This farmer-turned-biologist wants to put Quebec's truffles on the culinary map
It’s been 13 years since Jérôme Quirion smelled his first truffle. At a food festival in France, he was handed a simple egg omelette with Burgundy truffle shaved on top.
All this time later, even after becoming a truffle grower himself, Mr. Quirion still has a hard time putting the aroma – the scent wafting up from that plate – into words. “Pungent, garlicky, like cabbage” he said, before trailing off.
“It smells,” the Quebec truffle grower said finally, “like mystery.”
The word “elusive” comes up a lot in discussions about truffles. They’re the rich cousins to mushrooms, coveted by high-end chefs around the world. Sometimes “elusive” is a reference to the rarity of the ingredient. Hidden deep underground, truffles are unearthed only by the most skilled truffle hunters, aided by highly-trained, scent-sniffing dogs.
But more often, it’s a reference to the truffle’s aroma: the enigmatic but fleeting scent that drives wealthy diners to shell out thousands of dollars for just a small handful.
As with much of fine dining – where rhetoric often veers into hyperbole – the language around truffles can spiral into absurd.
One famous example, from Time magazine, evoked “the pungent memory of lost youth and old love affairs.” Poet Diane Ackerman, in turn, recalled “the muskiness of a rumpled bed after an afternoon of love in the tropics.”
But in Quebec City, Normand Voyer, a chemistry professor from Laval University, has come up with a decidedly unsexy description. His summary looks like this: “Dimethyl sulfide, 2-methylpropanal and 2,3-butanedione …”
In a study published last month, Prof. Voyer’s team took truffles from Mr. Quirion’s orchard and analyzed, for the first time ever, the volatile compounds that make up the aroma of Quebec’s Appalachian truffle. It’s the first time the truffle has been so thoroughly dissected: translating the heady aroma – and the lofty language of fine dining – into plain science.
Prof. Voyer’s study is also an attempt to put Canada’s fledgling truffle industry on the map. Among his findings: The Quebec truffles share a similar profile to the world’s most expensive truffles. Even more intriguing: The Quebec varieties are utterly unique, and contain compounds never found in truffles before.
The results of Prof. Voyer’s study may come as news to many, but not to Mr. Quirion.
Since 2009, the scruffy farmer-turned-biologist has proselytized Quebec’s Appalachian truffle. He’s spent the past decade cultivating them at his farm.
“French people will say, ‘French ones are the best.’ Spanish people will say, ‘Spain’s are the best,’ ” said Mr. Quirion.
But Canadian truffles? “Nobody knew about that,” he said.
Unlike the more popular black and white varieties, Quebec’s Appalachian truffles (which have only been known to be native to the province since the 1980s) are rust brown. They’re also smaller, and generally milder in aroma.
Prof. Voyer’s study found a similar profile between the Quebec variety and that of the smooth black truffle (including 2,4-dithiapentane, the scent most commonly associated with truffles, andoften reproduced synthetically in truffle oil).
He also found that the Quebec truffle shares the same compounds thatgivethe Périgord black truffle (which sells for as much as $4,000 per kilogram) its signature “malty” and “buttery” odours.
Stéphane Modat, the chef at Restaurant Le Clan in Quebec City, is one of a handful of chefs who has cooked with them. “Totally different than the European truffles,” he said. “Tasting more [like] the woods – more smoky.”
Other experts are also effusive. In his book Truffle Hound, food writer Rowan Jacobsen, deemed the Quebec Appalachian truffles “exquisite.”
Likening the white truffle to a Lamborghini and the black winter to a Rolls-Royce, Jacobsen wrote, Quebec’s truffle “is the Aston Martin: classy, subdued, intensely pleasing.”
The problem is finding them.
Only a small number of commercial truffle operations currently exist in Canada: primarily in British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. And only a handful are successfully producing truffles. The vast, vast majority of truffles here are still imported.
