Unearthing Oregon's Hidden Bounty
I'm scrambling through a patch of Douglas fir on a misty January morning in Oregon's Willamette Valley, and I'm holding a small miracle in my hand. It's knobby and muddy and certainly doesn't look like a miracle, but when I hold it to my nose, extraordinary scents fill my head and little Pop Rocks of pleasure burst in my brain. It's a white Oregon truffle and it has never had a good reputation.
But this little nugget is as aromatic as anything I've sniffed in Europe. So I ask Charles Lefevre, the gray-goateed mycologist scampering beside me—who has devoted the past 15 years of his life to promoting Oregon truffles—why they've long been snubbed by connoisseurs. In answer, he points to his two four-legged friends hoovering back and forth across the forest floor like furry Roombas. "Because no one had dogs," he tells me. "Truffle dogs were the key."
Dante and Mocha, Lefevre's dogs, are Lagotto Romagnolos, an Italian breed famed for its truffling prowess. Curly mops with bright eyes, they are bounding from tree to tree, unearthing truffles as if they'd studied a treasure map in advance. Unlike many truffle dogs that are better trained to leave the treasure alone, Dante and Mocha have no qualms about trying to eat the ones they find. The only way to prevent this is to race behind them and snatch away the goods—which is what Lefevre and I do for the next three hours while he tries to explain to me how one of America's most amazing wild foods could have been so completely overlooked, and how truffles just might be a godsend to the local ecology and economy.
A type of mushroom, truffles are the spore-filled fruiting bodies of fungi that live symbiotically on tree roots. The fungi gather water and minerals from the soil and feed it to the trees in exchange for sugars the trees make through photosynthesis. Most truffle species grow on just a handful of tree species. In Oregon, they're almost always found beneath a Douglas fir, the dominant tree of the Pacific Northwest.
But while most mushrooms push above the surface and open like parasols, letting wind and water disperse their spores, truffles stay underground. Down there, they have no elements to help scatter their spores, so truffles use a wildly creative Plan B: a cocktail of aromas—a heady mix of pheromones and volatile compounds—so arresting that passing animals will go out of their way to dig them up, eat them and spread their spores through the forest when nature calls.
And they do. Squirrels, mice, foxes, pigs and bears all go crazy for the things. Humans find them irresistible too. I adore both the luxurious depth of France's black truffles and the garlicky punch of Italy's white ones, the two species celebrated for their ability to etch a taste memory into your brain for life. I'd heard years ago that the Pacific Northwest had its own varieties of truffles, both black and white, but everyone from professional food writers to Michelin-starred chefs had wrinkled their noses when I brought them up. Some said they had no smell. Others said they were gross. All agreed that they just didn't have the same magic. They were the cubic zirconia to the European diamonds.
But then I heard about the Oregon Truffle Festival, which Lefevre started with his wife in 2006, and my curiosity got the best of me. Could a festival really survive for 14 years if its main ingredient sucked?
And so I've come for three days of truffle hunting, learning and eating, where Lefevre and some of the Northwest's best chefs will try to convince me and a thousand other curious souls that America's native truffles can run with the big dogs.
Speaking of, I have just thrown myself in the dirt to snag a truffle from Mocha's maw, and as I lie there in the fog, a fine mist dripping off the firs, I can't help but take another sniff. I'm already starting to believe, because this little nugget is as aromatic as anything I've experienced in Italy. And so I ask Lefevre again how these truffles could have developed such a bad reputation.
"The thing you have to understand ..." he begins, then shouts "Wait, Dante, no!" and tears off after his pooch, who has hit a mother lode and is gobbling down the world's most expensive dog treats. It's all I can do to keep up, and the secrets of the Oregon truffle will have to wait a bit longer.
As a highly coveted food that grows in tiny quantities, truffles have always commanded daunting prices. Black truffles from Europe are widely propagated and go for $800 a pound. White truffles, which have much more intense aromas and have resisted many efforts to be cultivated, tip the scales at $3,000 a pound. Until recently, however, Oregon truffles fetched only $25 a pound.
Why so little?
It's all about the harvesting, Lefevre explains as we chase Dante and Mocha through the woods, filling our pockets with rescued treasure.
Pigs were humanity's original truffling partners. Natural enthusiasts, they probably trained Europeans to hunt truffles as much as the Europeans trained them. But pigs love truffles too much and too powerfully. It's difficult to stop a 400-pound porker from eating what it finds. Besides, truffle hunters like to keep their best spots secret—and if you've got a pig in your Fiat, everyone knows exactly what you're doing.
So for the last century or so, Europe's truffle hunters have used dogs—which happily work just for treats (Dante and Mocha notwithstanding). There are truffle-dog schools, truffle-dog festivals and truffle-dog breeds, the most famous of which— Lagotto Romagnolos—can fetch $8,500 a pup.
