The Hunt for Oregon Truffles

Though most famous in Europe, Oregon is making a name for itself with this culinary delicacy. Learn the crucial role dogs play in finding the best truffles.
Oregon Truffles / photo by John Valls

Make a list of the most indulgent foods out there, and truffles will likely be near the top. Part of that reputation is due to price. The pungent, misshapen delicacies can sell for as much as $1,000 per pound, but their rarity and unique taste are what allow them to command such a fee. Truffles are full of the savory flavor profile known as umami. These flavors are complex and can evolve, much like wine.

The best-known truffles are Périgord and Alba, native to France and Italy, respectively. But other regions less associated with the delicacy have begun harvesting their own truffles, and are worth seeking out in part because they’re often less expensive than their European counterparts.

Oregon produces four edible truffles: the winter white, spring white, black and brown varieties. Although often thought of as mushrooms, truffles are the fruiting bodies of fungi that grow on the root systems of Douglas fir trees. Found mostly in rural forests, truffles also appear on city-dwelling trees.

Dog who has found Oregon truffles.
Happy dog owner with Oregon truffles / photo by Andrea Johnson

Dogs play an important role in Oregon’s truffle industry, says Dr. Charles Lefevre, a truffle expert and co-founder of the Oregon Truffle Festival. Dogs are used to find most of the quality truffles in Oregon. For decades, the state’s truffles had a bad reputation because they were raked up before they were ready.

“Truffles have to be thought of as a fruit,” says Lefevre. “They have to be ripe to have culinary value. Dogs don’t find truffles, they choose which ones are ready. By using a dog, you’re getting truffles that are reliably ripe, and the quality is completely different. Chefs are getting much better value for what they spend, so they’re more willing to purchase Oregon truffles now.”

(Interested in seeing the dogs in action? Hire a guide for a private truffle hunt, or attend next year’s Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship.)

Oregon truffles can fetch $600 or more per pound. White ones are musky and garlicky, which make them great for savory dishes. The flavor of black truffles is milder and more complex. When they start to ripen, they give off pineapple and banana aromas, says Charles Ruff, the Oregon Truffle Festival’s culinary director.

Truffles have to be thought of as a fruit. They have to be ripe to have culinary value. Dogs don’t find truffles, they choose which ones are ready. —Dr. Charles Lefevre

As truffles age, they become nutty and exude whiffs of hazelnut and almond. At full maturity, they smell and taste like Camembert or other good farmhouse cheeses. Depending on their stage of development, black truffles can be used in sweet or savory preparations.

The intense aromas of Oregon truffles will even absorb into foods high in fat—like butter, cheese, cream and charcuterie—without touching them. Simply place these items in a tightly sealed container with a ripe truffle for a few days.

Heat can quickly rob truffles of their flavor, which is why they’re often shaved or sliced over finished dishes. In addition to traditional recipes like pasta with cream sauce and risotto, try truffles over mashed or scalloped potatoes, mac and cheese, roasted root vegetables, scrambled eggs, and simple beef and chicken dishes.

Oregon truffle
An underground treasure / photo by John Valls

Pairing Local Wine With Oregon Truffles

Foods that are specific to a region are often pair best with local wines. Oregon truffles are no exception.

“The classics are really quite compelling together,” says Ksandek Podbielski, co-owner and wine director of Coquine in Portland, Oregon. For Pinot Noir, he recommends the 2015 Mimi’s Mind from Lingua Franca, or Seven Springs Vineyard Pinot Noir from Walter Scott Wines.

Scott Wiskur, wine buyer at Marché Restaurant in Eugene, Oregon, says to pair truffles with earthier, spicier expressions of Pinot Noir, like Crowley Wines Entre Nous and Patricia Green Cellars Freedom Hill Vineyard Pommard Clone Pinot Noir.

Why Alba Truffles Are the Culinary Diamonds of Italy

For red wine, another good choice is Pinot Meunier.

“In general terms, Pinot Meunier is going to be lighter than its cousin Pinot Noir,” says Wiskur. “It definitely has more of an earthy, gamey, savory quality to it. It’s better with black truffles, which tend to be less aromatic and less pungent.”

Teutonic Wine Company and WillaKenzie Estate create excellent Pinot Meunier bottlings.

Podbielski doesn’t stop at reds, recommending local Pinot Gris as an option for white wine lovers as well. With Oregon truffles he likes the Original Vines Pinot Gris from The Eyrie Vineyards, or bottles from Belle Pente Vineyard & Winery. For something out of the ordinary, Wiskur suggests a skin-contact Pinot Gris like the 2016 Twelve Oaks Estate Rosé of Pinot Gris from Anne Amie Vineyards.

Foraging ingredients from local forests not only provides flavors that can’t be found elsewhere, it creates a reason to preserve a community’s natural environment. That’s one of many things Lefevre finds so exciting about Oregon truffles. “It’s a crop that’s very compatible with our environmental values,” he said. “Truffles fruit in forests and riparian areas, so those must be preserved to keep the industry going.”

Published on November 16, 2017
Topics: Food



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