Oregon Truffle Industry is Beginning to Bear Fruit
by Bonny Wolf of Washington, DC
It’s been more than 30 years since the dean of American cooking blessed the Oregon truffle. Yet, still it gets no respect.
In 1977, James Beard was part of a symposium called “Mushrooms and Man” in his native Oregon. In front of scientists and mycology (mushroom) experts from across the country, the culinary icon declared Oregon truffles to be the equal of their expensive, exquisite European cousins – the ones that can sell for up to $2,000 a pound.
State fungus cognoscenti mark Beard’s statement as the beginning of Oregon’s commercial truffle industry. In the succeeding decades, however, it’s had trouble taking root.
Oregon is home to four of the seven culinary truffle species indigenous to North America – two white (one in winter, one in spring), one black, one brown. (The most notable of the other three species is the pecan truffle in the southeast U.S.)
From November through June, weather permitting, truffles grow under young Douglas fir trees in northwest Oregon’s Willamette Valley. The same climate and soil that make the valley famous for wine make it a natural home for truffles. “The climate of Oregon is like that in Tuscany and Provence,” says Leslie Scott, who, with her husband Charles Lefevre, started the annual Oregon Truffle Festival in 2006.
Scott and Lefevre introduced the truffle festival – the first in the Englishspeaking world – to jumpstart the rehabilitation of Oregon truffles’ reputation, damaged by the immature – and therefore non-aromatic – truffles sent to market.
The festival is held in January, at the height of truffle season. The ninth annual celebration, held in Eugene Jan. 24-26, sold out nearly three months in advance, drawing 300 people for the weekend and about 1,000 for the Sunday marketplace. At least 80 percent of festival-goers came from outside the state to learn about Oregon’s truffles.
Lefevre has a Ph.D. in forest mycology – the study of forest mushrooms — from Oregon State University. “Truffles fell in my lap in grad school,” he says. James Trappe, a truffle specialist at OSU, had been getting calls about cultivating European truffles, according to Scott. He turned to Lefevre, who was interested in culinary truffles.
Lefevre was hooked. He hunts the Oregon wild mushroom, but he makes his living cultivating the revered Old World truffles. At his 15-year-old New World Truffieres Inc., which specializes in truffle cultivation, he inoculates oak and hazelnut seedlings with a variety of truffle species. He has sold the trees to farmers across North America.
Lefevre and Scott envision a robust truffle industry in Oregon featuring both the wild and the farmed fungi. Climate change and land-use practices have decimated Europe’s wild truffles, so most European fungi now are grown on farms. Demand awaits supply.
Lefevre and Scott discovered the wonders of Oregon truffles almost by accident. They had both European and Oregon truffles side by side in their home refrigerator. “When we opened the refrigerator, the blast of aroma wasn’t that of European truffles. It was the Oregon truffles,” says Lefevre.
In blind tastings over the last 30 years, Oregon truffles often score higher than the mythical truffles of France and Italy. Fodor’s Travel has identified five trips for truffle lovers: two in Italy, one in Croatia, one in France and one in Eugene, Ore.
Yet, few people outside a small group in Oregon have tasted the state’s wild truffles at their peak, according to Lefevre.
Most Oregon truffles are harvested with rakes, a controversial practice blamed by some for reaping as many immature as mature truffles and for unsettling the environment of the raked site.
“There’s nothing inherently wrong with raking,” wild mushroom authority and Oregon truffle enthusiast Jack Czarnecki says. Raking can actually be beneficial because it aerates the soil, he adds. Czarnecki says a distinction should be made between raking and “deep raking,” which may tear the roots from trees, destroying the truffles’ host.
Like any kind of hunting, finding truffles involves timing, experience and technique. You must know where to look and when to look. To keep immature truffles out of the market, “you need to hunt truffles when they are in season and past their growth stage and well into their maturation phase,” says Czarnecki. No one will pay top dollar for truffles that won’t mature. Unripe truffles have no scent, and scent is what all the fuss is about.
Unlike mushrooms that spread their spores through the air, truffles grow underground and depend on animals to eat them and spread their spores through scat. Ripe truffles emit an irresistible, musky odor that attracts animals (and makes humans fall to their knees). Eau de truffle mimics the smell of pheromones secreted by a male pig ready to mate. “So when you take a sow out in the woods,” Czarnecki says, “she thinks she’s going to find a date.”
