During the third week of January 2013, Bay Area residents will get an opportunity to attend the pinnacle of all food celebrations: the third annual Napa Truffle Festival. You’ll never be able to attend a festival dedicated to a more expensive crop than the truffle, at least not without being sent away to prison afterwards—the only kind of crop that costs more per pound than truffles is the highly illegal kind. 

A single pound of high quality truffles sell for thousands of dollars, making the truffle not just king of the mushrooms, but also the world’s most expensive legal harvested product. And it’s not just because of their widely adored taste, either. Truffles are expensive also because they’re difficult to cultivate and to harvest, and because they naturally grow in only a handful of places all over the world. But the locally based American Truffle Company, which started Napa Truffle Festival, is working to make truffle cultivation feasible in more places across the world, including the Napa Valley.

The Napa Truffle Festival will go on for four days, from Jan. 18-21, 2013, and feature a number of high-end chefs, scientists, businesspeople and, obviously, lots of truffles, which American Truffle Company’s Managing Partner Robert Chang will be transporting to Napa from France and Italy.

Truffles need to be fresh, so the festival organizers are planning to bring them over from Europe at the last minute, within days of their being harvested.

“The half-life of truffles is in the order of four-to-five days. When they’re first taken out of the grown, their tastes start to decline,” Chang said. “By the fourth or fifth day, you’re only left with half the aroma and fragrance of the original truffle. In another four to five days, you’re left with about half of that.”

This knowledge not only helps American Truffle Company’s founders prepare for the festival, but it also speaks to the potential for a large increase in local truffle smell and taste should Napa Valley grape growers begin using some of their farmland for truffle cultivation.

Anyone who attends should plan to get spoiled with truffle-laced breakfasts, lunches and dinners, which the festival’s founders hope demonstrate the truffle’s versatility. Kathleen Iudice, who oversees the festival’s community relations, said truffles can complement almost any food, no matter how simple or complicated the ingredients. Among the meals featured at the festival are specialty dishes like truffle duck liver pate or mushroom truffle bread pudding, but they’ll also serve truffle pizza, and even scrambled eggs with truffle slices sprinkled all over it.

“A truffle can be quite versatile,” Iudice said. “It’s more of a condiment that you shave on top.”

For their keynote speaker, American Truffle Company chose food writer (and Grammy nominee) Colman Andrews, who has penned bestselling cookbooks and is currently the editorial director of the website, The Daily Meal. Andrews also co-founded Sauver, a well-renowned food magazine, and served as its editor-in-chief from 2002-2006.

Tickets for the festival started going on sale in October, and it should be noted that the event sold out relatively quickly last year. So if you’re planning to go, don’t dawdle.

Since the festival will span across four days, there will be many mealtime opportunities to sample truffles and also to pair them with various wines. But the event is just as dedicated to educating visitors about the truffle as it is to celebrating the subterranean mushroom’s taste, said Iudice.

“The festival is to raise awareness about black truffle cultivation, but also to involve all the components of the pleasure of black truffles, and how prized they are in the culinary world,” Iudice said.

On day two of the festival, for instance, attendees will be shown a truffle-sniffing dog demonstration at the local Robert Sinskey Vineyards, allowing visitors to get a firsthand look at the most proven method of truffle harvesting. Dogs, unlike humans, can sniff truffles out of the soil, and typically leave them unmolested after digging them up. Pigs can also detect truffles by their scent, but they appreciate the truffle’s exquisite taste a bit too much, and can often munch down thousands of dollars in newly-discovered truffles before harvesters are able to retrieve them.

“You don’t see too many truffle-sniffing pigs anymore,” Iudice said. “Part of the reason has to do with poaching—if you’re a poacher and you’re driving around with your truffle pig, it’s pretty obvious what you’re up to.”

Poaching is just one of the many challenges that truffle growers face. In addition to dealing with the truffle’s aforementioned rarity, truffle aficionados have to learn to avoid low-quality imitation truffles, which tend to resemble the renowned black truffle, but come nowhere close in terms of taste. But researchers at American Truffle Company, the founders of Napa Truffle Festival, say they’re working to make life easier for truffle growers.

“We’re the only company in the world that has the capability to do cutting edge science with truffle cultivation, with data coming in from over 20 countries in the world where we have truffle orchards,” Chang said.

Chang’s business partner, Paul Thomas, wrote his PhD dissertation on truffle science his breakthroughs led to the company’s foundation. Through their research, they’ve noted that black truffles tend to grow more successfully in the roots of hazel and oak trees, and American Truffle Company helps facilitate the planting of inoculated trees, so that truffles can be harvested from the nearby soil four or five years down the line. Chang and Iudice both said the truffle company has been attracting vineyard owners in the Napa area to grow truffles. Here, the cards seem to be lining up in American Truffle Company’s favor, since truffles and wine are good complements, and because vineyard owners can afford to wait the years it takes before truffles should be harvested, this seems like an ideal pairing.

“Napa has as much suitable soil and most places you’d find, so that’s a plus,” Chang said. “The huge plus is that a lot of people have vineyards, have the land, the equipment, and they are already familiar with high-value crops. Napa and Sonoma are very complimentary to truffles.”

Both Chang and Thomas will be at the festival, and each will talk about their expertise; Chang will give a talk on the economics of truffle cultivation, and Thomas will lead a truffle seminar and speak in depth about the science of cultivation.

“These are devised for people who are interested in truffle cultivation themselves,” Iudice said. “With grape growers looking to diversify, many are interested in cultivating truffles. It has become such a hot topic.”

Additionally, there will be luncheon field trips to local wineries, and a marketplace format on day four, where attendees will have the opportunity to buy truffle products, after spending the previous days finding out which truffle/meal combinations fit their tastes best.

The first Napa Truffle Festival was held in 2011, and the capacity has had to expand since, due to high demand. The market on Monday will have a capacity of at least 500, but the festival’s planners are capping the seminars and weekend events attendance at around 200 people, Iudice said.

“There are two other truffle festivals in the US. One is in Oregon and the other is in North Carolina,” Iudice said of why demand for Napa’s festival is so high. “Those revolve around indigenous truffles, not black truffles. Robert’s focus is on the black truffles that his company is making.”

Tickets to Napa Truffle Festival can be purchased online at www.napatrufflefestival.com. Since the festival spans four days, there are a number of ticket packages, ranging from a single $25 wine tasting ticket, to $1,250 for all four days, and all meals/events, to single-day passes for cheaper.  Those who are already familiar with truffles shouldn’t need much convincing to attend, and those who are curious about any aspect of truffles or truffle science should note that all these topics will be covered at Napa Truffle Festival, in a variety of ways.

For more information, call (888) 753-9378 or send an email to: info@napatrufflefestival.com.

Nate Gartrell grew up in Benicia, studied journalism in college, and has written for a handful of media outlets since age 15. He aspires to visit all 30 Major League Baseball stadiums and to hit the trifecta at the horse track.