A French Expert Digs in to Save the Prized, Elusive Truffle

updated 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Paul Bonnet walks his 20-acre farm in Provence in the south of France, his dog Minette beside him tugging on the leash. In an oak grove, Minette scents and paws a patch of earth about four feet from a gnarled tree trunk. Bonnet pushes a forklike, two-pronged shovel a foot deep into the soil and extracts a pebbly-skinned, walnut-size object. "This is one of the riches of our region, our country," Bonnet, 60, says in reverent tones as he inspects his find.

The object in question is a truffle—that mysterious, elusive, edible fungus so prized as a delicacy by gastronomes. But it is also a source of great worry for the likes of Paul Bonnet. Truffles, it seems, are becoming an increasingly endangered species. At the beginning of this century, more than 1,000 tons of truffles were unearthed in France during each November-to-March harvest. But in more recent times, for reasons dimly understood if at all, French "truffiers" are gathering at most 20 tons a year. "This year, because of continuing drought and major brush-fires," laments Bonnet, "we expect less than 10 tons will be harvested." The scarcity of truffles has caused European market prices to double in each of the past two years, now reaching a record high of $500 per kilo in France, or up to $350 a pound in the U.S.

A third generation truffler whose "earliest memories are of my grandfather taking me in the mountains hunting truffles," Bonnet will personally head a revolutionary program in hopes of reversing the truffle decline "before it is too late." Next fall he will become the founding dean of L 'Université de la Truffe—the University of the Truffle—in the nearby city of Carpentras. This will be a major effort to systematize the study of an industry that has traditionally been shrouded in secrecy and myths.

It has been said that more is understood about the far side of the moon than about truffles, those aromatic, piquant-flavored bits of spore that grow underground near certain tree roots. The ancient Egyptians cooked truffles in goose fat. The Greek biographer Plutarch was thought to have speculated that truffles may be a result of lightning striking the earth. Even Bonnet himself has little to add. "We know the truffle is like a mushroom," he says with a Gallic shrug, "but not a mushroom."

Whatever they are, there are about 70 known species of them. The kind preferred by aficionados of French cuisine is the black winter truffle, or Périgord noir, found only in southern France. And the generally accepted position is that truffles can only grow naturally in the wild, that they defy transplanting or domesticated cultivation.

Ah, but Bonnet knows better, and he can prove it. More than a century ago, he says, a Carpentras agronomist named Auguste Rousseau found that if you took oak saplings from the mountainside and replanted them in the valley, truffles will follow. But as long as France had ample supplies of wild truffles, Rousseau's discovery went largely unexploited. Then in 1953 Paul Bonnet took up the technique with the intention of cultivating truffles in 10 years' time. "It took nine," says Bonnet, who is the father of two sons, now grown, and grandfather of four.

Bonnet is currently known as "the prince of truffles." Today the farm he shares with his wife, Andrea, is planted with varieties of oak that Paul nurtured from wild acorns. Through refined techniques of aeration and irrigation, Bonnet can harvest up to 100 pounds of truffles per hectare (about 2 l/2 acres) in a good year. And he wouldn't think of employing pigs to sniff and root out his quarry, as described in truffle lore. Instead, like most trufflers, he prefers dogs like Minette, a corniaud bred especially for the task.

Outside of France's Provence and Périgord regions, additional varieties of truffles are found in Italy and Spain, among other locations. Efforts to grow them in places like Texas have not progressed far enough to yield any truffles. Still, even before the fees and schedules of his Truffle U. have been set, inquiries are already coming in from the U.S., Canada, Germany (truffles occasionally pop up in the Black Forest), Switzerland, even from Israel and the United Arab Emirates. The "trufflculture" curriculum, to be administered by the Lycée Supérieur d'Agriculture in Carpentras in association with the University of Avignon, will include hands-on work with Bonnet on his farm as well as a scientific course to collect a central data base. Saving and taming the disappearing truffle will not come easily, Bonnet concedes. "It will require a lot of work," he says, "some magic—and luck."

—Dan Chu, Peter Mikelbank in Provence

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