Hunting for Oregon Truffles

Truffle Plate

Move over france and Italy, there are some new truffles in town, and they’re sending seismic shocks of pleasure through chefs and food connoisseurs alike. Though truffles are found throughout many U.S. states, the ones that are causing the most notice — and are in demand — are pure-bred Oregonian —both native black and white truffles and, much more recently, Perigords, the famed French black truffle now being cultivated in Oregon orchards.

Truffles, like mushrooms, are fungi. But unlike mushrooms, which grow above ground, these prized plums of the fungi world grow underneath the soil. In Oregon’s truffle-rich Willamette Valley you’ll most often find native black and white truffles playing hide-and-seek in the soil near Douglas fir trees. Perigords, on the other hand, prefer growing underground near cultivated orchards of hazelnut trees.

Oregon Truffle Festival, Truffle
John Valls

Unlike mushroom spores, which are airborne, truffles rely on animals to distribute theirs. They’re also harvested much differently. Wild mushroom hunters let their eyes be their guide. For truffles, since they are buried deep in the duff, hunters rely on pigs or dogs, with the preference in both Italy and the States of using the latter. Not only do most dogs possess excellent smelling snouts, but they can also be trained not to eat the truffle. A wag of the tail, excited barking and diligent digging is enough to alert its owner of a truffle. Not so with pigs.

One of the driving forces behind Oregon’s burgeoning truffle industry is renowned mycologist Dr. Charles Lefevre, who, in 1999, at the prompting of Pat Long, a semi-retired Corvallis, OR veterinarian and hobby farmer, experimented with producing Perigords while a graduate student at Oregon State University. Lefevre successfully inoculated Long’s two-acre orchard of hazelnut trees with truffle spores. It wasn’t long after that when Lefevre founded his business, New World Truffieres, which inoculates hazelnut, pecan and oak trees with truffle spores.

Like much of what’s good in life, Perigords take time. The average growth period of a Perigord to come to full maturity — and reach its peak flavor profile — is about five to six years, says Long.
For Long, however, it took about 15 years before he saw his first Perigord. In his defense, he says, much had to do with his not being able to properly tend to his orchard at the time. Still, he doesn’t regret the wait, nor his choice of choosing Perigords over a faster-growing cash-crop. Not only has his orchard been producing top-quality Perigords for the last couple years, but he was also one of the first two growers to sell the state’s first commercial crop of French black truffles. And at the going rate of upwards of $900 a pound, he’s more than satisfied.

Cutting a Truffle
John Valls

But more than having a crop that he and his family enjoy eating and are now in a position to sell, he says, “I’m a big believer in sustainable agriculture and seasonality of the foods we eat.” Truffles are highly perishable, he says. Rather than having truffles washed and shipped from abroad days after they’re picked, he says, chefs and consumers can have truffles freshly harvested from the ground. To his way of thinking, that makes them as good, if not better, than the French ones.

Oregon truffles can be found year-round, says Lefevre, beginning with winter whites from December through mid-April. Spring whites are from mid-May to the end of July; Oregon black truffles are mainly year-round, but most abundant from October to May; and Perigords are a specialty of winter, especially from Christmas to March. Still, there are more, such as the Oregon brown truffle, a bit more elusive, it seems, best somewhere in late summer; the Oregon burgundy, similar to the black truffle, can usually be found from September through January; and bianchetto, similar to the Italian Alba white, from January to April.

Black Truffle Dish, David Barajas
David Barajas

Lefevre has no qualms about singing the praises of Oregon’s Perigords nor with the quality of Oregon’s native truffles as well as those he’s inoculated both here and in other states. However, he does recognize that they’re still in a learning curve compared to centuries of truffle growing in France and Italy. Like having a vintage year of wine-producing grapes, truffles are very much weather and terroir dependent. “We’re still learning why some areas that don’t necessarily have the ideal climate or soil are producing great truffles,” he says. “But we’ll get there.”

To showcase the quality and culinary prowess of Oregon truffles, Lefevre, with his wife, Leslie Scott, founded the Oregon Truffle Festival (OTF) in 2006. This past winter marked its 12th year. Since its inception, the festival has grown from a two-day event to one spanning eight days, with lectures, truffle-inspired dinners with star-studded chefs, cooking classes, a truffle marketplace, demonstrations, truffle hunting and wine-tastings.

Still, what is it about truffles that sends chefs and food lovers swooning? And why do truffles command such high prices?

The latter is easier to explain. They’re neither found in great quantities nor easily discovered. Like diamonds, their rarity makes them highly sought after. (French Perigords are referred to as black diamonds and the white truffles of Alba as white diamonds.) Not surprising, then, they often fetch price tags of $1,000 to $3,000 a pound; Oregon truffles range from about $150 to $900 a pound. Understandably, then, having truffles on a menu can easily ratchet its price up another $30 to $100 or more.

