An extremely expensive truffle has been grown farther north than ever before, a phenomenon researchers attribute to altered growing conditions created by climate change. For the first time, a Mediterranean black truffle, also known as a Périgord truffle, has been grown in the United Kingdom—and not a moment too soon as global warming threatens its native habitat in northern Spain, southern France, and northern Italy.
Reported in the journal Climate Research, researchers from the University of Cambridge and Mycorrhizal Systems Ltd (MSL) worked with Welsh farmers to cultivate a truffle-friendly root system around a Mediterranean oak tree that was planted in Wales in 2008. Before the tree was planted, it was inoculated with truffle spores, and the surrounding soil was made less acidic by treating it with lime to encourage truffle growth. Nine years later, the preparations paid off, thanks in no small part to a truffle-sussing dog named Bella who located the treasured subterranean specimen, described in the study as a “16 g, ripe and pungent fruitbody of excellent quality.”
Black truffles, desired for their intense flavor and aroma, can sell for over $1,000 per pound due to the many challenges of growing and harvesting them. While they have historically grown exclusively in more Mediterranean climates, yields have been falling as climate change increases the likelihood of drought and heatwaves in these areas. Yet demand remains high, and the truffle industry is projected to be worth nearly $6 billion annually in the next 10-20 years, according to the study. This is the first time a truffle of this variety has been cultivated in such a northern and maritime climate.
Dr. Paul Thomas, of MSL and the University of Stirling and a co-author of the report, told Earther that truffles have very specific climate requirements, and that unexpected changes in precipitation or temperature can be extremely damaging.
“Therefore, they are very sensitive to predicted climate change in Europe and have already been shown to be declining in response to trends towards greater drought,” he said. “This creates challenges on mainland Europe and new farming methods may be needed.”
Thomas said that how fungi will respond to climate change in general remains understudied, and he hopes to look more into how resilient truffles and other mushrooms will be in the face of a changing climate. Thomas also thinks the U.K. can benefit from cultivating the production of truffles and other crops that previously might not have grown well in the cold, wet conditions typical of the island. He said his team is currently working on fine-scale climate mapping of the region to aid in this undertaking.
The authors conclude that the potential impact of new truffle cultivation attempts in the U.K. “may be very significant,” with cultivation having a “clear and potentially sizeable economic benefit to the U.K,. whilst at the same time aiding the conservation of this icon species.”
So it looks like we might still be able to have our truffles and eat them too.