Category Archives: truffles

Oregon Truffle Festival #9


I’ve already blocked out the dates on my 2015 calendar. The last weekend in January is truffle time, which means the first few weeks of the new year are a time of belt-tightening.

I’m talking about the annual Oregon Truffle Festival, which will be celebrating its 10th anniversary next year. I hear there are big plans afoot for 2015, so in order to be ready, I might need to join my parents on January 1 when they “put on the hair shirt.” Putting on the hair shirt entails cutting out all alcoholic beverages and rich foods for three weeks. They don’t last the full month because, according to them, their social schedule begins to heat up again in the last week of January. As does mine.

I look forward to the Oregon Truffle Festival every year. I’ve made friends who I know I’ll see that weekend, and only that weekend. They come from all over the country and abroad. Those of you who have read The Mushroom Hunters know that an entire chapter takes place at the festival. My editor would have been happy to see a whole book from there; he needs to get on a plane to Oregon.

This year’s lineup was pretty amazing. Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg, authors of the James Beard award-winning books The Flavor Bible and What To Drink with What You Eat, were guest dignitaries (not to mention charming tablemates), and they helmed a tasting—along with Lee Medoff of Bull Run Distilling, beer guru Christian DeBenedetti, and wine writer Cole Danehower—that pushed the usual boundaries: three flights—wine, beer, and spirits—paired with truffled bites. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised to see how well an Oregon Vesper Cocktail (Medoyeff vodkaAria gin) paired with a White Truffle and Duck Liver Mousseline. Whodathunkit?

The first course of Saturday night’s Grand Truffle Dinner (pictured above), by Aaron Barnett of St. Jack in Portland, also involved the apparently now hip spirit pairing. Oregon White Truffle Cured Beef Tenderloin with Celery, Oregon Black Truffle, and Oyster Emulsion was nicely matched with a Celery Gimlet devised by St. Jack’s John Salas. I’m not a big cocktail drinker, but these pairings proved fresh and tasty.

The Grand Truffle Dinner was over the top as always, with everyone donning their finest attire (ahem, Mr. Winkler at right, with his turkey-tail tie). Pictured at the top of this post is the first course, created by Justin Wills of Restaurant Beck in Depoe Bay on the Oregon Coast, receiving its finishing touches: Oregon Black Truffle Chirashi with Dungeness Crab, Kampachi, Cured Scallop, Yuzu, Takawan, and Oregon Black Truffle Tamago (it helps to have a smart phone at table just to look up such ingredients!). Another unusual hit was the Chawanmushi of Foie Gras with Oregon White Truffles, served up by Hero Sone and Lisa Doumani of Terra in Napa Valley.

Thankfully I was going into this six-course feast with an appetite. Earlier that day I saw the beginnings of a new Périgord truffle orchard at Domaine Meriwether. (Just add water and wait 10 years!) Planted by New World Truffieres, the small plot is something of an experimental orchard, with several varieties of host tree that will be grown organically (no weed killers!) and subjected to new ideas in this otherwise very old business. Later at lunch, the winery served Beef Tartare with Black Truffle Mayonnaise, Micro Greens & Crostini (pictured above left), another of my favorites of the weekend, and paired with their excellent 2001 Brut Rosé. After that we worked off lunch with a walk in the woods. For those who wanted to take home some truffles, this was a good year. Everyone got a chance to forage their own with the help of Umami Truffle Dogs.

Now it’s time to put the hair shirt on.

Gnudi with Black Trumpets, Prosciutto & White Truffle

The magical combo of salty pig and fruity Cantharellaceae cannot be overstated. In this case I paired prosciutto with black trumpets, a match that took an already scrumptious dish—classic ricotta gnudi—over the top. But why stop there? If you’re gonna get busted speeding, a certain twisted logic says it might as well be impersonating Mario Andretti.

So I shaved some Oregon white truffle.

From what I’ve been hearing, black trumpets are finally starting to show in their usual spots, though not in large numbers. It’s been a slow winter pick overall and for this dish I resorted to dried mushrooms. It’s not a difficult recipe, though it takes patience and a light touch.

A Few Words on Making Gnudi

Most gnudi recipes call for egg and flour to be mixed with the ricotta. These ingredients undoubtedly help to bind the gnudi and allow them to stand up to the boil—or even survive a subsequent pan fry intact. My Stinging Nettle Gnudi is just such a recipe, and it’s delicious. But for the most tender and fall-apart goodness imaginable, you only need ricotta, or a mixture of ricotta and parmesan, along with an outer shell of semolina.

