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(Eric Jaffe)

For Hire: Truffle Hunter

Into the weird world of mushroom delicacy

smithsonian.com

Charles Lefevre is an addict. And a clever one at that, because he's devised a way to sustain himself and the object of his addiction: mushrooms. Lefevre's fungus of choice is the truffle, arguably the most elegant and priciest type of all. The 42-year-old runs New World Truffieres Inc., which produces trees inoculated with truffles that farmers can use to start "truffieres"—or truffle orchards. The business, based in Oregon's Willamette Valley, began in 2000, and Lefevre now has customers across the continent. In addition to selling the trees, he helps organize the Oregon Truffle Festival in late January, when the mushrooms are at their best. Lefevre tells Smithsonian.com how he finds the fun in fungus.

What exactly are truffles?

Truffles are mushrooms that develop underground and depend on animals eating them to disperse their spores. They actually need for us to eat them to complete their life cycle. Since they live below ground, they can't turn red like an apple to get our attention. Instead, they produce powerful aromas to attract our attention from several inches underground.

How did you get interested in them?

Truffles are mysterious and magical; they have that kind of leprechaun quality. Truffle hunting is something I did to supplement my income as a graduate student at Oregon State University. I am a mycologist [his PhD is in forest ecology], so hunting for chanterelles and porcini was what I did for fun anyway. At some point, it was hard to separate my academic and entertainment interests.

So, without divulging trade secrets of course, what do you do?

We produce trees inoculated mainly with the European truffles to enable farmers here in the United States to grow the famous European truffles. The truffles and the trees form a mutually beneficial symbiosis that can last 50 years or more in the soil. The trees are produced under controlled conditions for the first year of their lives in order to convince them and the truffles to form their symbiosis. It is a delicate process since the needs of the fungus and the needs of the trees are not entirely the same.

Who are your customers?

The people who purchase the trees are demographically similar to the people who pioneered the wine industry in this country: they are mainly professionals looking for a lifestyle change who can afford to venture into new areas of agriculture that offer some mystique as well as the potential for significant income. Our customers are spread all over the continent, and I do visit them when I'm asked to do site evaluations.

Is there a hunting season?

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