A batch of Appalachian Truffles
A batch of Appalachian Truffles (Photo: Caroline Tompkins)
Adventures in Audio

The Sometimes Shady, Always Weird World of Truffle Hunters

A batch of Appalachian Truffles

In forests across the planet, secretive hunters are searching for that rare and insanely expensive wild delicacy: the truffle. The organism, which grows underground, tethered to tree roots, can fetch thousands of dollars per pound from upscale restaurateurs. The only way to find these particular fungi are dogs specially trained to sniff them out. Not surprisingly, the truffle business is not unlike the illegal-drug business, with lots of sneaking around in the night and powerful characters vying for control over markets. Outside contributing editor Rowan Jacobsen took a journey deep into the underworld of truffle hunters that began in the ancient forests of Europe and ended up, very unexpectedly, in the hills of Appalachia.


This episode is brought to you by LifeStraw, maker durable and versatile filtration systems that provide the highest protection from unsafe water. Learn more at lifestraw.com.

Podcast Transcript

Editor’s Note: Transcriptions of episodes of the Outside Podcast are created with a mix of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain some grammatical errors or slight deviations from the audio.

[advertisement]

Michael Roberts: From Outside Magazine, this is the Outside Podcast. 

Rowan Jacobsen: My first time was in Italy. So I'm with this guy and his two dogs and we're in Barolo. So it's all like castles and vineyards up on the Hills. And it's cold because it's November. They do it at night because they don't want anyone to see their secret spots. It's this really, you know, this dark Misty moonlit kind of scene. We're trying to go through this forest and follow these dogs in this, this sort of cold drippy night and branches are just like whacking us in the face and stuff. 

But then, the dogs will give a signal that they're digging and then we're just running through the woods, tripping, getting to the spot, trying to get to it before the dogs do.You really start to, like, become super aware of your senses. Because hearing becomes extra important. Your eyes are doing whatever they can do in that environment. And obviously then your nose is the final arbiter of the whole thing. So it really feels like you're just this like hypersensitive, like bundle of nerve ends moving through the woods.

Michael: That's Outside magazine contributing editor Rowan Jacobsen, describing a unique and very secretive hunt that takes place in forests around the world. Rowan is both an intrepid journalist and an obsessed foodie. Over the years, his assignments for Outside have included tracking down a long-lost strain of chocolate in the Brazilian Amazon, foraging for invasive species in Long Island Sound, and investigating the new wave of imitation seafood. But none of that quite prepared him for his most recent story for us, a quest to find that most rare and insanely expensive wild edible: the truffle.

Producer Paddy O'Connell spoke with Rowan about a mysterious journey that began in the old-world forests of Europe and then ended up, very unexpectedly, in Appalachia.

Paddy O’Connell: What is a truffle?

Rowan: Good place to start. So a truffle is kind of like a mushroom that never comes up above the surface and just stays underground for its whole life. So like a mushroom, it's a fungus, that is full of spores. It's basically the fruiting body of the fungus. So truffles have this insane smell that drives all kinds of animals wild, including us. And because of that, they've always been a very expensive culinary item, but they're super hard to find.

Paddy: What is a truffle hunt?

Rowan: So a truffle hunt consists of a dude or a couple of dudes and their dogs sneaking around the woods, hoping no one sees where they're going and letting the dogs lead them to the truffles and tell them where to dig and then digging up these truffles and then selling them to like mafia-type figures through this underground economy.

It's drugs by any other name. The dynamics of the truffle business are identical to the dynamics of the drug business and for kind of the same reasons. It's this really pricey thing that people really, really want, and it's either somewhat illegal or totally illegal. So it's all, all the selling happens underground, unregulated.

So the tensions are identical.

Paddy: Rowan is not being sensational here. He knows what he is talking about. Last year he published a book called Truffle Hounds that exposed some of the shady characters, obsessive chefs, and amazing dogs that power the underground truffle economy. The vast majority of his reporting took place in Europe, where truffle hunting has been a big deal for a long time because the things are worth such a ridiculous amount of money. And I mean ridiculous.