The main drawback is that you need to refrigerate the gnudi for at least a 24-hour period. Two days is even better, and three days is not unheard of. The semolina, as I understand it, helps to draw moisture out of the cheese, solidifying the gnudi, but sufficient time and cool temperatures are necessary.

This is the most tender and delicate gnudi I’ve ever tasted. They require care. Although this recipe will make enough for four, my advice is to make it for yourself the first time around, or for two. The leftover gnudi can remain in the fridge another day or two. Most recipes tell you to boil the gnudi for two or three minutes and remove after they float to the surface; these only need a minute in gently boiling water, and they might not float. Capture with a slotted spoon, then carefully place on a paper towel. The first time I made these, I tested eight in a rolling boil. Four survived. After that I reduced the heat and the cooking time for a 100 percent success rate.


2 tbsp butter, divided
1 small shallot, diced
1 handful black trumpets
vegetable oil
4 slices prosciutto, torn into pieces
chicken stock
parmesan cheese, grated at table
white truffles, shaved at table (optional)
salt and pepper, to taste

1. In a lightly oiled saute pan over medium heat, cook prosciutto pieces for a minute per side until slightly wrinkled and crispy. Remove to paper towel.

2. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in same saute pan and add diced shallot, stirring for a minute. Add black trumpets and cook together a few minutes, seasoning to taste. Deglaze pan with a splash of chicken stock if necessary, then remove pan contents to a bowl.

3. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in same pan over medium heat, add a quarter cup of chicken stock and whisk together, reducing. More chicken stock can be added and reduced later if necessary. Or, for a more decadent touch, add some cream.

4. Meanwhile, bring a pot of salted water to a light boil. Add gnudi and cook for about a minute before removing to paper towels with a slotted spoon.

5. Add prosciutto and mushroom-shallot mixture back into sauce pan, stirring.

6. Carefully plate gnudi and pour over sauce. Garnish with chopped parsley, optional truffles, and grated parmesan.

Black Truffle Pear Crostata

Ugly pie makers, unite! That is, those of us who make ugly pies, not… you get the idea. I barely have the patience to bake, much less make my creations look pretty. If you’re like me, keep reading. Crostata is for us.

The (ahem) beauty of crostata is that it’s meant to look all Frankenstein-y and whatnot. Short of a square head and electrodes, it’s still stitched together with quick and easy pleats that don’t even attempt to sew up the whole deal. It’s a rustic, time-saving answer to that annoying friend of yours who pulls off a perfect lattice top with a few cutout curlicues to boot.

Besides, you can shush your annoying friend because you know how to find truffles (right?) and know how to use them in interesting ways. For instance, truffled dessert. Black truffles, whether from Périgord or Oregon, have a musky aroma that reminds some of overripe pineapple. It’s an unusual aroma that’s heavenly with certain sweets.

This crostata happens to be one of those excellent vehicles for black truffles, a combo that I discovered at Silvan Ridge Winery during the Oregon Truffle Festival. Shiloh Ficek of Red Hills Market in Dundee, OR, made this dessert and it was killer. His came with candied walnuts and a truffled Creme Anglaise; I took the easy route with vanilla ice cream. For the pastry, I used Ina Garten’s recipe, which is easy and food processor-friendly.


3 – 4 pears, peeled, cored, and sliced into chunks
1/4 tsp lemon zest


1/4 cup flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp cinnamon
4 tbsp cold butter (1/2 stick), diced


1 cup flour
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1/4 tsp kosher salt
1/4 pound (1 stick) cold butter, diced
2 tbsp ice water

1. To make pastry crust, combine flour, sugar, and salt in food processor. Add diced butter and pulse until pea-sized. Pour in ice water and process until mixture has nearly formed a mass of dough but not quite. Remove to a well-floured surface and knead until smooth, then roll into a foot-long cylinder. Wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.

2. Mix pear chunks and zest in a bowl.

3. To make pastry topping, combine flour, sugar, salt, and cinnamon in food processor. Pulse and add butter. Process until crumbly. Set aside.

4. Pre-heat oven to 450 degrees.

5. Remove dough cylinder from refrigerator to a well-floured surface and slice into 6 equal portions. Form each portion into a ball and roll out into a 6-inch diameter pastry circle. Place on a baking sheet.

6. Dollop cut-up pears on each pastry. Sprinkle with a handful of topping. Bundle up pastry by lifting and pleating. Sprinkle exposed pear filling with more topping.

7. Bake 20 – 30 minutes, until golden and bubbling. Remove from oven and allow to cool a few minutes.

8. Shave black truffles over crostata while still warm and serve immediately with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Serves 6.