Truffle Hunt
John Valls

As to truffles’ attraction and appeal, most will say it all comes down to aroma, and not just any aroma, but the umami of all aromas. This is so potent, it can send you into bouts of ecstasy. Some even claim it’s an aphrodisiac or liken it to sex. Truffles have been the food of emperors and kings since ancient Rome and Greece and the subject of poets, writers and chefs for centuries.
Brillat-Savarin wrote, “Whosoever says truffle, utters a grand word, which awakens erotic and gastronomic ideas ….”  Writing in Close to Colette, Maurice Goudeket said, “Truffles — anyone who does not declare himself ready to leave Paradise or Hell for such a treat is not worthy to be born again.”

But, I think, Lefevre captures it best. “It’s the most beautiful of aromas. We all know there is something magical about truffles. Most people don’t know what they’re smelling, but they all say, ‘I want more of that on my dish.’”

“Each type of truffle is profoundly different,” says Lefevre. “And I love them all. Each has its own aroma and taste.” For example, the Oregon winter white gives off a complex mix of aromas: garlic, spices and ripe cheese. Black truffles have notes of chocolate and tropical fruits, especially pineapple. But the aroma can change from garlicky to coffee to cheese, and Perigords have an earthy and chocolatey smell.

On the morning I spoke with Long, he had just finished a breakfast of scrambled eggs with truffles. I asked if he had shaved the truffles on top of the finished dish or had lightly incorporated them close to the end of the cooking time. Both are classic ways of preparing scrambled eggs with truffles. Neither, he answered. He had simply placed the truffles next to a handful of eggs (still in their shells) in a container and stored it in the refrigerator for two days, letting the magic of the truffles do their work. The truffles infused the eggs with a tantalizing aroma, and Long was able to use the truffles for another dish.

Oregon Truffle Festival
John Valls

“Truffles are aroma-generating machines,” explains Lefevre. Practically anything you pair it next to for a day or two will come away with the truffles’ aroma. Like Long’s eggs. Anot’her popular pairing is with butter. To make truffle butter, Lefevre says, you just need to set the butter, even in its wrapper, next to truffles in a plastic or glass container and store both in the fridge for a couple of days.

Swirl the truffle butter into sauces or soups, tuck slices of it under the skin of a roast turkey or chicken, or melt over grilled lamb chops or beef tournedos for a gustatory explosion of flavors. Shaved over scramble eggs or frittatas are givens, but also try doing the same with deviled eggs or mashed potatoes. Next time you make Chicken Kiev, tuck thumb-thick orbs of chilled truffle butter inside the boned breasts. Did I mention truffles in mac-n-cheese? Trust me, you’ll want to shave some of these fungi kings on top or over the layers of cheese to elevate this everyday dish into a special-occasion one.

“Like fresh fish,” Lefevre cautions, “truffles are highly perishable. They should be used within a few days or they’ll lose their aroma.” Making truffle butter and oil or using these in cheese are great ways to prolong their potency.

OK, but what about the taste? Ah — that’s where it becomes complicated, says Jack Czarnecki, a leading expert on truffles who now lives in the Willamette Valley, who says this is because of the quality of Oregon’s truffles and wine. Czarnecki, who has been featured at the Oregon Truffle Festival over the years, is a chef, cookbook author, lecturer and producer of all-natural Oregon truffle oils.

“Truffles are really fascinating,” he says. “On their own, there is very little flavor. Instead, the flavors are unlocked when combined with other foods, especially fatty ones such as eggs, cheese and oil.” Truffles need no cooking or very little, he says. The simpler, the better. Shave or slice truffles very thinly over pasta or risotto. One of his favorites is to add chips of black truffles into custard, cream and eggs to make heavenly truffle ice cream.

Truffle dish
John Valls

And all three agree that truffles and cheese make a perfect pairing. For Perigords, Long likes to slice a wheel of Brie in half, spreading the bottom with slices of truffles before attaching the two halves back together. This is then placed in a container or cheese bag and refrigerated for one to two days. It is brought to room temperature before serving for an unforgettable taste sensation — and one that you’ll want to repeat many times over.

Both Lefevre and Czarnecki have been encouraging Oregon creameries to incorporate local truffles into their cheeses and to offer special seasonal truffle cheeses.
There is an array of excellent truffle cheeses on the market — but, then, why not make your own? Just nestle fresh truffles next to your favorite cheese in a glass container, refrigerate for a couple of days and let the magic happen.

Waxing poetically, Czarnecki adds,  “Like listening to music and hearing each musical note, truffles give off their aromas, releasing their flavors in food, and, in doing so, absorb the food’s flavors as well as heightening them the same way as listening to beautiful music.  They’re like no other food in the world.”

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