Paddy: If I'm out in the woods and I just like miraculously come across a bunch of these truffles, say like, I fill a ball cap up with them, How much money am I actually holding in my hands?

Rowan: It can be quite a bit. And actually the black truffles are often referred to as black diamonds. And those go for about a thousand bucks a pound.

Paddy: That is insane money.

Rowan: Yeah. Yeah. Peak insanity just happened this last fall because the Italian white truffles, which are the most expensive truffles in the world, had a really poor season. It was too dry in Italy. So not a lot of truffles got made. So the price went up to $6,000 a pound. 

Paddy: Jesus. 

Rowan: Yeah,  it was literally 200 bucks for a plate of pasta at a good New York restaurant.

Paddy: The only explanation for this has to be the taste, right? It's why we're willing to pay that obscene upcharge to get truffle oil on our french fries. But, actually, no. 

Rowan: I would describe the taste of a truffle is basically zilch. Like it doesn't have much going on, on the tongue at all. What you’re getting in that truffle oil, You know, you're getting kind of a muskiness truffle oil actually doesn't have any real truffle in it. It's flavored with a synthetic chemical to make it smell kind of like a truffle. Yeah. So this is the

Paddy: What? So they're putting science, they're upcharging me, science juice, on my French fries is what you're telling me?

Rowan: It's science juice. It costs pennies to make.

Paddy: Damn it, what?

Rowan: And they got an extra, you know, 10 bucks for an order of fries with it. 

Paddy: I'm so pissed right now.

There are two reasons that real truffles cost so damn much. First, they're incredibly difficult to find. They're typically the size of a thimble. And even the expert hunters who understand their symbiotic relationship with trees, what climate and soil ph level is best, and who train elite truffle-hunting dogs, often get skunked.

Second, truffles smell like nothing else on this planet. Their aroma has been described as being as combustible as gasoline and your first love.

Rowan: It's not like the classic delicious type smell.

It's not like a chocolate chip cookie kind of smell where like everybody likes it, it's this sort of intellectually challenging sensation where you're like, “whoa, that's different. Do I like it? I think maybe I do.” And then you're like, “I think maybe I like it a lot.”

It's just, it's really elusive. It's really hard to, to get a handle on what it is, why you like it, why you want more of it. But you do, you want to go back and smell it again. So it's almost like not a conscious decision. It's not because it's delicious. It's just because it's compelling you to go back and smell it again. And then you think about it later and you're like, “Hmm. When can I get my next truffle hit?”

Somehow like through scent, the truffle has figured out how to like, tickle are like the part of our brain where memories and emotion lie. So it becomes an emotional response more than a, like, physical, like, oh, I like that smell response. It's kind of like this little, you know, this come hither smell it's beckons, you it's like, K come check me out, but then it's going to hide from you and you gotta find it.

Paddy: I was pretty upset that your book wasn't a scratch and sniff book.

Humans aren't the only animals that get nose-gasms every time we sniff these wee woodland wonders. Mice, voles, gohers, deer, bears, and dogs all lose their minds over truffles. Flying squirrels will take a near 90-degree in-flight turn if they catch a whiff. And famously pigs will forego sex to get to a truffle.

Rowan: One of the really clever things about the truffle is it actually produces pheromones that are also produced by male pigs when they're feeling horny. 

Paddy: What?

Rowan: Yeah, any female pig that smells a truffle, she, you know, goes into the zone and, and the race is to find that truffle and dig it up.

It has all these spores, which are like seeds and it needs to spread those spores around to make more truffle organisms. It makes itself smell so irresistible to animals that they will stop, whatever they're doing, dig up the truffle, eat it, and then spread the spores around later on. The truffles have been working on these scents for millions of years to make that happen. And they've gotten really good at it.

Paddy: Rowan describes truffle hunting, or truffling as the practice is called, as a kind of perfect three-way collision of food nerdery, science, and outdoor adventure. Which, for him, makes it irrestistable.