Truffle Redux

I went back to the Oregon Truffle Festival again this year. It was a no-brainer: wild foods, fun people, and more Willamette Valley wine than a ship of Vikings could put away. What’s not to love?

Connie Green, longtime forager and owner of Wine Forest Wild Foods (French Laundry is a client), was one of the featured speakers, and there was the usual fast-paced agenda of lectures, forums, gastronomical heroics, plus a few hours in the field to get dirty, breath in some of that misty Willamette air, and work off all those calories (okay, maybe not all of them) during a guided truffle foray.

Just the way salt is a key ingredient in a good chocolate chip cookie, the success of the Oregon Truffle Festival rests on elements that might, at first glance, seem less than obvious, such as a hard-to-pin-down bonhomie that develops among the attendees. When you’re spending two or three days with strangers, you better establish some rapport. All weekend long I found myself exchanging email addresses and phone numbers with an eclectic, sociable bunch of people drawn together to the church of food and drink.

Maybe some of the good vibes came from the success so many enjoyed while digging their own truffles on Saturday. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: finding your own food is satisfying and infectious. I saw newbies emerge from the woods with huge grins and handfuls of Oregon white truffles. There were a few dogs on hand to help sniff out the tuberous delicacies, including Chloe, a lab whose master turned out to be John Getz, a professional forager who has been called “the mushroom whisperer.”

I first learned of Getz from a DVD that David Arora showed me a few years ago. Arora said it was like watching a magic trick. The video, filmed on the Oregon coast, follows Getz along on his rambling rounds as he appears to pull #1 matsutake buttons, one after another, from thin air. Nowhere is there even the slightest hint of cap emerging from the sandy humus or even a bump in the duff—and yet this soft-spoken guy uncovers buckets of perfect matsi that he might as well have pulled rabbit-like from a hat. Getz laughed when I told him about the video, and offered modestly that it was just a matter of knowing which trees hosted a fruiting. Yeah, that and having a ninja fungal sense and nearly four decades of scouring Pacific Northwest mushroom patches under your belt.

A few food highlights. Saturday’s post-foray luncheon, held at Silvan Ridge Winery in the bucolic Lorane Valley and helmed by Jason French from Ned Ludd in Portland and Shiloh Ficek of Red Hills Market in Dundee, kicked off with a Pinot Noir barrel tasting and continued with one of the best dishes of the weekend, a robustly truffled Chicken Liver Mousse (pictured at left) that was perfectly paired with a J. Scott Cellars Roussanne. Ficek told me he was a little nervous about the mousse because usually he made it in smaller batches, but the smooth texture and well-balanced accent of white truffle turned out just right.

French’s wood-fired Pork Coppa Sandwich (pictured at right) anchored the meal. It came dressed with quince jam and a black truffle slaw, along with a glass of Silvan Ridge Syrah. It was a beguiling mixture of earthy and domestic, salty and sweet, and succulent and crunchy. The wine pairing was another hit, and I ended up going home with bottles of both the J. Scott Roussanne and a Silvan Ridge Muscat that accompanied a dessert of Black Truffle Pear Crostata, a dish I plan to replicate for a future post.

We got back to the hotel at 4 p.m., with merely two hours of down-time before another feast of even greater proportions, the Grand Truffle Dinner. After taking photos of the first course, which stretched nearly the length of the room on two long prep tables, I went to get my seating assignment and was delighted to find myself next to Clare and Brian, the husband-and-wife team behind Big Table Farm and Wine in Gaston, Oregon. Let me tell you, this was like winning the lottery—like doubling your money in Vegas. Besides the very generous pours (and more pours) that accompanied each course during the meal, the Big Table duo had smuggled in several of their own bottles to share with their tablemates. A big happy table indeed.

Among my favorite dishes at the Grand Truffle Dinner was the first course, a charcuterie plate prepared by Elias Cairo of Olympic Provisions in Portland (pictured at left) that boasted perhaps the most intense truffle experience of the weekend: slices of white truffle-infused saucisson (i.e., dry-cured salami) along with Jamon York, Mortadella, truffled mustard, and some simple yet exquisitely pickled beets and onions. Another winner, dreamed up by Nick Balla from Bar Tartine in San Francisco, was an umami bomb of sablefish, sunchoke, and Kabocha squash, its white truffle broth so good that I saw guests tipping their plates back to drink in every last drop.

A scent of truffles hovered through the ballroom as the dinner went on late into the night and a jazz combo tried to play over the sounds of active silverware. There was much imbibing, and then, late-night, I found myself among a group of revelers laying siege to a 1988 Champagne Fleury while plotting foraging expeditions of the future. Good times.

