February 10, 2013
Au Revoir France, the epicurean world’s prized black winter truffles are now being produced in Daniel Boone Country
By Nancy Staab
A recent Atlanta Grill Truffle Dinner at The Ritz-Carlton Atlanta put the spotlight on a native fungi that has top chefs Daniel Boulud, Sean Brock, Linton Hopkins, David Chang and Thomas Keller waxing poetic about these Tennessee-sourced Perigords.
Pungent, musky, earthy truffles are one of the gourmand world’s most prize ingredients. Some like Napolean of France even considered them aphrodisiacs. That such an evocative, complex flavor-bomb derives from shriveled black fungi, grown in vast, spreading networks underground and sniffed out by specially trained truffle dogs or pigs, is one of the great high-low ironies of the food world. Black winter truffles, otherwise known as Perigords, may look like wrinkled lumps of black coal but they are absolute diamonds when added to any dish-- transmuting humble ingredient from roast chicken to potatoes to something with umami-rich flavor profiles. This was certainly the case with the decadent dishes created by Chef Brian Jones of Ritz-Carlton Atlanta last month for a series of special Tennessee Truffle Dinners. The gourmet, four-course dinner at the Ritz’s Atlanta Grill [see full menu below], was designed to specifically highlight these rare, locally-sourced, hand-foraged fungi.
But rather than import the tuber melanosporum (its scientific name) from its famed home in Southern France, where the truffles will have probably passed through many hands and middlemen before their less than fresh-off-the farm flavor reaches the U.S., Jones has sourced his black truffles just down the road from one of America’s first and its largest truffle grower, Tennessee Truffles. That Daniel Boone country in Chuckey, TN, at the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, should have a land and climate reminiscent of Southern France, the ancestral home of the Perigord, is a happy accident that Tennesse Truffle grower Tom Michaels discovered almost by accident around the year 2000. But who better to propagate the American truffle than Michaels, who not only grew up on a button mushroom farm but earned a Ph.D. in, yes, tuber melansporum, aka the Perigord black truffle?
The mustachioed Michaels is a dead ringer for actor Dennis Farina and behind his aw-shucks, farm-dirt-under-the nails demeanor is a savvy charmer, whose smarts make him a brilliant ambassador for his local delicacies. He delights, as during a recent Atlanta Grill Truffle Dinner, in telling how his very first truffle produce was packed up in Styrofoam cartons previously used by Michaels to pack fish, loaded in his truck and taken down the road 86 miles to Knoxville,TN, and the town’s fanciest restaurant there, The Orangery. When The Orangery’s chef Christopher Stallard, somewhat suspiciously, inspected Michael’s trove of truffles, he was immediately “blown away” by the bouquet, taste and quality of the tubers and placed an order on the spot. Word of mouth spread and soon the nations very top-echelon chefs from across the country were clamoring for these black nuggets—from Daniel Boulud, David Chang, and Thomas Keller to Linton Hopkins, Sean Brock and Blackberry Farm’s former chef John Fleer. In fact, Chang was so taken with the born-in-USA truffles that, according to Michaels, he even took them back to France to wow the natives. That’s not the only time Michael’s truffles went tuber to tuber with the truffles produced in storied France. In a blind taste test of truffles held at the gastronome palace Cru, in NYC, Michaels says his humble Tennessee fungi surpassed the French product 10 to 0. The blind truffle competition was inspired by the famed New vs. Old World Wine Taste-off of 1976, Paris, in which young, New World growths blew the cork off European wines, as chronicled in the movie Bottle Shock. In fact, the makers of Bottle Shock have already been in contact with Michaels about a potential film based on his prize Perigords.
The Ritz-Carlton Atlanta’s Chef Jones, a fan of foraged foods as a whole, was introduced to Tennessee Truffles during a food seminar with Michaels conducted during the first year of the Atlanta Food and Wine Festival. Jones’ special Tenessee Truffle dinner, held this past month, was a richly orchestrated affair with masterfully paired wines by sommelier Brian White. A black truffle-poached chicken was redolent with the unmistakably, earthy flavors and fragrance of the Perigord, while Jones’ beautifully composed salad of duck confit and frisee with silken poached egg and crispy shallots was given its perfecting top-notes with generously shaved discs of Michael’s prize truffles. The dish was a flavorful mix of textures, with the truffle as the star and binding note.