Truffles only emit this perfume when they are fully ripe. Without scent, there’s no allure. Experiences with immature Oregon truffles are largely responsible for the fungi’s bad reputation, Czarnecki says, recounting stories about a New York chef who threw out 70 percent of the truffles he got because they lacked aroma.
Few chefs have had experience with Oregon truffles and may conclude that they all lack fragrance based on their experience with immature samples, the Oregon trufflers fear.
Truffles are all about the scent that 19th-century writer William Makepeace Thackeray described as “musky, fiery, savory, mysterious — a hot drowsy smell, that lulls the senses, and yet enflames them.”
The fungus itself has little flavor until its gases are released. So if a truffle is shaved over hot pasta in a cream sauce, the heat releases the gases and the diner can “taste” the truffle.
Some truffles can ripen after they’ve been picked. Czarnecki says they go through growth and maturation stages similar to tomatoes. If truffles are still in the growth stage when raked, they will never ripen. If they’re in the maturation phase, Czarnecki says they will ripen if wrapped in a lot of paper towels, put in a plastic bag and refrigerated.
Traditionally, pigs have been used in Europe to hunt truffles, but there is a movement in truffle circles worldwide to substitute dogs that also can detect the truffle scent.
“Pigs are difficult,” says Lefevre. For one thing, pigs like to eat the truffles. Czarnecki says “the sows go a little crazy” while trying to get to the truffle. Tethered to strong ropes, they’re pulled away before they can eat their findings. “The lore is that truffle hunters who use pigs are missing some fingers,” Lefevre says. Plus, any kind of mushroom hunting is a secretive business. “If you have a pig in your car,” says Lefevre, “everyone knows what you’re doing.”
The festival advocates using dogs for truffle hunting, and offers a training seminar. Like pigs, dogs can smell ripe truffles. Unlike pigs, they have to be trained to recognize the scent. Dogs provide quality control; “they ensure that every truffle is ripe every time,” Lefevre says.
Dog-harvested truffles fetch higher prices, while raked truffles sell for about the same price they did 30 years ago, Lefevre says. “The local market has shown a willingness to bear prices three or four times higher for dog-harvested truffles.”
White raked truffles go for $100 to $150 a pound, Lefevre estimates, and black truffles for $150 to $200 a pound. “Both black and white truffles harvested by dogs would cost the distributor $320 a pound,” he says, “then would be sold to restaurants for closer to $450 a pound.”
But there aren’t enough trained truffle-hunting dogs to meet demand, so the supply of dog-harvested truffles remains small, says Lefevre. It also makes dog-harvested truffles essentially unavailable to anyone outside Oregon. “It’s almost certain that any Oregon truffles you find for sale [outside Oregon] are raked truffles.”
This doesn’t mean they’re all of bad quality, he adds. Some may ripen in storage although many do not. “And even those that do ripen in storage will never be the equal of truffles that ripen in the ground,” he says.
Lagotto Romagnolo dogs have become specialized as truffle dogs. Not only are these dogs rare, they’re expensive. Lefevre says a puppy can sell for $6,000. He has a Lagotto Ramagnolo but says the most popular truffle-hunting dog is a Labrador retriever.
Czarnecki takes a different approach. “I go the old-fashioned way. I don’t use dogs or pigs. I use squirrels,” he says. He looks for signs that animals have been digging at the roots of trees, “and I poke around. It’s like reading the water for fishermen.”
A James Beard award-winner for his book, “A Cook’s Book of Mushrooms,” Czarnecki’s opinion carries a lot of weight in the mushroom world. His grandfather, Joe Czarnecki, opened a bar in Reading, Pa., in 1916 called Joe’s. The specialty was mushroom soup made from foraged wild mushrooms. The next two generations changed the place to a fine-dining restaurant but carried on the mushroom theme.
In 1995, after his father died, Jack Czarnecki moved to the Willamette Valley. “I’m passionate about wine and mushrooms, and no area combines those two as effectively as Oregon,” he says. He opened the Joel Palmer House, a restaurant now run by his son, Chris. Jack Czarnecki left the restaurant business to go into the truffle oil business – Oregon White Truffle Oil. He has been making white truffle oil with wild Oregon truffles he harvests himself for 14 years, and this year started making black truffle oil. He has the only license to produce truffle oil in the U.S.
