In pursuit of Northwest Truffles
No longer just an underground treasure, native Northwest truffles—especially in Oregon—are emerging as a gourmet alternative to more expensive Italian fungi.
Our waiter caught my interest when he recommended the white truffle and vanilla bean ice cream for dessert. Admittedly, I was a bit skeptical. But as I rolled my tongue around a spoonful of this creamy white concoction, my taste buds awoke with surprise at the delicate interplay of nutty, white chocolate flavors accentuated by earthy undertones. As it turns out, his recommendation was the perfect culmination to a wonderfully indulgent five-course meal at the Jacksonville Inn Dinner House in southern Oregon.
For centuries, truffles have reigned among the world’s great delicacies. Yet there was a time when the demand for these elusive underground fungi was mostly centered on European imports. As consumers became increasingly interested, the focus shifted to the Pacific Northwest as a less expensive source of culinary-quality truffles. Oregon, especially, is gaining recognition as more and more chefs are enhancing their menus with these locally found treasures.
“When Oregon truffles are at their best, they can actually outshine the fantastically expensive European truffles that cost more than ten times as much,”
says Dr. Charles Lefevre, founding partner in the Oregon Truffle Festival and president of the North American Truffling Society. Lefevre harvests Oregon truffles recreationally and is also the owner of New World Truffieres, a company specializing in the cultivation of culinary truffles.
Oregon is currently the largest producer of truffles in the United States, with Washington coming in a close second. Whether collected in Oregon or Washington, these walnut-to-potato-sized gems are all likely to be labeled as Oregon truffles. Hundreds of truffle species have been identified within the prime habitat of the Pacific Northwest. However, the species most often harvested include the Oregon black truffle (Leucangium carthusianum) and the Oregon white truffle, which has only recently been differentiated as two different species—the winter white (Tuber oregonense) and the spring white (Tuber gibbosum).
Lefevre says that the region for both species of Oregon white truffles extends west of the Cascades crest, from just north of the San Francisco Bay Area through Vancouver and Victoria, British Columbia. The geographic range for the Oregon black truffle is nearly identical. All three species are found a few inches underground and mostly at the base of Douglas fir trees. However, these fruiting bodies of mycorrhizal fungi have also be found hidden beneath the topsoil around both oak and hazelnut trees.
On the hunt
Truffles appear on the market from late fall through spring, depending on the region, with peak harvests typically occurring in January. Truffle rustler Louis Jeandin, who sells truffles and mushrooms at the Growers’ Market in Grants Pass (he was also our waiter at the Jacksonville Inn Dinner House), usually collects white truffles from October through January, and black truffles from December through April. Fruiting is less reliable with the spring species of Oregon whites, but when they are available the earthen white orbs are harvested from March through May.
Jeandin has immersed himself in fungi, whether serving them as a waiter, featuring them in his cooking classes, or collecting both truffles and mushrooms for his business, Mushrooms All Year. Armed with an eight-inch rake, he hunts for truffles around 15- to 25-year-old farmed Douglas fir trees. Jeandin checks his patches every two to three weeks, disturbing the beds as little as possible to outwit the competition and allow the truffles to properly mature. “I also look for bumps formed by truffles pushing the surface of the soil or debris left by critters,” he explains.
One thing that can’t fully be explained is the experience of eating truffles, which some say is incomparable to anything else. “Truffles are a rare gift from the forest gods,” Jeandin says. “White or black, they are mystic and glorious.” In fact, some say that truffles are the culinary equivalent of sex. When fully mature, the beguiling odor is simultaneously primal and sublime, earthy and fascinating.
Oregon white truffles, which compare well with the extraordinarily expensive Italian whites, are a delicate encapsulation of nuttiness with subtle hints of vanilla and white chocolate. Black truffles are heady and aromatic with a complex flavor that faintly suggests chocolate.
“You can smell them even before you open the bag,” says Chef Geddes Martin, who, along with his wife, Mary Anna, owns and manages the Inn at Ship Bay on Washington’s Orcas Island.
The ripening factor
Truffles exhibit certain indicators when ripe. “A truffle is only at its best for a day or less, and they must be used during that optimal moment to really experience them,” Lefevre says. “The ripening process can take hours to a week or more depending on the truffle, and it’s important to check each one daily to determine when it is ready.”
One indicator of a fully ripe truffle is color change: Oregon white truffles become mottled brown inside, while the interior of an Oregon black truffle turns mottled gray. The best indicator, however, is your nose. A truffle should smell musty, earthy, even pungent, eliciting such extreme responses from intensely foul to fabulously sensual.
Until truffles reach their aromatic peak, the best way to store them is in a cool, dark place or in the refrigerator. Chef Geddes Martin stores truffles in the cooler alongside fresh eggs. According to Martin, truffles permeate the shell of the egg, infusing it with their aroma and flavor. Eggs can then be scrambled with shaved Parmesan and truffle, and the truffle-infused eggs, without doubt, make for the ultimate omelet.
“When truffles are at their peak, you must eat them when they are ready—not when you are ready,” says Jeandin. If you have too many ripe truffles at once and cannot use them all, he recommends making compound butter, or, as a last resort, to freeze them covered in butter, duck fat, or olive oil.You can also store the truffle overflow thinly sliced in a screw-top jar filled with good bourbon or vodka. Within a couple of weeks, the liquor is infused with the essence of truffles.
Chef Jack Czarnecki of the Joel Palmer House in Dayton, Oregon, says that the flavor of truffles carries extremely well in light olive oil. Just recently Czarnecki developed the first domestic all-natural truffle oil in the United States. (Most truffle oils are not, in fact, made from actual truffles, but are instead a synthetic product that combines organic aromatics with an oil base.)
Whether fresh or preserved, truffles go extremely well with rich cheeses and sauces, or practically any food having a fair amount of fat—including beef, lamb, and fatty fish like salmon. “One of our most popular dishes at the Joel Palmer House is beef stroganoff topped with shaved truffles and a drizzle of white truffle oil,” Czarnecki says. Shaving truffles over pasta is a classic way of enjoying them, as the heat of the pasta helps release the aromas.
“You never want to overcook truffles as the gasses will boil up and leave,” Czarnecki explains. He recommends adding truffles at the very end. “That way you can experience the gasses through your olfactory system as you are eating the food.”
When fresh, ripe Oregon truffles are on the menu at home, keep in mind that a little truffle goes a long way. “Paper-thin shavings on top of a dish are the most common way of serving them,” notes Jeandin. But there’s nothing common about the result, as shaved truffles can take any dish from ordinary to extraordinary.
By Kris Wetherbee from the January/February 2009 issue of Northwest Palate magazine.
Photo courtesy oregon truffle festival/Andrea Jackson photo.