Tom Michaels was looking forward to the days when he could relax while enjoying his bucolic farm life in Chuckey, Tennessee. He wanted to take it all in while sipping on a nice glass of wine, looking out over the rolling hills and savor some of the fruits of his labors – Périgord Truffles.
However, as the word has spread about his incredible success in growing some of the finest Périgord (black winter) truffles available in the world (originating in the Southeastern United States), life has become more hectic than ever for this man with his Ph.D who studied plant pathology.
When we found out about Tennessee Truffles and Tom Michaels last summer, you know I immediately was on the phone to interview Tom and see his truffle orchards in Tennessee. We had to wait until truffle season to visit (beginning in mid-December and running through Mid-February), but it was well worth the wait.
Tom and his Tennessee Truffles have appeared in such prestigious media outlets as The New York Times, Bloomberg, GQ (written by Alan Richman, this might have been the cover story had Michael Jackson not just passed away), the chef’s website, eGullet and Garden & Gun.
Tom’s truffles have also gained favor with and been given accolades by some of America’s greatest chefs. They have been used in the kitchens of Daniel (Daniel Boulud), Momofuku (David Chang), French Laundry (Thomas Keller), Canyon Kitchen (John Fleer), Restaurant Eugene (Linton Hopkins) and McCrady’s (Sean Brock), to name a few.
If you are not very familiar with truffles, here is a great article to explain some of the differences between truffles. When you say the word “truffle”, I think most people think of the black truffle from the Périgord region of Southwest France (Tuber Melanosporum). This is the prized truffle that has been considered a delicacy in French dining for many years. This is the truffle that Tom is growing in Tennessee.
The white truffle (Tuber Magnatum) of Alba, in the Piedmont district of Italy, is the other truffle that is well known. There are many other truffles, but these two are perhaps the most prized in the kitchen. The white truffle is known to have a bit of a garlic note whereas the black truffle is more earthy in its aroma.
Many states are trying to get into the truffle business. Tom told us that Oregon is one state that has been producing “semi-wild” truffles for some time now in forestry lands replanted with Douglas fir and other economically valuable species. The interesting fact is that over the years the truffles will produce more revenue from the ecosystem than the trees themselves.
There are truffières (truffle orchards) in Idaho, Oregon, Washington, California, North Carolina and other states. However, Tom is the man that gets phone calls from all over the world asking him to show what he is doing differently that has created his success. I might even call him The Truffle King.
In case you didn’t know this, you just might want to run out and get some of these babies before Valentine’s Day. Truffles are considered to be an aphrodisiac due to the aroma that resembles something very sexual. In fact, female pigs are used to hunt truffles in Europe. The smell of the truffle resembles the male swine’s sexual scent. I know, TMI…I am just telling you what I have discovered…
The early season Périgord Truffles have more of a floral and fruity aroma (most men prefer this). However, as they ripen, they take on a more earthy and musky aroma later in the season. This latter “fragrance” tends to be the favorite of most women. Earthy, musky, Valentine’s Day…I’m just sayin’. And we are at the right time of the truffle season for that particular characteristic. Can I be more specific?
Tom told us that at the Aspen Food and Wine event in 2008, the Lexus truffle exhibit was the most popular exhibit. They served over 4,000 Truffled Cappuccinos (now that gets me excited!)! At the Pebble Beach Food and Wine event in 2009, the most visited exhibit was where Craig von Foerster (Executive Chef of the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, California) was preparing Kobe beef with truffles. There is definitely something about those truffles…
He said that when people would smell some of the truffles that they had on display during these two events, the men always preferred the floral and fruity truffles and the women liked the earthy and musky ones. He said the women even rolled their eyes back in their head from time to time. Okay, I will stop now.
Getting into the truffle business was not entirely foreign for Tom. He grew up on a mushroom farm outside of Chicago. His father grew button mushrooms, which he said are actually quite difficult to grow. Tom also said that button mushrooms are his first love.
Tom received a grant while in graduate studies at Oregon State to write his dissertation, In Vitro Culture and Growth Modeling of Tuber Spp. and Inoculation of hardwoods with T. Melanosporum Ascospores. This is the study of how to grow truffles. I guess this guy knows a thing or two about truffles…do you think?
Throughout his early career, Tom had jobs related more to button mushrooms at both Dole Foods (in Research and Development) and at Monterey Mushrooms (one of the largest mushroom producers in the United States). At that time he was living in California. After getting married, he moved back to Oregon with his wife and started a small mushroom farm.
Eventually, they both decided to go back to their former careers and looked East. His wife landed a great job as a Medical Director at the Greene Valley Developmental Institute in Greeneville, Tennessee, but Tom became the trailing spouse (very common among professional couples in our current culture).
As I have found with many of the interviews I have done with farmers, when there was a change in their life situation they are called back to farming as a way to make a living. That is what Tom did. He said he looked over the hills outside his back door and realized that this terrain and climate (terroir) were very similar to that of the Périgord region in Southern France where the black truffles originate. Voilà! Tom decided to plant some truffle trees using the techniques he developed in his dissertation many years ago!
Tom’s truffière has a total of nearly 2,500 truffle trees on approximately eighteen acres which he began planting in 2000. He has four different orchards with a combination of hazelnut trees (which can produce truffles in five to seven years) and oak trees (which typically take up to ten years to produce truffles). There is no real science to successfully growing truffles, but there certainly is a great deal of luck involved.
