles also only grow in and around the roots of certain trees. The soil must be well aerated, have a pH between 7.5 and 8.0, and have good drainage.

In France in the early 1800s, the first successful attempt at cultivating truffles (“trufficulture”) occurred. Acorns collected from the base of oak trees where truffles were found were planted. Years later, truffles were found at the base of these planted trees. Several thousand such acorns were then planted, and the 19th century in France was a good one for truffles. However, as France industrialized, many people moved out of the rural areas and into the cities, significantly reducing the number of people who worked in trufficulture. During the period between the two world wars, many of the groves planted during the 19th century stopped being productive; most truffle-producing trees are only productive for about 30 years.

Finally, even assuming that a tree has been properly inoculated with truffle spores and planted in appropriate soil, it takes on average about seven years for truffles to grow, and the success rate is often around 50%. If truffles do grow at the base of these trees, they must be harvested by hand with the help of a specially trained dog or hog – the process cannot be mechanized. The difficulties of cultivating truffles combined with environmental factors affecting the growth of naturally occurring truffles will likely ensure that truffles remain rare.