The Oregon Truffle Festival is held the last weekend of January. I’ve already blocked out the dates for next year.

Celery Root Soup with Shaved White Truffles

I’ve been on a tuberous jag lately. It seems that each winter I adopt a different root vegetable for extra attention in the kitchen. Parsnips, beets, turnips, burdock, and yams have all had their due, among others, and let’s not forget those tuber-like fungi, truffles. This year the winner is the homely looking celery root. Seems I’m not alone. Celery root, or celeriac, is more prevalent on restaurant menus than ever, usually shaved fresh in salads, roasted with a root medley, or in soup.

Celery root, it’s true, is not much for the eyes. It looks a little like some intergalactic critter from the cantina scene in Star Wars, with tentacles and tendrils snaking around. But once you slice off the exterior you’re left with a pearly white block of goodness that takes on a pleasing silky character when cooked, not to mention a deep earthy flavor that’s reminiscent of a more rough-hewn conventional stalk of celery on steroids. My friend Brad makes cream of chanterelle soup with celery root; the root thickens and softens the soup so much that no actual cream is required.

Celery root marries nicely with other roots and gourds. You’ll often see it paired in soup with parsnip or butternut squash. Recently I combined it with leftover roasted acorn squash along with yellow curry powder, fresh ginger, and garam masala, then served it with sour cream and cilantro. My favorite way to use celery root is solo. A celery root soup is about the easiest soup you can make and the payoff is well beyond the ease of preparation. The flavor is jaunty and rich enough to stand up to a healthy shaving of truffles, which happens to be a classic combo.

2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped
2 – 3 cloves garlic, chopped
1 large celery root, peeled and chopped into 1/2-inch cubes
salt and white pepper, to taste
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
2 cups water
white truffles, shaved at table (optional)

Saute onion in butter and olive oil over medium heat until softened. Add garlic and cook another minute or two before adding celery root. Cook together, stirring occasionally, a few minutes. Season with salt and white pepper. Add stock and water. Simmer until celery root is soft and ready for blending, at least half an hour. Use immersion blender or food processor to blend thoroughly. Soup should be velvety smooth. Serve hot with shaved truffles on top if you got ’em.

Truffle Nirvana

The woods were alive with the sounds of trufflers. Dozens of humans and canines barked and yipped and hollered their triumphs and failures through a gloomy grove of 25-year-old Douglas-firs. They ran to and fro, scratching in the dirt with paws and garden cultivators. Most were amateurs, brought together by the 7th annual Oregon Truffle Festival. Longtime truffle researcher Dan Luoma of Oregon State was on hand to offer guidance. Just about everyone found winter white truffles (Tuber oregonense), though the season’s odd weather patterns meant that most of the truffles were still small and less than perfectly ripe.

Later, at a luncheon at Willamette Valley Vineyards, I ate one of the best truffle dishes I’ve ever had: a Pinot Noir-braised pork belly with white truffle-onion jam, dried cherries, and a frisee with raspberry-black truffle vinaigrette (see below). It was a perfectly balanced blend of flavors and textures that was expertly knitted together by the truffle jam. This was proof that an Oregon truffle experience could be a culinary epiphany rather than a shrug.

Eating our home-grown truffles is not always so revelatory. Truffles get raked up too young, sold to retailers who don’t know any better, and then passed on to customers who have no benchmark for comparison.

Fortunately this is not the case with the Oregon Truffle Festival, which aims to educate as well as nourish. The talks and lectures from truffle experts the world over were illuminating, and though not every single dish served over the course of eight different multi-course meals throughout the weekend was a resounding success, most of the dishes used generous amounts of ripe truffles in toothsome ways that showed off the fungi’s singular qualities.

The Oregon Truffle Festival is held at the end of January each year in Eugene, Oregon, in the southern Willamette Valley. The valley is ground zero for our native edible truffles, though they can be found from the Fraser River Valley in British Columbia south to Northern California, in low elevation coastal Douglas-fir forests. This contrasts with European truffles, which are generally found in hardwoods.

Photo: Jen Reyneri

During our bus ride to the truffle patch, Luoma, a forest ecologist, explained that the Willamette Valley offers the best climatic conditions for our native truffles (not too hot in summer, not too cold in winter) and that truffles in general seem to prefer habitats near human activity, in particular cleared agricultural fields replanted with orchards. Truffles have long been associated with wine country, and this association is true for the vineyards of Willamette Valley, many of which have nearby Christmas tree farms or planted groves of Douglas-fir for timber or water retention.