Rowan: It's just that feeling of being locked in and focused in the outdoors

It's challenging, right? There's a whole lot of  sort of strategy and, well, there's a whole lot of failure, which is always good, right? Like it's, it's really a treasure hunt and 90 plus percent of the time you're coming up empty. So there's that whole holy grail aspect to it, which is always fun.

And then the nerdery comes because, when it does work, what you're left with is this super stinky little, like bundle of fungus. So, it’s like it takes over your mind, just like a Jedi mind trick. Just like the pigs and the squirrels, you can't really resist if you're susceptible to it.And apparently I am.

Paddy: Rowan spent more than two years researching for his book, getting to know a range of truffle hunters and convincing many of them to bring him along on their secretive hunts. His research took him to England, Italy, France, Spain, and the real heart of Europe's booming truffle economy: Hungary.

This is where competition over truffles has become the most ferocious and also the most heavily managed. Truffle hunters and buyers and sellers are required to have goverment-issued licenses. Trufflers have to keep meticulous records of their finds, and frequently present them to officials. Meanwhile, investors are buying up tracks of forest believed to contain these fungus diamonds. The result, is that truffling in Hungary has become a rich person's business venture.

So, naturally, a secret society that seems out of a Monty Python movie has sprung up to protect the blue collar truffler: the Hungarian Truffle Knights. Think medallions, shields, robes, masks, and the like. When news spread among this group that an American journalist would be hunting with one of the rich-y rich trufflers, the Truffle Knights were not happy.

Rowan: I got a call, mysterious call at night. Inviting me to dinner at this distant restaurant outside of Budapest, which was called like cock diner, basically like, like, you know, like rooster diner. So I took the train and went out there and met these guys pretty late for dinner. They were these Transylvania and truffle hunters who spoke like, you know, they are out of like what we do in the shadows or something.

And they, like, you know, were like, “we just want you to enter to understand what's happening here in Hungary. You know, this is a crazy country and we're banned from truffle hunting and the guy you're going with, he's kind of monopolizing it.”

And meanwhile, you know, they told him, they told me to order like the most famous thing on the menu, which was the like cock and balls stew. It was a rooster testicles stew with a lot of, a lot of paprika, of course. 

Paddy: Sounds delicious.

Rowan: I hesitated hard. I didn't want to, you know, like displease my guests so I was like, “okay, fine.” And then they all got the fish soup, all the other, all three of them. So I was like, wait a minute.

Paddy: Am I getting gooned right now?

Rowan: I think I got totally gooned. So we have the dinner and you know, and I’m like slurping a, a lot of rooster testicles while trying to like, convince them that I wasn't going to be throwing the Truffle Knights under the bus. 

Paddy: Rowan went ahead with his hunt with the great enemy of the Hungarian Truffle Knights, and they scored big time.

Rowan: His name is Istvan Bagi he's probably the best truffle hunter in Europe and he's kind of a, you know, he's a. a, small built guy with a little like pointy beard. He's got this sort of intense, thoughtful, slightly moody, darkness to him where he could either have achieved like super enlightenment or super villainy and you can't quite tell which.

Paddy: During their hunt, Istvan and his black lab Mocha were digging up tons of impressive white truffles, which usually are around 50 to 60 grams a piece. But their finds were 70 to 80 grams. In Europe, this is rare. Even more rare is finding what hunters call a Joker, a truffle weighing in at 100 grams.  

Rowan: We'd been in the woods for a couple of hours and then toward the end of the day Mocha hit a spot and I could tell it Mocha seemed like a little extra excited. And Istvan looked at the, the lay, the lay of the land, and he said, “oh, this is going to be a big one.”

The thing is, um, the way the pricing is for white truffles, chefs want to be able to go out in the dining room and, you know, do the whole little, uh, you know, the big dance, the full Sturm und Drang, where they're going to shave the truffle in front of the customer. And there's gonna be a lot of ceremony. So the truffle has to be perfect. So the visual appeal of the truffle is at least as important as the smell. So you can't nick that truffle. So you gotta make sure your dog doesn't nick it with a claw. And then as you're digging, you have to make sure you don't screw up the truffle. So you actually end up digging, like, a crater around the truffle that's a lot bigger than the truffle is. And you eventually just leave this little pedestal of dirt. That's holding up the truffle. So you've dug all the way around. And this took us probably a good 20 minutes for this truffle, because once Istvan saw how big it was, he realized that it was worth taking some time.

