While North Carolina has long had a reputation as a state, rich in agricultural history and production, the usual mentions are around hogs, sweet potatoes, and tobacco. Unknown and unseen by many, like the delicacy itself, North Carolina may soon be known as one of the largest truffle producers in North America. White truffles? In the Old North State? For sure and thanks to some wide-eyed dreams and a lot of hard work, North Carolina is on the cusp of becoming a leader in the production of this delicious and extremely valuable fungi, thanks to the hard work of the people at Burwell Farms and initial research done by local experts from NC AT&T and beyond.
The whole backstory of all the research and people involved in the science of getting the white spring bianchetto truffle to take root in North Carolina soil is well covered in this June 2021 article from Smithsonian magazine but I was curious to see first-hand what Burwell Farms was up to. So after several email exchanges, I was able to schedule a visit to their farm! While their processing facility is out in Burlington, NC, the Burwell truffle farm is located in Warrenton, about 75 minutes north of Raleigh.
Cultivating the white truffle at Burwell Farms
My drive to Burwell Farms takes me through some lovely, rural towns, and landscapes, a throwback to what North Carolina used to be. Turning down a country road, I pass the Burwell Farms sign and do a u-turn, whoops! Up a dirt road and I’m met by Jeffrey Coker, the President of Burwell Farms. With multiple biology degrees, including a PhD from NC State University, Jeffrey has been working with and consulting with Burwell Farms since the early days. The Burwell Davis farm has been in the family since the 1700s and produced cotton and tobacco prior to its current incarnation. We hop into his truck and head on over to the truffle orchard down the road a bit.
Behind a chain link fence sits a 2-acre plot of loblolly pines in a tight and neat formation, these trees mean business in many ways! The loblolly is a yellow pine, common to the Southeastern US area and apparently a great host for the strain of Tuber borchii fungi which produces bianchetto truffles. Burwell Farms planted its first loblolly pines back in 2014 and it took over three years and a lot of science before their first harvest. While historically we associate truffles with pigs in French orchards, there have been several, semi-successful attempts to cultivate them in the US with the primary regions being black truffles in the Pacific Northwest and now, the white truffle in North Carolina!
Jeffrey tells me a bit about the long and arduous history of attempted truffle farms in the US and there seems to have been more failures than successes and the notion that these fragile fungi could only thrive in the forests of Europe. But unbound by tradition and armed with some US brashness and North Carolina common sense, Burwell Farms was able to create the right inoculated saplings and soil conditions to grow the bianchetto truffle. And of course, taking advantage of the great NC sun and rain couldn’t hurt much, now could it?
Jeffrey dives into how truffles are grown and apparently the roots of these loblolly pines create an underground network of tuber borchii fungi that spans the area. When there is an intersection of two of these underground fungi growths, a truffle (fruiting body) is created and expands towards the surface. Gotta love science and biology for giving us these delectable treats! Not only have these bianchetto truffles grown in NC soil, they have thrived here producing 100 lbs of truffles per acre making Burwell Farms the most productive truffle farm in North America.
Given the weather during the winter of 2021-2022, the truffles have matured earlier than expected and my visit is coming at the tail-end of the season. It’s been a good season, according to Jeffrey and Burwell Farms has sold out their entire harvest and they are now trying to fulfill orders placed months earlier. The grounds at this truffle orchard are littered with pine needles and irrigation hoses placed neatly near each treeline. A series of colored flags identify where a truffle has been found and the approximate date/time it has been found. And that’s where Laddie comes in!
Hunting and finding white truffles at Burwell Farms
Unlike days of yesteryear or truffle folklore, pigs are not always used to hunt and find truffles. Laddie appears to be a lab-hound mix and this pup has been trained out in Winston-Salem to search and identify these valuable bianchetto truffles. Little socks cover his feet to minimize any potential damage he could do when sniffing out a truffle. While he’s already been out this morning, his handler WC sets him out again for my visit. Laddie pretty quickly finds a scent and paws at it lightly. WC, the grounds manager for Burwell Farms, rewards him with a treat and they start digging around the spot carefully to uncover the tasty morsel, check out the video above for the live action.
On his hands and knees, Jeffrey checks on the aroma of the uncovered truffle to decide if the truffle is ripe and ready to be harvested or if it can be left in the ground for a bit more time. A smelly truffle is a good truffle, apparently along with a nice marbled interior! It needs more time so the truffle is covered back up along with a new flag to identify its location and when it was found.
Back at the main part of Burwell Farms, Jeffrey shows me one of the most impressive truffles they’ve dug up recently. A monster of a truffle that’s the size of his hand and more. I bend over the truffle and inhale deeply. My nose picks up a strong earthy, pungency stacked on top of garlicky overtones, delish! Truffles only have a seven to ten day period of freshness so as soon as these lovelies are dug up, they are transported over to the Burlington processing center to be cleaned and shipped directly to customers, restaurants, and beyond.
With all the time, work, and energy put into growing truffles, I now understand the need to carefully shave a morsel to be enjoyed on a dish or pizza at a restaurant! At $100 per ounce, these truffles are a luxury item and recent growing issues in Europe (urbani.com) meant that the worldwide truffle supply was low, leaving Burwell Farms offerings in high demand. And with customers in 46 states the entire harvest was already spoken for, wow! Unfortunately for me, the truffles are mostly going out of state and I won’t be able to try them at any local NC restaurants.
Growing popularity of the white truffle
Interestingly enough, Burwell Farms also sells inoculated loblolly saplings so if you wanted to get into the white truffle business, you could but would certainly need to invest time, patience, and money since it takes over 3+ years before any chance of harvesting truffles would occur. I asked Jeffrey why they would sell saplings and create their own competition but Burwell Farms feels that there is so much demand, the benefit of having more farms growing and selling bianchetto truffles would only help the overall market and increase awareness of this US truffle offering, cool! Additional truffle orchards are already in the works for Burwell Farms given their success and overall customer demand. Get all the details in my Burwell Farms interview with Jeffrey Coker on YouTube.
I thank Jeffrey for his time and for sharing his knowledge with me during my visit, it was really impressive and fun to learn about a truffle farm right in my own backyard and in North Carolina, who would have imagined? Orders are now being taken for the 2023 truffle harvest and I’m hoping I can get ahead of the game and try out a dish or two featuring Burwell Farms bianchetto truffles in the area. I’m thinking a white pizza sporting truffle shavings would totally hit the spot. But we shall see where these umami-laden truffles end up, I will update this blog if I can get my hands (and mouth) on some delicious Burwell Farms bianchetto truffles in the 2023 season, bon appetit!
Burwell Farms – Bianchetto White Truffles