In addition to the guided forays and lectures, the festival included dog-training workshops, cooking classes, and a grower’s forum for the brave cultivation set.

Saturday night’s Grand Truffle Dinner, the coup de grace, was as over the top as promised. I arrived, along with 300 other guests, at a hotel ballroom suffused with the aroma of Oregon black truffles (Leucangium carthusianum). Three-hundred plates covered three long prep tables as the first course made its debut, each plate decorated with a square of Celery Root & Black Truffle Panna Cotta topped with Dungeness Crab Salad & Parisian Pears. The kitchen staff, armed with mandolines, roamed up and down the line, shaving away. The scent of black truffles hung in the air like a heavy fog. Indeed, it was nearly disorienting.

My favorite dish of the night was probably the second course, White Truffle Scented Red & White Quinoa in a Creamy Risotto Style with Riesling Poached Hen’s Egg, Shaved Coppa, Wild Winter Herbs, Lemon Thyme Emulsion & Shaved White Truffles. My favorite dessert of the weekend was a chorus of truffled sweets served earlier that day at Willamette Valley Vineyards: White Truffle Panna Cotta, White Truffle Raspberry Mousse, White Truffle Infused Tapioca, and White Truffle Brittle.

If you’re a lover of truffles who can’t afford a trip to Italy (and who can these days?) or simply curious, I highly recommend the Oregon Truffle Festival. Though not exactly inexpensive, the festival delivers plenty of value for the cost, and as far as I could tell there was no scrimping on the truffles. Festival founders Charles Lefevre and Leslie Scott run an action-packed weekend and the attendees are fun people who enjoy a good time. I made a lot of new friends at the festival, which is reason enough to spend a weekend in the beautiful and bounteous Willamette Valley.

Truffle Time

The holiday season isn’t just about turkey, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. It’s also peak time for truffles. And few foods can make us swoon like these odd fungal tubers. Properly prepared, they might be the sexiest of all our ingredients, evoking even more intense longing than oysters or chocolate. But how many people in this country, even food-obsessed people, can say they’ve had a mind-blowing truffle experience? Part of the problem is that we don’t have a truffle culture here in the U.S. comparable to the truffle cultures of France or Italy. Home cooks don’t know how to shop for truffles or how to prepare them—and, sadly, neither do many restaurateurs, for that matter.

Next month I plan to attend the Oregon Truffle Festival, ground zero for the emerging homegrown truffle culture. The festival is in its seventh year and will feature an assortment of events, from meals and cooking demos to a forum for would-be truffle farmers. My friend Jack Czarnecki will be cooking up some serious truffle fare with his son Chris, chef-owner of Willamette Valley’s famed Joel Palmer House. Other luminaries include Jim Trappe, one of the authors of the Field Guide to North American Truffles, Molly O’Neil, the former New York Times food columnist, and numerous guest chefs, including Josh Feathers of Tennessee’s Blackberry Farm and  Robin Jackson of the Sooke Harbour House in Sooke, B.C., among others. There’s even a truffle dog-training seminar.

Oregon truffle country is also wine country

A quick primer: truffles are ectomycorrhizal fungi that partner with certain species of trees (Douglas-firs for the edible varieties in the Pacific Northwest) in mutually beneficial relationships that involve the exchange of nutrients and water. The truffle’s reproductive strategy is to produce a scent irresistible to certain mammals (e.g., voles, flying squirrels…and humans) that will hungrily dig up the truffle, eat it, and spread its spores.

Describing truffles is no easy task. They’re not much to look at. But, oh, that aroma… It’s musky, sometimes fruity or garlicky, always earthy and, for lack of a better word, funky. Some would say it’s an aroma more appropriate to a honeymoon suite than a dining room table.

For those who want to forage their own, I’d recommend training your dog. I’ve foraged truffles with and without dogs and can report that my success rate went up exponentially with the hound. Sniffing out truffles is no problem for canine smellers, and generally the truffles will be of better quality, which is to say, riper.

Jack Czarnecki with fresh truffles

And therein lies the main problem facing our native truffle industry: too many unripe truffles are being foraged and sold to consumers who don’t know any better. Case in point: A friend of mine bought a local black truffle at a Seattle market the other day and showed it to me proudly. She had big plans for the truffle. I took a whiff. Nothing. The truffle had absolutely no aroma whatsoever. “Take it back and demand a refund,” I told her. She was crestfallen, her dinner plans thwarted.

Be sure to examine your truffle before buying. It should be dry, firm, and pungent. Black truffles, to my nose, smell fruity, somewhat like overripe pineapple, with a distinctly fungal underpinning that is strange and beguiling. White truffles are more garlicky and can pack a wallop. Like other complex foods (e.g., wine, chocolate), the taste and aroma will vary for individual palates. Some people go to pieces in the presence of truffles, while others wonder why the fuss.