So famed are Michael’s Tennessee Truffles that the pastoral resort, Blackberry Farm, not only sourced from Michaels, but commissioned him to set up their own truffle tree farm. Truffles thrive when nourished under trees and the nutrients of tree roots. Truffles can take 6-10 years for the first harvest [Michaels calls them the “ultimate slow food”] and it’s an intricate process: part science, part art, part mystery as to how they grow, so Blackberry’s young truffle farm has yet to yield its first bounty. 2,500 trees might yield a mere 30 pounds of truffles, insuring that their rarity will keep their costs at a premium. And for a time, Blackberry Farm and Michael’s even shared the very expensive breed of Italian truffle hunting dogs, the Lagotto Romagnolo. (Dogs are preferred to pigs as pigs are sometimes inclined to eat the precious haul).
On Michaels’ own farm he uses primarily Hazelnut trees in his orchards. The trees may have something to do with the resulting truffles, but Michaels seems a bit suspicious of the terroir argument in general, explaining that a truffle dug up on the shady side of a tree can have an entirely different taste than one dug up on the sunny side of the same exact tree. There are other parts of the country attempting truffle farms in Oregon, California, Texas, Idaho and, most notably, North Carolina, but as The New York Times writer Molly O’Neill wrote in 2007, “Dr. Michaels is the first domestic truffle farmer to produce commercial quantities of truffles of a quality that demands top dollar ($50 an ounce, $800 a pound.”
Terroir or no, many foodies like chef Sean Brock (who is famed for his use and revival of native and heirloom southern produce) have made the pilgrimage to thoroughly rural, small farm town Chuckey, TN, to truffle hunt with Michaels. Even GQ magazine’s famed gastronome-about-the globe Alan Richman paid a visit to Chuckey and the result was a multi-page story entitled “Hillbilly Truffles” in the August 2009 issue of the magazine. In fact, it was the issue chronicling Michael Jackson’s death and yet, the truffle story got nearly as many pages. Richman exults, “The Tennessee truffles were fresh, lively, fruity…sweeter on the palate….more delicate.”
Besides the novelty of discovering such an epicurean rarity in the Americas, the Tennessee Truffle success story also taps into current locavore and farm-to-table trends. The Truffle-farm-to-table freshness is not Michael’s only market advantage. He has also astutely learned the preferred flavor profiles of his various chefs and so tailors his produce deliveries to their exact tastes. For example, he says that chef Linton Hopkins really appreciates the funky truffles—the funkier the better. He recounts how he was almost embarrassed to deliver a harvest to Hopkins that he thought “too over-the-edge” only to discover that Hopkins liked these exaggerated truffles the best. Hopkins has been known to toss the truffles into everything from pastas and risotto to ice cream.
The Atlanta Grill Truffle Dinner was equally adept at showing off the versatility of Michael’s Tennessee truffle, paired with everything from soup, salad and entrée, to a brie en croute dessert course---each dish highlighting the primal intensity of this rather lusty (and luxe) ingredient. Needless to say, France was all but forgotten with such perfect native truffles on the plate. Somewhere Larousse must be turning over in his grave, but Davey Crockett would be mighty proud of the frontier truffle forager that is Michaels.
For more info on Tennessee Truffles visit www.tennesseetruffle.com
Atlanta Grill at The Ritz Carlton Atlanta periodically serves dishes sourced with Tennessee truffles: www.ritzcarlton.com/en/Properties/Atlanta/Dining/AtlantaGrill/Default.htm
The peak season for the truffles is mid-December to mid-February.
TN Truffle Dinner Menu: Atlanta Grill, Ritz-Carlton Atlanta
Puree of Black Truffle, Hint of Apple and Celery Root
2010 Maroslavac-Leger “La Combe,” Bourgogne Blanc, France
Duck Confit and Toasted Frisee Salad
Georgia Grown Olive Oil, Verjus, Poached Egg, Crispy Shallots
Black Truffles Shaved Tableside
2010 Brutacao Pinot Noir, Anderson Valley, Mendocino County
Black Truffle-Poached White Oak Pasture Half-Chicken
Local Root Vegetables Roasted in Beef Fat and Rosemary
2007 Villa Bonomi, Conero Rosso, Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, Marchetti, Italy, DOCG
Brie En Croute
Black Truffle, Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, Dried Apricot, Georgia Honey
Broadbent 10 Year Malmsey, Madeira, Portugal