Oregon truffles don't have the allure or high price-tag of their European cousins and have had a less than stellar reputation in the past. Local food advocates are trying to change that. The founder of the Oregon Truffle Festival says using dogs to search out the underground fungus can improve the quality of the truffles and he's researching ways to make them easier to find. Oregon truffles are gaining cache among chefs.
A truffle is the fruit of a fungus that grows underground in Douglas fir stands in Oregon. There are several different kinds, but culinary folks prize the black truffle, the winter white and the spring white.
Jacobson: "Okay Ils, I'll take you off the leash…"
Kris Jacobson and her dog Ilsa are in search of winter whites in the woods outside Eugene. It's dark under the forest canopy. Ilsa wears a bell and a light so Jacobson can find her as she wanders deeper into the woods.
Ilsa noses around the ground near the base of a doug fir. She stops and begins digging…
Jacobson: " So there's a winter white truffle there. Good Girl…"
Jacobson picks out the small rounded clumps, using her gloved fingers to dig a couple inches down where Ilsa has indicated there are truffles. The winter whites have a sharp scent, some describe it as diesel, or chemical.
Jacobson: "But the primary thing that I pick up is sort of like a garlicky, wonderful cheesy smell. That's just the best way that I can describe it."
Jacobson is a retired Sheriffs deputy. Ilsa is a Belgian Malinois, a type of shepherd dog, well known for its sense of smell. Jacobson and Ilsa learned how to find truffles at a dog-training seminar several years ago at the annual Oregon Truffle Festival.
Charles LeFevre and his wife Leslie Scott started the festival in 2006 because they wanted to improve the reputation of Oregon truffles. Before, most harvesters found truffles by raking. They might find some good truffles, but there was no way to know if they were ripe and at their prime. LeFevre says dogs can make that determination with a sniff.
Lefevre: "Truffle dogs do the quality control for the harvesters. So, it's easy to find truffles with a rake but they're like fruit in a sense that a truffle actually needs to be ripe, and to have an aroma, to be worth eating."
LeFevre says when they started the festival there were no truffle dogs west of the Mississippi. Since then there are more people using truffle dogs in Oregon. LeFevre would like that to be the only way people find truffles. Not everyone who rakes is careful to put the dirt back.
LeFevre: “Where there has been intensive black truffle harvesting over a period of years often you can not only see the roots you can see under the roots, you can see light around them. The soil has been excavated away from the tree. It scars the roots.”
LeFevre is researching ways to increase the number of truffles that grow in Oregon so that it can be more commercially viable. Only a handful of people currently make a living truffle harvesting. He says that and the efforts to improve how Oregon truffles are perceived will have a positive impact on the state’s economy. In a white paper published a few years ago, LeFevre estimated the value of the Oregon truffle industry could exceed 1.5 billion dollars annually.
LeFevre: “Truffles could become an important industry for the state of Oregon. Not just for their direct economic impact but also because of their cache, their ability to reflect well on the region, to reflect well on other products from the region.”
Like wine. Oregon’s pinot noir has gained a reputation among foodies around the world.
The new Grit Restaurant in Eugene celebrates the bounty of the Willamette Valley. Chef and owner Ashley Hawkins relies on what's in season locally in crafting her menu, which changes weekly.
She's is using truffles in many of her dishes, including the special.
Hawkins: "We're making a smoked Fettuccini with Black Truffle and we finish it with Manilla Clams, white wine, sorrel and truffle butter."
Hawkins says the dish sold out early the night before. She's making more pasta dough for tonight. She removes a handful of black truffles from a container.
Hawkins: "Basically, what I do with these is I'll shave them and then I'll put them in the food processor with some olive oil and then once I get the dough together I'll fold that into the dough…."
Hawkins says a little goes a long way. Black truffles have a sweeter, earthy scent and go well in fatty dishes like pastas and desserts. These fragrant black truffles were delivered yesterday by a harvester from the Corvallis area. Hawkins loves that this time of year, there's a special food, truffles, that come only from Oregon. And she appreciates the way harvesters work.
Hawkins: "They go out and harvest to order. So they don't go and take more than they need and they find them all with their dogs. They're really into it. It's pretty cool."
Back in the woods with Kris Jacobson, it's clear this is a labor of love.
Jacobson: "When I take a deep whiff of a handful, a small handful, of ripe, beautiful winter white truffles, I swoon. I get lightheaded. I honestly do. It's just an amazing aroma to me."
Charles LeFevre hopes the rest of the world will swoon over Oregon truffles. But he says, it needs to start here.
Lefevre: "I don't know how far we've reached out in the rest of the country with this effort to redeem the reputation of the Oregon truffles but certainly locally we've made a big difference. And I think that's actually the place to start. Once we start liking and wanting and spending a lot of money for our own truffles then the rest of the world will pay attention."
LeFevre says just as so many Europeans are proud of the regions they come from, Oregonians can be proud of their region and celebrate its bounty.