Digging Treasured Truffles
The world's most prized subterranean fungi are harvested in unlikely places.
Brillat-Savarin, the beloved 19th century French gastronome, defined the truffle as “the diamond of the kitchen.” He was also the one who said, “The truffle is not exactly an aphrodisiac, but tends to make women more tender and men more likeable.”
While the latter is questionable, the former is true, especially with regard to Italian and French cuisines—countries where the delicacy is most famously found. These days, however, the subterranean fungi are being harvested in unlikely places, namely Oregon, Croatia and Australia, with each growing their own types of truffles based on land, soil and temperature.
“You may think a truffle is a truffle, but they’re much more complex,” says Jack Czarnecki, owner of The Joel Palmer House, a Willamette Valley restaurant that specializes in wild mushrooms. In fact, he says, there are three different types: tuber magnatum pico, the white truffle that grows in the forests of Italy and Croatia; tuber melanosporum, the black périgord truffle of France and Australia; and tuber gibbosum and tuber oregonense, Oregon’s white truffles.
“The black périgord truffles tend to have a pleasant odor of earth, must and iodine,” says Czarnecki. Oregon’s white truffles, on the other hand, “are similar to Italian white truffles in that they share a garlicky-cabbage aroma. While they are not as intense as those from Italy, what they lack in intensity, they make up for in aroma complexity.”
Truffle hunting season kicked off in September in Oregon and continues until February, when the fungi have ripened enough to be picked. The ripeness is a key detail; too often they are dug out before they’re ready. They grow under soft young woods, specifically in the needles and topsoil of Douglas–fir forests. Their profile is hence more floral and herbal than that of their white truffle counterparts in Europe. “It’s like introducing Pinot Noir to someone who’s only ever had Cabernet Sauvignon before,” Czarnecki deadpans.
When trekking through the woods on the hunt for these treasures, Czarnecki looks for signs of where squirrel have fed; they have an astute sense of smell that often leads them to truffles. At the cavities where the soil has been picked at, Czarnecki rakes away the weeds to expose the fungi sprouting from earth. As the most traditional way of digging truffles in Oregon, this is also the most practical mainly because they grow closer to the surface than European truffles, which can be more than one-foot deep. Using dogs to hunt is a relatively new method, but they’re more commonly turned to when used searching for black truffles that are scattered and thus more difficult to find.
At his restaurant, Joel Palmer House, Czarnecki uses his handpicked truffles, coupled with locally grown ingredients to create Mexican, Chinese, Polish and Indian-inspired dishes. Featured entrées are beef stroganoff with porcini and white truffle oil, Portobello en croute stuffed with Dungeness crab drizzled with white truffle oil, and lobster salad doused in white truffle vinaigrette. In December, the restaurant will host a series of truffle dinners, leading up to Oregon’s prime event for truffle lovers: The Sixth Annual Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene on January 28–30.
At Paley’s Place, chef and owner Vitaly Paley whips up tasty seasonal Pacific Northwest cuisine. “I use mostly local truffles in my restaurant; because they are a lot less expensive, you can offer more sizable portions,” he says. “I love to pair truffles with crab and often make an aioli using them, adding more shavings on top.” On the side, he opts for a salad with fennel, fresh herbs and boiled fingerling potatoes. “Potatoes, or any starch really, have a way of emphasizing the flavor of truffles,” says Paley. Other dishes include a spit-roasted bird, like partridge, duck or guinea hen, stuffed with truffles and served with soft truffle polenta or truffle potatoes. The Tornado Rossini, a beef filet topped with sautéed foie gras, truffles and truffle Madeira sauce is a favorite.
In Croatia, where white truffle season kicked off in September and continues through late January (and three kinds of lower-prized black truffles grow year-round) are picked by local hunters in dark damp forests in the hilltop towns of Motovun and Buzet.
Only recently have Croatian truffles attracted such attention, says Giancarlo Zigante, a 20-year truffle-hunting veteran. He foraged in all weather picking the fungi until November 2, 1999, when he and his dog Diana spotted a 2.9-pound white truffle— Guinness Book of World Records’ largest ever found. After the discovery, Zigante opened a specialized truffle store in the Istrian village of Livade, followed by an eponymous restaurant. The menu, abundant with dishes such as banana potato and black truffle, fresh sea bass Carpaccio with black truffles and black truffle ice cream, also has a another, unique highlight: “Our guests can go out with restaurant staff members and hunt their own truffles. We offer truffle hunting all year, so we have fresh selection for our dishes,” says Tanja Prodanović, the restaurant’s manager.