In the Pacific Northwest, however, there was no truffle-dog culture. When hunters first began harvesting truffles a few decades ago, they used rakes. The truffles grow beneath Douglas firs in loose soil near the surface, easy pickings for a determined raker. But while dogs detect only ripe truffles, raking is indiscriminate and can pull up a year's worth of immature truffles along with a few good ones. And an unripe truffle has all the appeal of a raw potato.
Oregon truffles also have a shorter shelf life than their European counterparts—10 days max. And they need to be cleaned and refrigerated immediately or they will go bad even faster. At $25 a pound, few rakers bothered to give them the extra love they needed. And let me just say that a rotten truffle is foulness incarnate.
Back in the early 2000s, Lefevre was studying mycology at Oregon State University and foraging for truffles as a hobby. He knew ripe ones smelled and tasted amazing, but that few people had ever experienced them in their prime. "It seemed like there was an opportunity to redeem these species," he tells me as we head back to his car, clothes covered in dirt, pockets bulging.
Lefevre suspected raking is what had put Oregon truffles in the doghouse. It also didn't help that most of them were being consumed around the holidays—the traditional time to enjoy European truffles—even though the native species didn't reach their peak until weeks later. And with that realization, the Oregon Truffle Festival was born. It would feature rigorous quality control. It would convince the unconvinced how delicious local truffles can be. And it would be dog-centric.
"When you use a dog, you get better truffles," Lefevre says."The aesthetics are better, the prices are better and it's less work. Besides, working with a dog in the forest is part of the mystique. There's just no reason not to use a dog."
One of the key events of the festival is the Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship, in which amateur pooches compete to sniff out the most truffles. The first few years were heavy on Lagotto Romagnolos and other breeds known for "scent work," but in 2018 a rescue Chihuahua named Gustave came out of nowhere to win and became a national story, goosing interest in truffles.
Today, Oregon is crawling with truffle dogs, a canine corps that is transforming the reputation of Northwest truffles. Chefs have noticed, and prices for dog-harvested truffles have risen to several hundred dollars per pound.
Not only is that a win for local gastronomy, Lefevre says, it's also a game-changer for the forests. An acre of Douglas fir can produce thousands of dollars' worth of truffles every year, which means the trees are more valuable alive than cut for timber. And those living forests are hugely beneficial for wildlife and biodiversity, as well as for carbon sequestration—the trees draw greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere and store it deep underground beneath their roots. Plus, unlike ramps and other wild edibles that can be overharvested, truffles grow like fruit, so picking them doesn't harm the parent fungus, which will continue to make more truffles. It's all part of a remarkable awakening, a new way of enjoying the woods that was hiding in plain sight.
The proof, though, is in the pudding—or in this case, the beet carpaccio with truffles, which is one of the dishes Portland chef Vitaly Paley suggests when I brazenly mention that I have a basket full of fresh black truffles, in case he wants to have lunch. Paley, a winner of both Iron Chef America and a James Beard Award, is one of the deans of Northwest cooking, a celebrant of ingredients-first cuisine. If anyone knows what to do with Northwest truffles, I figure, it's Paley.
I figure right. He meets me at the door of his restaurant, Paley's Place, and immediately sticks his nose in my basket of truffles. "Ooh, excellent," he says, eyes dancing. "These are really fresh!" He whisks them into the kitchen, explaining that he's worked with native truffles for 20 years, but that it was very, very difficult to find good ones prior to the arrival of truffle dogs. "I love that yeasty smell when you cut them," he says. "It's like fresh dough."
Like their European counterparts, Oregon black truffles have the cool, comforting scents of black olives and cocoa, but they add their own unique tropical undertones of banana and pineapple, which makes them great in desserts. As they mature a little more, they develop the delightful funk of farmhouse cheese.
To emphasize that earthy quality, Paley shaves them into a muscatel vinaigrette and drizzles it over the paper-thin slices of golden beet. Another vinaigrette goes on a scallop crudo and a salad of mâche, endive and raw shaved artichoke with crispy fried chicken livers and Parmesan. At the last minute, he grabs a microplane and showers everything with marbled truffle shavings. "One of the nice things about Oregon truffles is that they're relatively inexpensive," he says, flashing me a grin, "so you can use lots."
When we finally sit down to eat, the table is a tapestry of colors, shapes and textures. The salad is spiked with intrigue, the beets have a new depth and the scallops seem just a little bit naughty. All I can think is, Where has this flavor been all my life? They're the opposite of my European truffle experiences, where truffles are often served in rich, monotone dishes, and it occurs to me that truffles have been prisoners to their price tag, forced into a world of stuffy luxury that isn't in their nature.
With their fleeting shelf life, Oregon truffles are never going to become international stars like their tougher overseas siblings. But maybe that's fine. Let it be an experience that can't be had anywhere but here. After all, how often do you get to sniff out a beautiful new cuisine?
This article originally appeared in EatingWell Magazine, April 2020.