When asked what Tom did once he planted these trees and had to wait to see if they would start producing truffles, he said “there were a lot of dance recitals and gymnastics” as he played Mr. Mom. He did say that he developed a great relationship with his children because of this time he spent with them. Many people have gotten involved in growing truffles for the romance of it, he said his was out of necessity.
The Lagotto Romagnolo is the traditional truffle hunting dog that originated in Italy. The dogs are a better option than the pigs (that were originally used to truffle hunt) since they will not eat the truffles as the pigs do. During our visit, I was able to speak with Hilarie Gibbs-Sykes, who was one of the first breeders to bring the Lagotto Romagnolo to the U.S.
She told me that these dogs are raised from in vitro to sniff out truffles! The pregnant bitches are fed truffles while they are carrying their litter and then truffle oil is placed on their teets while the pups nurse as well as adding it to their food. Trainers also cover rags in truffle scent and bury them so that the dogs will dig to find the truffles.
Tom prefers cats, so when it is time to go truffle hunting (several months during the Winter), he will borrow a dog from Hilarie. They tragically lost one dog recently and are in the process of bringing another over from Italy. While we were visiting, Tom brought a dog in from Arkansas to hunt. While not a Lagotto, Daisy was certainly productive. Stuart Davis, Daisy’s handler, has trained Daisy to hunt for truffles the same way the Lagotto has been trained. Isn’t she cute???
How long will Tom keep doing this? My bet is as long as he can. The weather this year was difficult for his truffière. The temperatures were colder than normal, so it was hard to keep up with the demand for the truffles. Tom said that over the last few months, he has also received between three to four new calls a day looking for truffles. The demand is so far ahead of the supply.
We asked him about the popularity of growing truffles in North Carolina (his next door neighbor) and if that will come to fruition. He said that right now there are very few successful truffle farmers that can produce what he is doing. Tom joked that there may be more truffle dogs in North Carolina than commercial truffles, but he expected more orchards to produce commercial truffles in the future.
Although it took California forty years to be recognized to produce a wine comparable to that which comes out of France, this has not been the case with Tom’s truffles (as well as some other U.S. grown truffles). His truffles have been hand-carried to France three times to “grudgingly favorable reviews”. One of those times Peter Yuen of Chicago, took second place at the 2010 Baking Masters in Paris, France using these truffles in his brioche.
The advantage to growing these truffles in the U.S. is that it is a local food and sustainable. The product is fresher. It can reach the chefs within a day or two of being harvested versus weeks if it’s shipped from Europe.
Tom also envisions creating a route at some point where he can personally travel and deliver his truffles to many of the regional chefs (he does that to a certain extent now, especially when he goes to Asheville). He likes the idea of the chefs being able to see the truffles and smell them before they purchase them, as each truffle can have a unique characteristic. He said that he loves empowering the chefs with this “u-pick” approach.
As Tom works on a business plan to significantly expand the number of truffle trees, I know that he will succeed. As the truffle becomes a more popular and local ingredient, there will be a large demand for truffles in many levels of quality.
People come from all over the world to meet and speak with Tom about his truffle orchards and how he has achieved such great success. In fact, there was a gentleman from Australia visiting with him just this past week. Just as most chefs are willing to share their recipe with you, many of them will leave out that special ingredient that makes the real difference in the final dish. My bet is that Tom is keeping that certain secret ingredient to his Périgord truffles to himself.
We visited Tom in mid-December, but waited until now to order one of his Périgord Truffles to try for ourselves at home. It has made it’s way into several dishes and it has been adding to the fragrance of our home every time we remove it from the refrigerator.
The characteristics have changed over the few days we have had the truffle. It reminds us of a great bottle of wine in that it evolves with time. The wine will smooth out and emit soft, pleasing aromas as it oxidizes. The truffle evolved in the same way. After we cut the truffle, the bouquet opened up and continued to change each time we have used it. It has become more pleasing. The aroma and the taste is musky, earthen, but yet somewhat sweet. The truffle will evolve for almost one week before, like a bottle of wine, it declines.
We have been doing some testing and playing in the kitchen with this prized 1.4 ounce Périgord Truffle possession, so there will be lots more to come!
Here is a recipe that originally was created by Tom and his girlfriend, Vicki. The adapted version made it’s way to The New York Times and eventually into the Blackberry Farm cookbook.
Tennessee Corn and Truffle Flan
Adapted from Tom Michaels
Time: 45 minutes
1/4 cup flour
1/2 cup fine cornmeal
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups fresh or frozen corn kernels
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 large eggs, beaten well
Dash of cayenne pepper
2 cups sour cream (I used Daisy low-fat sour cream)
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 to 2 ounces finely shaved fresh black winter truffle
1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees. In a bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking soda and sea salt. Set aside. If using frozen corn, make sure it is well-defrosted and drained.
2. Warm a nonstick skillet over high heat and toss corn in to dry and toast slightly. In a bowl, combine cooked corn with 7 tablespoons melted butter, the eggs, cayenne and sour cream. Using a few swift strokes, add dry ingredients. Stir in cheese and shaved truffle, reserving just enough truffle to garnish flan before serving.
3. Use remaining tablespoon butter to grease 8 6-ounce ramekins. Spoon mixture into ramekins, cover each with foil and place in a baking pan. Add boiling water to pan until it reaches halfway up ramekins. Bake for 25 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to rest, covered, for 10 minutes before serving. Flan can be served, garnished with additional truffle slices, in ramekin or loosened and turned out on a plate.