By the time the craters there, I knew it was just gigantic compared to anything else that we had found that day, or that I had found anywhere else in Europe. So then the last bit is he wiggles this trial underneath the trowel, between the truffle in the pedestal and pops it up and he got it perfectly. And then we weighed it when we got back to the car and it was 394 grams. So it was like four jokers put together. and of course the smell was super intense. It was, uh, it was perfect. Then you're just really worried. It's like, you're carrying around like, you know, some priceless vase or something. You think you're going to drop it and mess it up.

Paddy: The truffle was the size of a baseball. In fact, it was the biggest Hungarian truffle found in 2019. And it was worth 1200 euros, or roughly $1300 dollars. Istvan immediatley got ahold of a buyer.

Rowan: He instantly, you know, texted somebody in Berlin and off it went that night by air mail to that, that person.

Paddy: But, in addition to the humongous truffle, the German contact wanted additional high quality fungi which Istvan would need to source from a seller. So, Rowan went with Istvan to score from a spikey haired guy wearing a black and red Tommy Hilfiger tracksuit with matching sneakers in a supermarket parking lot, who weighed truffles in the back of his porsche SUV.  

And somehow, this is not the weirdest thing that's happened to Rowan during his journey into the world of truffles. Once he headed back to the good ole US of A, things got even stranger.

That's coming up after the break.

[advertisement]

Paddy: Outside contributing editor Rowan Jacobsen finished his reporting on the wild world of European trufflers wondering if anything this strange was taking place in the United States. So he turned his attention to Oregon, which is known as a rich hunting ground for truffles, though the fungi there aren't given much love.

Rowan: I'd been led to believe that they were going to be disappointing. Their price is much lower and they're much less celebrated. And they were a hundred percent competitive on smell with the European truffles. So I was just shocked. And then curious.

Paddy:  Rowan went into feverish research mode, and soon learned about a fervent, albeit small, US truffle community. Among the members was a mycologist named Charles Lefevre, who had started the Oregon Truffle Festival in 2006, in order to jumpstart the US truffle market and culture. The three-day event includes a competition among dogs to sniff out the most truffles. It's typically dominated by Lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian breed that cost upwards of $10,000, but in 2018 a rescue chihuahua named Gustave took the top spot. Seriously.

Any-hoo, if Oregon has superb truffles, Rowan figured other spots in the country did, too.

Rowan: I live in Vermont and I thought, what a bummer that, you know, the one place in the world that doesn't seem to have any truffles is the Northeastern U.S. So then I really poked around. I asked people they're like, “no, there's, there's nothing here.” No chef had ever heard of an Eastern truffle. 

But then, I finally found a guy in Quebec of all places who had figured out how to cultivate this  native truffle, that’s native all over the Eastern U.S. And it's called the Appalachian truffle. And it had this beautiful sort of cinnamon colored reddish coat, this is the only truffle I'd seen that wasn't white or black. And I smelled it and it smelled really good. So then I thought, “that's amazing. You know, too bad I will probably never find it anywhere.”

Paddy: Rowan had reason to be pessimistic: nobody was digging up Appalachian truffles in the wild. Or at least that's what he thought until, through what can only be called the truffle underground, he got a tip.

Rowan: There's this one dude, he lives in Maryland guy named Jeff Long, a retired attorney who was hunting this truffle and finding it in somewhere in the Appalachians. I'm I'm not allowed to disclose where exactly, but somewhere in the Appalachian Hills.

Paddy: This was huge news in the truffle world: an almost-unknown species was being found in the forests of the East Coast. Rowan soon learned that chefs were chomping at the bit to get ahold of Appalachian Truffles. So he arranged for an introduction to Jeff Long as well as a guy named Ben Kable, a veterinarian from Maryland who had sunk a small fortune into trying to farm these rare fungi.

