ATHENS, Ga. - Georgia's got its Vidalia onions, Elberta peaches and south Georgia pecans - and one day, as Tim Brenneman sees things, it could also have its truffles.
It hasn't been proved, but Mr. Brenneman, a plant pathologist with the University of Georgia, said he believes Georgia's pecan orchards could be a mother lode of truffles, one of the most coveted and expensive ingredients in European cuisine.
Mr. Brenneman, a researcher at the school's Tifton experiment station, first noticed a variety of the underground delicacy during a fungicide test in a South Georgia pecan orchard 10 years ago.
"I just more or less stumbled across them," he said. "I had never seen a truffle before."
Since then, finding ways of locating truffles in their topsoil hiding spots has become a hobby for the professor, who is actually an expert on diseases that strike pecan trees and peanut crops.
U.S. pecan truffles, a fungus that grows in conjunction with tree roots, were first found in the 1950s in Texas. A first-cousin to the European variety, they could be a viable, tasty commodity for Georgia, with its 150,000 acres of pecan orchards and $91 million pecan industry, supplying 40 percent of U.S. pecans.
"It's not an industry yet; there's no place where you can go to buy truffles," Mr. Brenneman said. "This would be attractive to those upscale restaurants."
Varieties of the tasty underground treats fetch up to $500 a pound in Europe, where chefs prize truffles for their pungent earthy taste, which some say is akin to blue-veined cheese tinged with garlic. Truffle harvesters still guard known truffle plots with firearms and use specially trained dogs and pigs to root out the delicacies.
Once found, the truffles are hoarded and their shavings strewn atop mouthwatering dishes.
In south Georgia, they're often tossed aside like rocks.
That could change. Encouraged by a market study he conducted among Southern chefs, Mr. Brenneman is working with an agricultural engineer to train a state-of-the-art "electronic nose" machine to sniff out the fungi. Once the truffle's numbers are estimated, there's the challenge of trying to encourage them to grow.
"There's a certain mystery associated with these things," he said. "The truffle has been notoriously difficult to propagate."
Truffles are actually bundles of spores, the fruits of fungus growing in topsoil along with tree root systems. Pecan tree roots are no exception, but no survey has been done on how plentiful the truffles might be in Georgia orchards.
"I'd love to see this develop to the point where a grower could have some economic success with it," he said.
A good eye and a handy rake can unearth truffles in their shallow pits on the ground under a tree's canopy, he said, but growers need a steadier way of finding the fungi.
They are most likely found during wet years in managed orchards kept clear of weeds and grass.
Georgia pecan growers are cautiously interested and are keeping an eye out for the fabled fungus.
"We're going to look for them, sure," said Larry Willson, president of the Georgia Pecan Growers Association. "I don't know whether we'll see any of them or not. It's been dry. They like it moist and humid."
Whether truffle consumption will catch on in the land of biscuits and fried okra is another matter.
"I have never actually had a European truffle in my life," Mr. Brenneman said. "I've had truffle oil, but quite honestly it didn't do anything for me."