In Quebec, there are about 25 truffle growers. But so far, only Mr. Quirion has successfully produced them. And while he does sell to a handful of chefs and customers, his focus is on building an industry – on selling trees inoculated with truffle spores to other growers.
He estimates that Quebec and Canada are still about a decade away from having a significant truffle industry. But he says the potential is there.
Part of the problem is climate. Some of the most renowned truffles, such as the Périgord, are harvested in the winter, making much of Canada – and any place that experiences deep freeze – less than ideal.
The other important factor is time. Europe, where truffles have been harvested since 23 AD, has long-established markets. Even the newer upstarts – countries such as Australia and the United States – are decades ahead of Canada.
This is because truffles take 10 years, on average, to grow. Most Quebec growers are still in their first few years. Biologist Shannon Berch first planted her Périgord black truffle orchard at the University of British Columbia research farm nine years ago. She’s yet to enjoy her first harvest.
But that’s also part of the fun. “The fact that it isn’t easy does make it interesting,” said Prof. Berch. “Why does it take that long? What does it take? What are the right conditions to try to get truffles?”
“The mystery is really part of the mystique.”
But where others see mystery, Prof. Voyer saw a challenge.
The professor first learned about Quebec truffles while watching a local news report. Soon, his research team was on the way to meet with Mr. Quirion, who had been featured in the report.
With the help of Tofu, Mr. Quirion’s Jack Russell terrier, they dug up three samples: raspberry-sized truffles that were quickly stored in paper bags and inside a cooler.
Mr. Quirion has other truffle dogs on his farm, too. Tofu is the star. He needs to be yanked away the moment he sniffs one out, before he swallows it. Another member of the team, Merguez, is a dachshund – “old and lazy,” Mr. Quirion said – who will only work for sausage as reward.
At the lab, Prof. Voyer’s team placed samples of each truffle inside of vials – each sample about the size of a pinch of salt. From there, they used tiny sponge-like substances to absorb the volatile molecules, then “read” the results with a gas chromatograph.
They found compounds associated with a broad range of smells: from garlic and rotten cabbage to seaweed.
Then there were the new compounds. Those were not entirely new to scientists, explained Prof. Voyer. “But,” he said, “they have not been properly investigated for their aroma.”
Complicating matters is that the compounds themselves only tell part of the story. The aroma of some compounds can change based on the concentration. Others change based on how they’re mixed with other compounds.
The next step, said Prof. Voyer, will take place in France next fall. There, his team will further analyze the compounds with the help of a panel of “noses”– professional smellers who are trained to describe aromas. They’ll be able to prove not only that Quebec’s truffles are different, but also how they’re different.
Prof. Voyer doesn’t see his work ruining the fun. If anything, he believes he’s strengthening the claims of legitimate products. A previous study he published analyzed the chemical makeup of Quebec maple syrup – a commonly bootlegged product.
“People try to oversell their products using all kinds of marketing tricks,” he said. “But science is science.”
Still, there are variables that even he can’t account for.
Human perception, for one. Part of flavour and odour perception is genetic. Some people will smell cilantro and love it. Others might hate it.
There’s also the many ways smell is tied with memory, nostalgia and experience. The smell of roses may evoke, for some, childhood nostalgia or a grandmother’s garden.For others, a rose might smell like heartbreak.
“It’s a complicated business,” said Prof. Voyer.
Adding to that is how quickly the aroma degrades. It’s part of the reason why truffles are so expensive.
Mr. Quirion’s truffles were tested within 24 hours of harvest. But within a few days, the smell had already changed. And a few days after that, said Prof. Voyer, it was completely different.
The study by Prof. Voyer’s team wasn’t funded in any way by industry. “We just thought it was a great, interesting, scientific question,” he said.
Another reason for his detachment? He doesn’t like, or dislike, truffles. In fact, he’s never even had one.
But the study has left him intrigued.
“That’s something I should do,” he said. “I’ll be sure to try them in the future.”