Truffle oil is delicate, Czarnecki says, so it should not be used in cooking but as a finishing-flavoring oil.
Chef Vitaly Paley of Portland, Ore., uses only Czarnecki’s truffle oil. “The white [oil] is very, very good, the real deal,” says Paley. “Most oils are chemically altered.”
While Czarnecki says imported truffle oils are made with synthesized gases, he actually thinks they’re good but lack the complexity of oil made with real truffles.
The 2005 winner of a James Beard award for best chef in the Northwest, Paley cooked with Perigord truffles – the holy grail – when working in France. “The Oregon truffles are a different species. The Perigord are more herbaceous, more huckleberry in flavor,” he says. Oregon truffles have a “funky, musty, earthy aroma.”
Oregon black truffles, though, are very different from French Perigord truffles, Czarnecki says. “The Perigord black truffle has a pleasant odor of earth, must and iodine. The Oregon black truffle has an odor of mango, chocolate and earth. I adore Oregon truffles. They’re quite beguiling.”
Paley says at his three Portland restaurants, “we are embracing all things Oregon.” So he works with foragers to bring in good Oregon truffles. “We get them straight out of the ground,” he says. Forest to table.
Paley likes truffles on anything with starch: potatoes, polenta, rice. “Truffles … inspire you to do fun, great things.”
Paley makes a dish he calls millionaire’s salad. Oregon Dungeness crab is dressed with Oregon truffle aioli. Oregon apples, herbs, spicy greens and potatoes are added and topped with foie gras. Then the composition gets a drizzle of truffle vinaigrette, a pinch of Oregon sea salt and a few shavings of fresh Oregon truffle.
The truffle scent is easily absorbed by eggs, starches and creams. Czarnacki suggests putting a truffle in a closed container near, but not touching, butter. As the truffle ripens, it gives off gases absorbed by the lipids in the butter, he says. Voila, truffle butter. He says he’s done the same with beef; its fats keep sucking in the truffle scent.
Stephanie Kimmel, founding chef and owner of Marché restaurant in Eugene, is a big fan of the local fungus. “The Oregon truffle has a fruitiness that I don’t pick up so much in European truffles,” she says. “Its an apple-y, pear-y complex scent that seems a little brighter but with the traditional earthy tones.”
Kimmel says she will have truffles on the menu well into spring. “We try to show them off in dishes that provide a lovely canvas of richness so the aromas of the truffle have that medium for the oils and butters and rich flavors to really carry.” At Marché, Kimmel serves a popular pizzetta, made in a wood oven, with truffles shaved on top at the very end. “When that comes out, the whole room is redolent of that smell,” she says.
Oregon’s truffle crusaders see lots of commercial and cultural potential. In 2009, Lefevre, Scott and two others co-authored a feasibility study showing Oregon truffles as “an emergent industry for forestry and agriculture.”
“Oregon has a unique opportunity to become a world leader in the production of this rare, highly prized commodity,” its executive summary read. “As a pinnacle of high cuisine, culinary truffles have the potential to improve the already strong branding of Oregon-grown specialty foods and the positive perception of the state as a whole.”
The annual Oregon Truffle Festival is raising the industry’s profile, Lefevre says, and now sells out quickly. The recent festival offered several levels of experience, the most expensive of which was an all-inclusive package priced at $1,050 a person.
The five-course grand dinner, with truffles in every course, this year paired: Oregon white truffles with cured beef tenderloin, foie gras and beef short ribs; black truffles with Dungeness crab and scallops and veal breast; and, for dessert, white chocolate, hazelnut and Oregon white truffle tart with salted caramel ice cream on truffled caramel popcorn dust.
While space for a complete set of weekend events is limited, the huge Sunday marketplace sells tickets at the door for $15 a head. The recent event included truffle cooking demonstrations and tastings and a truffle dog show. There were local wines and other Oregon artisan foods as well as truffle cheese, truffle ice cream, truffle salt, truffle butter and more.
Maybe Oregon truffles are finally getting the respect they deserve.
This article originally appeared, and is reprinted with permission from, www.AmericanFoodRoots.com