Rowan convinced Ben and Jeff to take him along on a hunt by promising not to reveal too much about any locations. And to make their dogs famous in his Outside story, 'cuz dog owners love that.

And yet.

Rowan: What really stands out is that we got nothing.

Ben had picked out what he thought was pretty darn good habitat. Like it checked all the boxes. And then we went through for a few hours, with both Ben's dog, who's kind of in training and Jeff's dog is a master. Nothing.

And that's like with the Appalachian truffle, we still don't really know. It's we're, we're just trying to figure out, you know, you know, why is it here and why is it not here when these two spaces look pretty much the same? Truffles are sneaky. They like to hide and they make you work for them.

Paddy: At Rowan's urging, Ben and Jeff agreed to meet him for another hunt two weeks later in an area Ben had found truffles before. Rowan began the day with just Ben and his dog Daisy, who once again wasn't finding anything. 

Ben: So when she starts panting like that, she’s not sniffing much.

Paddy: So Ben tried a new tactic.

Rowan: He kinda just dropped to his knees. I thought it was just giving up and he pulled the moss back, like a blanket. 

Ben: It’s looking much better.

Rowan: And I looked for a second and then realized that there was a truffle in there.

Ben: Holy Moly. 

Rowan: There’s one. Just like that.

And we're both like, holy shit, we just found it without, we don't need a dog! So then we just scrambled around and we found several more.

Rowan: There’s another one! These tend to be, you know, have a nice shape anyway. There’s a third one. Oh my god!

Rowan: You know, I, I did the classic thing where you pick it up and you smell it right away. I pick it up. I smelled it. Nothing. It smelled like a rock. And I was like, “where's the smell? Isn't is this an Appalachian truffle?”

Paddy: It was an Appalachian truffle. But, truffles only emit their intoxicating smell when they're ripe. The ones Ben and Rowan had found weren't ready yet. Even worse, by digging them up prematurely, they'd guaranteed these ones never would be ripe.

Rowan: It was very disappointing too, to go from the peak of treasure found, right? Like, oh, there's all these little red bundles of treasure in the ground and you know, we're dancing a little jig, but then when you smell them and suddenly realize a) you don't have any treasure and b) you've just killed the treasure to be, that's a bad dark, moment out

Paddy: I’m not a treasure hunter, I'm a murderer.

Rowan: Yeah. Yeah. It was like, you just picked all your grandfather's prized apples or something before they were ripe.

Paddy: But then Jeff showed up with his dog, Este, a Lagotto Romagnolo, who is a master truffle sniffer.

Jeff: Where is it. Oh there it is!

Rowan: They basically saved the day. 

Ben and Rowan: Jeez. They do exist. 

Rowan: This turned out to be a really good spot. We were surrounded by truffles, but we wouldn't have been able to tell, you know, when we would have, have to just like claw around with our hands for acres.

But they were everywhere through there and, many were ripe, not all. So Este just like, you know, tree to tree, never wasn't on a truffle. So we were basically just like running behind Este and digging spot after spot, after spot and we could’ve just kept going.  

Jeff: Excellent job! Excellent. What a good boy you are. Excellent.

Rowan: Eventually we had more truffles than we knew what to do with. 

Paddy: What do the good ones smell like?

Rowan: Good ones! It's a really great smell. It's like, it smells like the whole spice shop at once. Like a lot of cocoa and clove. This really rich warming smell. And then a little bit of that, like soil and earthworms and old love affairs, you know.

Paddy: I love it. Is it, I mean, is it safe to assume that the Appalachian truffle is your favorite truffle? Can you name a favorite truffle? Is that a hard thing to do?

Rowan: I can't name a favorite truffle there. My favorite truffle is the one I'm with.

Paddy: Rowan's feature story about his Appalachian truffle adventures with Ben and Jeff ran in Outside's January-February issue. It was titled "Finders Keepers."