Once your truffle is conveyed safely home you’ll need to take precautions in serving it. Slice it thinly over hot food. A little goes a long way. Simply shaved over buttered pasta is a classic way to enjoy the singular essence of truffles. The heat of the pasta reacts with the truffle and the fat in the butter serves to absorb the flavor. Prolonged cooking, on the other hand, will destroy the delicate molecular design of its scent. I don’t understand recipes that call for inserting slivers of truffle in a piece of meat before roasting. The cooking process will likely obliterate the truffle flavor—but perhaps there are ways to pull off such a feat. I’ll be sure to report back on what I learn about cooking with truffles at the Oregon Truffle Festival.

A Super Duper Truffle Dog

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of watching a truffle dog in action. Cooper, the super duper truffle hound, is half lab, a quarter bernese mountain dog, and a quarter shepherd. His owner, Anne Seward, like the owners of many interesting pets, has her own distinguished pedigree: she’s related to the man responsible for “Seward’s Folly.” History buffs and denizens of America’s Last Frontier know that folly as the great State of Alaska. Secretary of State William H. Seward practically raided the U.S. Treasury himself to make sure it was purchased in 1867.

I joined Cooper, Anne, my friend Jack Czarnecki, and Jack’s friend Chris in Oregon’s Willamette Valley to give the dog a workout in search of the first black truffles of the season. In addition to owning the Joel Palmer House restaurant in Dayton, Oregon, where his son Chris is the chef, Jack is also the owner and chief producer of Oregon Truffle Oil, one of the few truffle oils on the market to use real truffles rather than test tube chemicals to produce its powerful flavor and aroma.

Last year I hunted white truffles with Jack. In the right habitat, coming across white truffles is about as challenging as finding chanterelles. Black truffles, on the other hand, require more skill. For one thing, unlike whites they blend in with the duff and dirt. Also, they tend to hang out a little deeper beneath the surface, requiring more digging (though sometimes you can find them poking right through the moss, as if coming up for a breath of air). And lastly, they just don’t seem to be as numerous as whites.

It doesn’t take much to train a truffle dog. Anne spent a week or so hiding little balls of truffle-doused cotton around the house. For a dog expecting a reward, latching on to the truffle scent is puppy’s play. The canine smeller is a biological wonder of evolution, and though not as developed as a bear’s, a dog’s sense of smell is way overmatched for truffles. Some dogs like a food treat to reward a successful retrieval; Cooper wants ball time.

Once we arrived at the site, Anne pulled both a rubber ball and a baggie of truffle-scented cotton from her pockets. She gave Cooper a whiff, holding the ball tantalizingly out of reach. “Find the truffle,” she commanded. Cooper barked and whined, then got down to business. He put his snout to the ground and started weaving among the sword ferns and second-growth Douglas firs. You could hear his nose in action as he brought the scent in and circulated it around with a snort. A moment later Cooper was scratching at a patch of duff.

“Good boy!” Anne played ball with Cooper while Jack raked the spot. Sure enough, he unearthed a nice walnut-sized black truffle, and then another. “His brother,” Jack said, explaining that wherever you find one black truffle you’re sure to find another.

Without Cooper on hand I’m sure our haul would have been appreciably less impressive. As it was we lined our buckets with truffles while the rain kept up through most of the morning. I’d guess we found truffles in roughly 80 percent of the spots where Cooper scratched; the other 20 percent we chalked up to human error. By mid-afternoon it was cold and miserable enough to call it a day. That’s when the Volvo pitched into the mire. We enlisted the aid of a local farmer, who pulled us out free of charge, knowing that a batch of truffle oil was in his future.

That night we capped our successful truffle hunt with dinner back at the Joel Palmer House, where a Candy Cap Martini kicked off a mushroom hunter’s feast, including Matsutake Chowder, Fungi Tart, Fillet of Beef with Porcini Sauce, and many other finely executed fungal delights washed down with excellent local Pinot Noirs.

I could get used to this Willamette Valley truffle hunting thing.

Truffling with Jack

As I lay me down here at home, cold-turkey off the meds, there’s not much to report in the way of foraging. Luckily I have my wild food stash and a few things to mention that didn’t get mentioned in the fall.

A few months ago while in Portland for some book events I made a side-trip an hour southwest to the Willamette Valley in search of a coveted wild edible to bring back home. It’s the sort of edible that inspires otherwise circumspect men to spend stupid sums of money and otherwise intelligent women to sleep with stupid men. At least in Europe that’s the case, where the truffle has enjoyed a long, colorful history as a pricey luxury item and sought-after aphrodisiac.

