There are truffles in Georgia -- not the chocolates you buy in a gold box, but the earthy fungi you shave over pasta. If it comes as a surprise to you that one of the world's most sought-after delicacies grows wild in the pecan groves of Georgia's coastal plain, then it comes as a surprise to Georgia pecan farmers that anybody would take an interest in something that looks like a mangled potato and smells up the whole truck.
This past August -- at the start of the pecan truffle season -- I drove west with Dr. Tim Brenneman, a plant pathologist at the University of Georgia in Tifton, to Magnolia Plantation, 10,600 acres of game preserve, cotton fields, pecan trees and swamp that stretches from Albany to Leary. There, we were joined by Frank Stimpson, the plantation manager, and Bob Easterlin, a bird-dog trainer, for a truffle hunt. Easterlin had spent the previous three months teaching his Brittany spaniel puppy, Britt, to find truffles, and this was his test run. If all worked out, Britt would possibly be the region's first truffle-hunting dog. Until now, the only way to harvest truffles here has been to find one poking through the topsoil, then rake around it and hope to uncover more.
The pecan truffle, or Tuber lyonii, was first discovered in Texas in 1958, but it wasn't until 1987, when Brenneman came across one, that its pasta potential became clear. He had little culinary use for it, but he took an amused interest in bringing it to the attention of the sort of people who did. Now, a handful of Georgia restaurants use the truffles, most notably Elizabeth on 37th in Savannah, but they remain an elusive ingredient.
While Britt sniffed around, a pickup pulled up with Robert Wilkerson, one of Stimpson's employees. Wilkerson pulled two jawbreaker-size truffles out of his pocket. ''I found these on the way over here.''
If you're in the right grove, finding a pecan truffle is about as hard as finding gum on a Manhattan sidewalk. Every 20 steps, there is a dirty, knuckle-shaped tip of a truffle peeking through a circle of earth. It can be as large as a racquetball or as small as a plump raisin; it can be round or gnarled. When you find one, there tend to be more nearby. Pecan truffles don't have the overwhelming aroma of their famous European cousins, but slice one open, and you'll see the marbled veining in the beige flesh, followed by that distinctive odor.
Wilkerson walked between the trees, bent at the waist, flicking truffles into a plastic Winn-Dixie bag. He looked at Britt and said, ''The dog ain't got me beat yet.'' Indeed, Britt didn't find a single one -- he was more interested in our shoelaces and shady mud puddles. Perhaps Britt was better suited for treeing doves.
After less than two hours, we examined our take four pounds of musty, knotty pecan truffles. Brenneman wasn't impressed. ''I once went through here with two friends, and we found 20 pounds in two hours,'' he said. Sold for $100 a pound at www.pecantruffles.com, truffle foraging makes for a lucrative hobby. (And for cooks, it's not a bad deal, since white Italian truffles regularly cost about $1,500 a pound.)
That night, I found Hugh Acheson, the chef at Five & Ten in Athens, in his kitchen and gave him a handful of grimy truffles. Hours earlier it would have seemed an impossible luxury to share them, but after I sifted through pounds of them in a plastic bag, it felt like sharing popcorn at the movies. ''They can be vapid,'' he said of the truffles, ''and sometimes there are deep pockets of dirt.'' He added ''But when they're good, they're great.''