Top | The Culinate Interview

Ian Hall

(article, Lucy Burningham)

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p(blue). In the 1970s, New Zealand mycologist Ian Hall overheard a couple of Frenchmen talking about cultivating truffles. Their conversation inspired a vision: truffles growing underneath oaks and hazelnut trees in New Zealand, a country located in the opposite hemisphere from where the most coveted truffles grow naturally.

p(blue). Hall suspected that the French weren’t the only people who could tame the elusive — and expensive — truffle, which grows underground, close to tree roots. Twenty-nine years and much research and fundraising later, 150 truffières, or truffle plantations, now thrive in New Zealand; a few of them contain more than 10,000 trees. During the 2007/2008 season, the country produced about 200 pounds of the valuable Périgord truffle. 

p(blue). As the supply of wild truffles dwindles worldwide, New Zealand could play a vital role in ensuring the survival of the truffle. In their new book, Taming the Truffle, Hall and co-authors Gordon Brown and Alessandra Zambonelli deconstruct the mechanics of truffle cultivation and describe humanity’s rich history with the mysterious fungus.

[%image reference-image float=right width=350 credit="Photo © Ian Hall" caption="Ian Hall"]

How did you become interested in truffles?
I’ve been involved in studying mycology since I was an undergraduate, but at a conference in 1979, in Fort Collins, Colorado, I heard a couple of Frenchmen talking, and while my French barely qualifies as schoolboy French, I knew they said that the first truffle had been harvested from an artificial plantation. That triggered the thought, many months later, that if they can do it, we can do it. It took another six years to convince the powers that be to fund a research program.

What excited you about the possibility of cultivating truffles?
Any scientific challenge is a scientific challenge, and I wanted to do something for the benefit of New Zealand. The financial benefits for the southern hemisphere were a huge motivator.

How did your cultivation project evolve?
Once we did the first field trial, I got good financial backing. After we produced our first farm, I started fielding calls from curious people. One lady called and couldn’t believe truffles grew on trees. As the conversation went on, it became obvious that she thought we were talking about chocolates. We still fight that perception.

Truffle supplies around the world are decreasing. How has that affected your work?
Because the Périgord, or the black truffle, one of the two most expensive truffles in the world, has become so rare, the French are very concerned that the truffles might disappear. If the southern-hemisphere countries are successful with growing the species, we could start to produce more truffles than the northern hemisphere. That would be a strange shift, one that both excites and scares people.

Does a cultivated truffle differ from a wild truffle?
Not at all. You can find good truffles in the wild or pop into the back garden and pick a cultivated truffle and take it right to the supermarket. No one will know the difference. But one benefit of a truffière is that truffles can be produced at a much higher rate than in nature.

Why are truffle plantations so successful?
Because you can plant more trees in a smaller area and maintain conditions that encourage the truffles to thrive. For example, during dry years, you can heavily water your orchard, something a forest can never receive.

[%image truffles float=left width=300 caption="White and black truffles."]

Are New Zealanders going to become rich off truffles?
At this point, just a few people in the country have made quite a bit of money from truffles. But I’ve seen some very big truffle plantations around the world, from tens of acres to hundreds of acres. The potential is very high.

Did you write Taming the Truffle for people who are trying to cultivate truffles?
It’s not a scientific text, but it will educate potential truffle growers. At the same time, Alessandra, Gordon, and I wanted to write a book that was entertaining, for the intelligent layperson with a curiosity about how people harvest truffles and use them in food. Because things change so quickly in the world of truffles, we’ve put all references in the book on the Web to extend the life of the book.

Name something you want more people to know about truffles.
That 99.9 percent of all truffle oils are made from chemicals, not from real truffles. Real truffles are so expensive, it’s not viable for most of these oil-making companies. I’m afraid that many chefs don’t even understand this fact. The oils do impart a flavor that is reminiscent of the truffle, but I’m not keen on it.

Could you make your own authentic truffle oil?
Yes. Get a jam jar, put some olive oil in the jar, and tack a fresh truffle onto the inside of the lid with something sticky. Then, close the lid and let the truffle off-gas, which will flavor the oil. After a few days, you’ll have truffle oil and you can still use the fresh truffle for something else. Make sure you don’t put the truffle directly into the olive oil, because that combination could create dangerous bacteria.

Do you think one day there will be so many truffles in the world that they’ll be in every grocery store and everyone will know what they are?
Not in my lifetime. What a terrible thought, to go to a supermarket and ask for a case of truffles! Today, countries that never ate truffles are now demanding them, including Korea and Japan. But there’ll never be enough truffles to satisfy the demand for them. We’re talking about a very rare product. Truffles are very different from the average commodity.

p(bio). Lucy Burningham is a writer in Portland, Oregon.

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