In Quest of Oregon Truffles
Everyone around here has been saying Oregon Truffles have no flavor. Others, mostly from Oregon, tell me Oregon Truffles possess quality of the highest caliber. On a recent trip to Oregon, I attended the Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene, where I learned plenty, and then stayed on afterward to build upon my fresh knowledge and further indulge my interest in these locally prized hypogeous fungi. My quest was to track the Oregon Truffles in their native plots, collect them, and determine for myself their culinary qualities. My quarry was a trio of seasonally available species, the Oregon White Truffle (Tuber oregonense), the Oregon Black Truffle (Leucangium carthusianum), and the relatively rare Oregon Brown Truffle (Leucangium brunneum nom. prov.), respectively. Each of these truffles occurs naturally, hosted in mycorrhizal relationships by relatively young Douglas Fir trees (Pseudotsuga mensiesii).
Europe has a different set of truffles. Tuber magnatum, the White Alba Truffle, the world’s most expensive truffle, is predominantly used only as fresh shavings on hot pasta or eggs and such. Any actual cooking would blow away all that is so good about them, that being their essential volatile gases. It was explained to me in Italy that the world’s most expensive truffle actually has no flavor, the punch line being, “It’s all in the nose.” Other European truffles, notably Black Perigord Truffles (Tuber melanosporum), have the wherewithal to combine inherent flavor with aroma, as evidenced by the broader range of treatments and recipes they inspire.
More than just the truffles themselves are different in Oregon, however, compared to what I saw on my recent truffle tour in Italy. The Oregon truffle industry, in general, drastically lacks the organization, tradition and long range vision that Italy enjoys, in which everyone–top to bottom–seems to be pretty much pulling in the same direction for the well being of the truffle industry; for now, and for the future.
Oregon truffles have been marketed for only about two decades, during which time elements of greed, anarchy and opportunism have plagued the industry. The result often being that immature and flavorless, or foul truffles are harvested and sold, with a generally unreliable quality sent into distribution, thus undermining the value that properly harvested and handled truffles would otherwise demand. By virtue of this unfortunate history, Oregon Truffles have earned a poor reputation. Fortunately, there are currently a few players in the Oregon Truffle industry well aware of the need to instill proper quality standards for their product, people who believe they have superior, world-class truffles to offer. Their task is daunting, trying to establish worthiness against a bad reputation, but as I discovered for myself, they do indeed have some fine material with which to work.
Understanding of the product is the main hurdle for collectors, processors and consumers of Oregon Truffles. As I initially attempted to approach them, as hunter and consumer, they seemed counter-intuitive and abstruse, as unfathomable as their underground habitation would suggest. I realized I was going to need a little help from my friends in my quest. For openers, truffles buried in the ground are obviously not easy to spot, and they certainly don’t just grow anywhere, or everywhere.
I was fortunate to be invited for truffle hunting with Jack Czarnecki, an accomplished truffle hunter, proprietor of the Joel Palmer House Restaurant in Dayton, and producer of a new line of authentic Oregon Truffle infused olive oils. I originally met Jack when he was a guest speaker for MSSF many years ago. We renewed our acquaintance last November in Spoleto, Italy while attending the 3rd Congresso Internazionale sul Tartufo, thus setting the stage for getting together with him at his home in Oregon, and a pair of forays into the truffling woods.
Truffles are generally collected in Oregon by raking the forest floor. As near as I was able to discern, there’s proper raking, and there’s improper raking. It comes down to not damaging the tree roots in the truffle beds, and not moving so much earth that the habitat is compromised. The use of dogs to hunt truffles is just coming into vogue in Oregon, and Jack suggested to me that their black truffles may be more suitable for dog truffle hunting than their white truffles, due to their more scattered and decidedly sparser fruiting pattern, and generally larger size.
We drove to a young Doug Fir plantation and before long our rakes were earnestly deployed. Keying on rodent diggings, we gently pulled back section after section of the fir-needle duff layers, exposing multitudes of glowing white gems tucked neatly in the damp earth; Tuber oregonense. Oregon White Truffles tend to run rather small; walnut to marble to pea size seemed the norm. Their outer surface, or peridium, is fairly white when young, developing orange/brown tones with maturity. Each specimen needs be checked for distinct firmness. Softness indicates deteriorated flesh or wrong species. Any soft or dark spots should be chased with a knife. The inner flesh, or gleba, of the Oregon White is initially white, developing marbled tan coloration as spore production ensues. When the spores are ready, the truffles broadcast odiferous attractants to incite forest varmints to come and eat them. This clever, if inelegant, basic strategy the truffles employ is all about species propagation. The truffles are eaten by the critters they attract, and those critters by others, and all the critters involved defecate randomly throughout the forest, wherever they may roam, depositing viable truffle spores as they go.
Tuber oregonense matures in late fall to mid winter, its season typically done by the end of February. The closely related Spring White Truffle, Tuber gibbosum, was being collected in small quantities during my early February visit, but not yet yielding mature fruiting bodies. Specimens of this truffle are sometimes collected as early as December, but Tuber gibbosum typically does not reach proper marketable maturity until May.
Oregon Whites are extremely aromatic. Driving around with my carton chock full of white truffles stowed in the cooler, I kept thinking I might need a gas mask for protection from the truffle fumes inside my van. I packed a smorgasbord of eggs, cheese, butter, and cream into the cooler; essential items for capturing the ambrosial “truffle fog” to the various fats for later culinary enjoyment… works like a charm.
