In a global first that could herald the development of white truffle cultivation in the continent, they’ve managed to grow the ultimate treat for the gourmet gastronome outside of their natural habitat.
The Italian white truffle (Tuber magnatum pico) grows in forests in Italy and in the Balkan peninsula. Found in the soil around the roots of oak, hornbeam, poplar and willow trees and invisible to the naked eye, truffle hunters use dogs and pigs to sniff them out. Famed for their pungent, earthy aroma that is both unique and unforgettable, these ‘white diamonds’ are the rarest and most expensive of the 180 varieties of truffle. They sell for between €1500 and €3000 per kilo. But supply frequently does not meet the strong global demand and prices can reach as much as €50,000 per kilo during auction season. Truffle production meanwhile has been falling due to changing land use and loss of wild habitat. Its annual production is only a few tens of tonnes.
In an effort to stem this decline, the INRAE team, in conjunction with truffle grower Pépinières Robin, spent nine years cultivating white truffles in outside orchards in French regions with differing climates (Rhône-Alpes, Bourgogne Franche Comté and Nouvelle Aquitaine): the first time the variety has been harvested in this way.
Joël Giraud, French Minister of State for Rural Affairs, welcomed the breakthrough as an “extraordinary development” and a “great innovation”. He added: “The mere mention of this product recalls the most delicious gastronomic memories.”
Claude Murat, a research engineer at INRAE, told FoodNavigator the growing method is borrowed from black truffle cultivation developed in France in the 1970s. This uses a technique called controlled mycorrhization to ensure plant roots, which provide essential nutrients for the growth of the fungi, are hospitable sites for the fungi to anchor and produce their threads (hyphae). Today, 90% of black truffle production in France comes from orchards of mycorrhized plants.
“For the white truffle, controlled mycorrhization has been much more difficult to develop, which is why until now it could only be harvested in forests,” said Murat.
Particular pedoclimatic requirements
He said the results of the latest study pave the way for white truffle cultivation outside its natural habitats, providing high-quality mycorrhized trees are planted in appropriate soils (made up of 30-50% sand, 20-40% loam and around 20% clay with a temperature at 10 cm of 20 to 25 degrees) in correctly manged orchards.
He predicted the spread of white truffle tree orchards in France, and in other countries such as Spain and the UK. “White truffle cultivation can therefore be done in many European countries. Truffle cultivation (black and Burgundy truffles) in the UK is developing and I’m convinced there are also suitable sites to cultivate white truffle.”
Cultivation will likely take longer than for black truffles, he continued. “For black truffle first production can start 3-4 years after plantation but most often this is about 7-8 years. The white truffle orchard we studied started to produce four and half years after plantation, but we don’t know if it will be the same elsewhere. It is more realistic to suggest production will start 5 to 10 years after plantation.”
He added there is no difference in taste between truffles harvested naturally and those grown in orchards because cultivation occurs in fields and not off-ground under greenhouses.
Pépinières Robin now hopes to raise its production and expects the number of white truffle orchards to increase in Europe. It will sell its product in the normal truffle markets.
Might the development bring white truffles to the masses? “I hope most people can taste real truffles; this is a unique experience. Not everybody likes it,” he responded. “I regret most people know truffle only using truffle oil that is made by chemical aroma. We also hope that our innovation will contribute to preserve truffle production that is decreasing every year.”
‘First production of Italian white truffle (Tuber magnatum Pico) ascocarps in an orchard outside its natural range distribution in France ‘
Bach, C., Beacco, P., Cammaletti, P. et al.. Mycorrhiza (2021)