Truffles are subterranean fungi, many of which emit pungent scents to attract the animals that will dig them up, eat them, and subsequently spread their reproductive spores. Whether or not these aromas are ever scientifically proven to heighten arousal we can be sure that truffles will continue to fetch top dollar for their culinary uses. The white “Alba” truffles of Italy and black “Perigord” truffles of France have been the choice of royalty for centuries. Here in North America, specifically in the low-elevation Douglas-fir forests of the Pacific Northwest, we have our own edible truffles that don’t require a fancy coat-of-arms or family escutcheon to possess. While not as renowned as their European counterparts, American truffles can stir the same primal passions when used correctly.

And there’s the rub. The fact is, most American diners—most American chefs, one could argue—don’t know what a good truffle tastes like, or worse (in the case of the chefs), they aren’t scrupulous enough to know when to not serve the expensive fungus mocking them in the walk-in. In this country unripe truffles are routinely bought and sold and then passed up the food-chain until they reach restaurant patrons who scratch their heads wondering what all the fuss is about. I’ve been served a very unspectacular Perigord black truffle by one of Seattle’s finest restaurants, with the flourish of a waiter brandishing his mandoline at table. The theatric gesture didn’t change the fact that the truffle wasn’t ripe.

American truffles seem to suffer even more from ill-use, perhaps because they’re cheaper and easier to obtain. A small group of local truffle boosters has been trying to change this, but until the public is more educated—from commercial forager to diner—our home-grown truffles will continue to be viewed as vastly inferior to their European cousins. Which is too bad, because good, ripe truffles from both continents can elevate a meal from excellent to sublime.

As I drove southwest from Portland, I thought about my last meal of truffles. It had been just a few days earlier in San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, where a friend took me to his favorite trattoria. We ordered plates of linguini with cream sauce. The waiter appeared with a scale and a large white Alba truffle, which he weighed first, then shaved onto our pasta, then weighed again. Like cocaine, truffles are priced by the gram. Fortunately this truffle that had traveled thousands of miles was in top form and our meal, so simple in appearance, was superb. The smell of the truffles rose up in the steam of the dish. Each bite seemed to offer the possibility of a secret revealed. We took in these ineffable pleasures and washed them down with woodsy Piedmontese Barbera…

Autumn colors in neat geometric patterns across the Dundee Hills snapped me out of my reverie. I wasn’t in Italy, nor San Francisco. Here in the Willamette Valley the crush of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay had finished and the leaves were turning pretty shades of yellow and orange. In the town of Dayton I pulled into the historic Joel Palmer House to meet my guide.

Jack Czarnecki, former owner of the Joel Palmer House (his son is now the chef-owner), is about the closest thing this country has to a truffle expert, and he’s using his expertise to produce truffle oil. Like the proverbial lightning in a bottle, truffle oil is a way to capture the fleeting flavors of truffles and use them year-round; unlike lightning in a bottle, it can really be done. But it should be noted that Jack’s all-natural truffle oils are a far cry from the chemical concoctions devised in scientific labs by most of the other so-called truffle oil manufacturers.

A few words about truffle oil. As wild foods, in particular fungi, continue to land on plates served by high-end restaurants across the land, there’s been a commensurate increase in the use of truffle oil. Truffle oil is the sort of fancy ingredient that can spruce up a menu and lend extra gravitas to an establishment looking for culinary plaudits. Which would you pay more for? Wild Mushroom Ravioli or Ravioli of Porcini and Chevre drizzled with Truffle Oil… But what is truffle oil? According to Daniel Patterson in his now-infamous New York Times rant, most truffle oils are a fraud—molecular creations that don’t actually have a shred of truffle in their recipes.

You see, the truffle’s complex aroma has been sequenced out by chemists so that it’s now just a series of numbers and letters, an equation. Even the French and Italian oils are guilty of the deception, and though some will include shavings or pieces of truffle in the bottom of the bottle for an implied authenticity, the actual flavor has been created in a test tube.

Jack hasn’t taken the short cut. His truffle oils are the real deal. And for this reason, he needs to forage an enormous quantity of truffles each season. I was only too glad to help. With his friend Tony joining us, we set out for the truffle ballpark—in this case, a managed stand of young Douglas firs on private property where Jack has worked out a barter arrangement that is typical between truffle hunters and landowners. To the untrained eye the forest looked like a rather uninviting monocrop. To the experienced truffler, it looked like the strike zone: young, single-aged conifers grew in rows for easy walking and a thick carpet of duff covered the ground underfoot. Using garden rakes, we gently raked back the layer of duff to expose little white tubers up to the size of golf-balls: Oregon winter white truffles, Tuber oregonense.