We hunted Oregon Black Truffles the following day in a slightly more mature Doug Fir plantation. My back and hamstrings were plenty sore from the previous day’s efforts; clearly I was not in shape for this surprisingly strenuous activity…. Not only were these black truffles fewer and farther between than the Oregon Whites had been, but their absolute blackness was a near perfect match for the soil in which they reside, contributing to an ongoing angst that even if I did unearth the black jewels, I could so easily miss them in the rubble I had amassed while raking the duff in search. I finally achieved limited success by plunging my hands directly into the soft earth and humus, allowing my fingers to see what my eyes could not. Back home, I had to chuckle with pride that I found only one camouflaged rock in my precious little black truffle collection.
The Leucangium carthusianum season, along with Leucangium brunneum, spans the winter months, with collections tapering by early spring as soils begin to warm. Black Truffle specimens, as with the other truffle species, need to be carefully manicured, removing any suspect flesh, and finely excavating each insect hole to verify bad things have not happened inside.
I did not harvest any Oregon Brown Truffles, and not surprisingly, given their rarity. I was, however, able to purchase a few from Jim Wells, Oregon Truffle purveyor extraordinaire, owner of Oregon Wild Edibles, in Eugene. Cinnamon-brown with a marbled grayish interior, they emanated an aroma of profoundly ripe Camembert cheese. Served in melted butter on sliced baguette, they reminded of buttered lobster.
Truffles at the table have a knack for being subtle or elusive in one instance, then knocking one over the head the next. Jim advised I should smell each truffle in a given collection of the same species, and note how each is distinct from the other. Further, truffles in one’s possession should be sniffed each day, not only to assure their well being, but also to detect the subtle developments of ripeness that progressively alter the odor/flavor profile of the specimens, and may therefore, influence one’s menu plans.
Jim went on to explain there are three time-lines to consider in terms of understanding an individual truffle’s ‘progress’. The first, maturation, is a biological process that takes at least a couple of weeks, sometimes as long as 6 months, to achieve. The maturation process ensues after sporocarp (the truffle fruiting body) formation and progresses until sufficient viable spore production is achieved. Darkening of the interior flesh (gleba), resulting from tannins produced as the spores become viable, and coincident development of marbling patterns, caused by the contrast of the dark pockets of mature spores interspersed with white veins of sterile tissue, are indications of truffle maturity. Knowledgeable collectors time their forays seasonally to increase the percentage of mature truffles they will encounter.
The second time-line, ripening, is a process of metabolic deterioration that occurs over a period of several days, or longer. By design, truffles release fragrant gases as they ripen to attract critters to eat them. Proper ripening cannot occur until the sporocarp reaches a viable level of maturity. Truffles continue to ripen after having been harvested. Really good culinary truffles are those that have properly matured and then achieved a subjectively desired degree of ripeness.
The third progressive time-line is age. If properly stored, Oregon Truffles may have a shelf life of 2 or 3 weeks, dependent upon how far they were along the ripeness time-line when harvested. There comes a point, however, when they’ve just been around too long, and they lose their luster. Truffles that begin to sweat, or truffles losing firmness of flesh, are exhibiting senescence, and their end is near.
Proper storing entails packing the truffles inside sealed containers in clean wadding (uncontaminated cloth or paper), maintaining them at 36 to 42 degrees Fahrenheit, and giving them a daily breath of fresh air. Lower degrees in that temperature range should be employed to slow ripening, as needed. The wadding should be changed out when it becomes saturated with moisture, a natural by-product of truffle off gassing. Truffles stored for ripening should always be protected from dehydration, as that would stop the ripening process, and otherwise usurp their quality.
Cooking of truffles will rapidly exhaust desirable aromatic gases, thus, raw consumption is the norm for serving most truffles. The White Alba Truffle of Europe is typically shaved directly onto hot foods at the table, thereby gently releasing and amplifying the truffle aromas in the presence of the diners. Unlike the “Alba”, however, Oregon Truffles generally have a little “body” to complement their ethers, and are, therefore, potentially suited for light or brief cooking methods, if so desired, employing techniques similar to those used in preparing the Black Perigord Truffle.
Oregon Black Truffles are surprisingly well suited for dessert applications, especially during earlier stages of ripeness, when aromas of green apple and pineapple predominate. Jim especially recommends Oregon Black Truffle whipped cream. While enjoying the Czarneckis’ hospitality, we ate lots of truffles with everything, including Oregon Blacks with ice cream and cake for dessert, and I indulgently substituted them for jam on my toast at breakfast… Back home, we did Oregon White fettuccine, and truffle infused eggs sunny-side up, gently cooked in truffle butter, with fresh shaved truffles, ala the classic Italian dish. Molto bene… We made crab salad with the Brown Truffles, pasta carbonara, pizza pies, and infused vodka with the Whites, topped steaks with the Blacks and Browns, had a Black Truffle risotto to die for.
All in all, I found the Oregon Truffles enigmatic, intoxicating, elusive, delightful, difficult, demanding, arcane, metaphysical, and delicious… generally ever so worthy of la grand mystique legacy enjoyed by their European counterparts for eons. It is rather amazing that such a profound food item could only just now be coming into the spotlight here in America. As things now stand, Oregon Truffles appear conspicuously undervalued in comparison to the prices commanded by the inarguably different, yet more or less equal, European truffles.
There are two publications I would recommend for those wishing to advance their truffle knowledge. My long time friend, and world-renowned truffle expert, Dr. Jim Trappe lectured on desert truffles (a completely different set of truffles) at the recent Oregon Truffle Festival. He, along with Matt Trappe and Frank Evans, has recently published “Field Guide to Truffles of North America”. It contains pertinent information on indigenous truffles of the U.S., and lots of pictures, including photos of the Oregon Truffles. Also presenting at the Truffle Festival was New Zealander Gordon Brown, one of three authors (along with Ian Hall and Alessandra Zambonelli) of the recent outstanding book “Taming The Truffle: the History, Lore, and Science of the Ultimate Mushroom.”