When Outside published this article was like the truffle mafia upset with you. Did you get any kind of scary phone calls? Were people excited? were people pissed?

Rowan: All of the above, I would say. But the truffle mafia is cool with it, mostly. But there, I got contacted by one very cool mushroom hunter, who used a false name, but eventually he revealed to me who he was. So he's very concerned. He wants people out there hunting truffles, but he wants them to do it right. He wants, you know, a lot of respect for the environment. And he doesn't want it to become commercial. Like he kind of hates what's happened in Italy where, you know, it's like the mafia really is involved. He, he would love to see it become A hobby. It's something you do with your dog. And if you're lucky, then you have this awesome meal at the end, rather than like a financial thing. And I actually think that's a pretty cool way to think about it. But if suddenly these things are going for $6,000 a pound, like the European ones, then, you know, uh, fuck it. People are going to be like

Paddy: We're going to have the Sopranos of the truffle world in Appalachia. 

Rowan: Yeah. It could be have like Hoover vacuum cleaners out there in the forest.

Paddy: Are we on the precipice of the American truffle explosion?

Rowan: Oh, no question. We are right on the edge of, of a burgeoning American truffle scene. It's gonna take a few years, but it's going to grow, uh, grow every year and, all the dogs out there are going to thank us for it.

Paddy: Rowan believes that truffle hunting could eventually become a welcomed pastime in American outdoor culture, one that's challenging as hell but that ends with a delicious meal. A bit like fly-fishing but with dogs instead of rods and reels.

After that fateful hunt when Jeff's dog Este found all that stinky goodness, Ben and Jeff divided their treasure trove and gave Rowan a small sample to enjoy.

Rowan: I have to say it was one of the best meals I ever had and it was one of the simplest. So I was camping, up in the hills, like crystal clear Brook going by my campsite. So I made a fire and all I had with me was eggs and a little bit of butter. And then I had this little tiny truffle, which was my only my, you know, my little four gram reward from the day's hunt. So I just set a pan over the fire and melted the butter and fry the egg and then flip the egg. And just as the egg was kind of setting, I shaved the whole truffle over the egg, and then I hit the butter. And then suddenly it's like, I was in this, you know, like sort of this little cocoon of firelight as the evening was darkening. And suddenly the smell of this truffle was just filling this whole cocoon around me. And so it was nothing, but these spicy, cocoa, haunting smells swirling around me and I ate the egg and the truffle. And that was it. That was dinner. And then I was just there with the stars. And it kind of crystallized for me, you know, sort of what the essence of the truffle hunt is about and what the reward could be, should be.

Paddy: Would you rather relive that moment or your first kiss ever?

Rowan: Yeah. In this case, I think I'll go, I'll go, go with that moment. There's more elements there.

Michael Roberts: That was Outside contributing editor Rowan Jacobsen, speaking with producer Paddy O'Connell. 

Rowan's story about the hunt for the Appalachian Truffle ran in Outside's January-February print issue. You can also read it on our website, Outide Online. Rowan's latest book is Truffle Hound.

Paddy produced this episode, which was edited by me, Michael Roberts. Music by Robbie Carver. 

Thanks to Rowan for sharing recordings from his reporting. Sounds design elements came from Epidemic Sound.

This episode was brought to you by Lifestraw, maker of beautiful, simple, and functional products that provide the highest protection from unsafe water. Check out their new Peak Series filters and learn more about their actions to make a healthier, more sustainable planet at lifestraw.com.

The Outside Podcast is made possible by our Outside+ members. Learn more about all the benefits of membership at outsideonline.com/podplus. Also, we're offering new members a 25% discount. Just enter the code pod25 at checkout.

Follow the Outside Podcast

Outside’s longstanding literary storytelling tradition comes to life in audio with features that will both entertain and inform listeners. We launched in March 2016 with our first series, Science of Survival, which was developed in partnership with PRX, distributors of the idolized This American Life and The Moth Radio Hour, among others. We have since expanded our show and now offer a range of story formats, including interviews with the biggest figures in sports, adventure, and politics, as well as reports from our correspondents in the field.