It was still a couple weeks early and most of the truffles didn’t yet have their typically pungent smell. We collected them just the same. Jack explained that it was possible to ripen the truffles if done with patience and an understanding of the truffle’s life-cycle.

I came home with a couple pounds of white truffles. Following Jack’s instructions, I washed the dirt off each truffle with a quick blast of tap water and then used a toothbrush to clean the exterior. This took some time. Then I swaddled the truffles in paper towels, layering them in Tupperware and sealing the lid before popping into the fridge. The idea is to keep them cool and dry so they can ripen just as they would in the ground. The truffles sweat so you need to change the damp towels every couple days.

Most of a truffle’s flavor and aroma comes in the form of gases emitted by the truffle which can then be absorbed in fats. This is why you never cook truffles at high temperature; the fragile gases get cooked out. The best way to serve truffles is to shave them thinly over hot food on the plate, not in the pan, and allow the flavors to soak in. Scrambled eggs, melted butter, and cream sauces are the perfect vehicles.

Unfortunately most of my individual truffles never ripened as much as they would have in the ground. My ripest specimens got thinly sliced into dishes such as homemade Tagliatelle with Alfredo Sauce to which they added a noticeable hint of truffle, though not as much as I would have preferred. But I had another card up my sleeve: I made a couple pounds of truffled butter, a better choice for my slow-ripening truffles. I sealed sticks of organic sweet cream butter into Tupperware with a few ounces of truffles per stick and left them in the fridge for a few weeks. By the end the truffles were decomposing, but over the course of those weeks they emitted enough of their fabled gases to flavor the butter. (Oh, and by the way, if you ever see truffled butter that’s shot through with pieces of ground-up truffle, know that this is either a misconception on the maker’s part or a gimmick. It’s all about the gases.) The truffled butter is wonderful melted over pasta or simply spread on toast.

This was my first experience digging white truffles. In general I’d say they’re stronger than black truffles. Black truffles have a distinctly different flavor (fruitier, less garlicky) and are supposedly harder to find, though I’ve had some luck foraging them in recent years. Both whites and blacks can make a special accompaniment to a meal when properly ripe, and whether or not our local truffles deserve comparison with European varieties is besides the point. Truffles are a treat wherever they are handled with skill.

Truffles Postponed

Woke up to this sight the other day. Snow in Seattle. Again. So much for the truffle hunt I had planned with P. We were both eager to get back to our patch and scratch around because recent weeks had been mild, increasing the likelihood of finding quality truffles, but now there was a few inches of the white stuff in the foothills where we planned to hunt.

Instead I might as well elaborate on my last post about truffle hunting. While I haven’t received any negative comments or hate mail, I should address my hunting techniques. In Europe truffle hunters traditionally used pigs to root out the fungi and now mostly dogs (because the pigs try to eat their finds!). By contrast, I’ve been using a four-tined garden cultivator and looking for areas where rodent activity suggests the presence of truffles. This practice is generally frowned upon because extensive raking can harm the forest ecosystem by destroying fungal mycelia, tearing tree roots, an so on. This is especially a problem in areas where large-scale commercial truffling occurs. Additionally, preliminary studies with matsutake mushrooms, another fungus that hides beneath the duff, have shown that deep raking can damage the resource itself.

In the Pacific Northwest, where the truffle trade continues to limp along, raking is a sensitive issue for another reason as well: truffles are frequently raked out of the ground without regard for ripeness. Pigs or dogs only sniff out the ripe ones while rakes indiscriminately uncover truffles in all stages of development—which are then sent to market by unscrupulous hunters and sold by ignorant merchants. Truffle boosters in this region believe that the so-so reputation of Northwest truffles in comparison to European varieties derives largely from these suspect hunting methods.

But alas, I do not own a dog (or a pig for that matter) and so my experiments in learning how to hunt truffles have been conducted entirely with garden tools. In some quarters this admission might raise a few eyebrows.

So let me be clear: My truffle inquiries are small-scale experiments for my own personal use and education. I carefully rake a very small area and make sure, in the golfer’s parlance, to replace my divots. Just the same, my truffle partners and I have agreed that we will try to limit our impact by using smaller hand-tools. I would cease these experiments altogether if I thought I was doing any harm to the forest community. And rest assured, none of my truffles will ever find its way to market.

Happy Valentine’s Day all!