Having climbed the top truffle chart in the 1990s, Australia’s black périgord truffle grows near oak and hazelnut trees, where it gets its earthy aroma and nutty flavor from. The grounds of The Wine & Truffle Co. in Manjimup, located in Western Australia, is said to produce the largest quantity of truffles in the southern hemisphere. This year’s season has ended; it typically starts in late May and goes through August, when a pack of trained dogs set out to sniff truffles growing as many as 12 inches beneath the earth’s surface. A typically good truffle dog can locate a truffle with pin-point accuracy from 164 feet away.
But even out of season, The Gourmet Café at The Wine & Truffle Co. is the place to go to for dishes with Australian truffles. The menu includes pan-seared truffle-infused scallops, served on a truffle paste, and creamy braised leek and duck leg with truffle, orange and Port sauce, on a bed of Puy lentils simmered in duck stock and wilted spinach and finished with a shaving of truffle. Their truffle-tasting plate—another favorite dish according to restaurant owners—features truffle olives, tapenade, butter, oil, dukkah and Turkish bread.
Handcut Angel Hair Pasta with Black Truffle Butter (Tajarìn con Burro di Tartufi Neri)
From The Farm to Table Cookbook by Ivy Manning
By This simple dish, made with egg yolk, pasta, butter and Parmesan cheese, highlights the flavor and aroma of the truffles. If you're unable to find fresh truffles, use truffle oil instead.
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus 1 cup for rolling out and dusting
1 pinch salt
8 large egg yolks, whisked
1/2 ounce black truffle, or 1 to 2 tablespoons truffle oil
1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Pour 2 1/2 cups of the flour and the salt directly onto a cutting board, form a well in the center, and add the egg yolks. Mix gently with your hands, adding water 1 tablespoon at a time (up to 4 tablespoons) until the dough comes together; knead until smooth and elastic, about 10 minutes. Divide the dough into 4 discs, cover with plastic wrap, and let rest for 30 minutes.
Dust a baking sheet with some of the remaining flour. Roll 1 disc on a pasta machine (following manufacturer’s instructions) until it is as thin as possible, cutting the sheets into 6-inch lengths to make them more manageable. Dust 1 pasta length with flour and roll it up, jellyroll style. Slice the roll crosswise as thinly as possible with a sharp knife. Lift the pasta coils with your fingers, tossing and fluffing with a little flour to unravel the pasta into long, thin ribbons. Place the cut pasta on the prepared baking sheet. Repeat with the remaining dough.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. While the water is heating, clean the truffle by carefully brushing off any dirt with a moistened baby toothbrush (it will retain its black exterior). Thinly shave the truffle with a truffle shaver or sharp vegetable peeler. Melt the butter in a large sauté pan over medium heat until bubbly, add the truffle, and swirl to combine. If using truffle oil, add it to the pan now. Turn off the heat and keep in a warm place.
Add half the pasta to the boiling water and cook until al dente, 30 seconds to 1 minute. With a fine-mesh sieve, quickly scoop out the pasta, shake off all the excess water and place the pasta in the butter-truffle pan. Repeat with the remaining pasta.
Gently toss the pasta, butter, truffle and cheese and season with salt and pepper. Transfer to 4 warm serving bowls and serve. Serves 6 as a side dish or appetizer.
Joel Palmer House Wild Mushroom Risotto with Oregon White Truffle Oil
1 quart water
½ ounce dried porcini
1 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon soy sauce
¼ pound unsalted butter
½ ounce dried onion
1 cup long grain rice
Grated Parmesan cheese
2 ounces Joel Palmer House Oregon White Truffle Oil
In uncovered saucepan, bring water, dried mushrooms, sugar, salt and soy sauce to boil then add rice and reduce heat to simmer. Strain out the liquid and reserve. Chop the mushrooms finely. In a medium sauté pan melt the butter and add the dried onion and rice. Stir for 1 minute then add the reserved mushroom liquid. Cook uncovered and stir gently until water is absorbed and evaporated, about 15 –20 minutes. Portion rice, drizzle lightly with Parmesan cheese and truffle oil and serve. Serves 10 as a small starter or 4 for a main course.