As I write this month’s column, I hope everyone is healthy and safe and know my prayers are out there for our entire country. This month I’m going to share with you my January trip to Portland, Oregon (luckily before any travel restrictions were put in place). It’s not like I’m showing you my pictures, I’m going to share with you a fabulous tour and tasting of one of Portland’s hidden gems.
When talking about truffles most people think of the chocolate kind, but I’m talking about the truffles that are in the mushroom family and considered a delicacy, and are priced like that. While France is known for black truffles and Italy is known for their white truffles, in Oregon you can get both, depending on the season. Chocolate truffles got their name because they look like the black mushroom truffles from France.
Truffles traditionally were sniffed out by pigs but currently around the world they are now mostly using dogs, because the pigs would eat the truffles. Almost all dogs can sniff out the truffle, including Chihuahuas, but the Italian breed that is known for this job is the Lagotto Romagnolos. These dogs have a natural ability to sniff out truffles but can cost up to $8,500 for a puppy. Truffles grow underground around the base of a few varieties of trees. In Oregon, the Douglas Fir is the tree that people and dogs usually search around.
Unlike other mushrooms that grow above the surface, truffles grow underground. The above ground mushrooms allow water and wind to disburse their spores while their relatives underground scatter their spores via animals that eat them.
The purpose of my trip was to celebrate at the Oregon Truffle Festival, which has been around for 14 years and occurs in January every year. During this festival you get to learn about truffles, hunt for truffles and most important, eat truffles. Oregon truffles are a bargain compared to their European relatives. Black truffles (French) go for around $800 a pound while white truffles (Italy) fetch up to $3,000 a pound, but truffles from Oregon cost much less. White truffles from the Northwest go for around $25 per ounce and black truffles go for more than twice that.
Oregon truffles have a reputation of not being very flavorful, but part of that was from before dogs were introduced as foragers, as foragers would use a rake, which marred the outside of the truffle, shortening its shelf life and inhibiting flavor. As Oregon truffles only have a shelf life of around 10 days, they must be refrigerated. This is compared to French truffles that have a six-month shelf life in the refrigerator or 10 days at room temperature. The fresher they are, the better they taste.
Around Portland these Douglas Firs have not, and are not, going to be chopped down, for these trees that allow truffles to grow by their roots are less valuable as timber than for the truffles that are harvested. An acre of trees can foster thousands of dollars worth of truffles every year, and leaving the trees up allows them to reproduce year after year.
Oregon’s white truffles have two seasons: They are harvested from May to July and then again November to March. Black truffles are harvested starting in October and ending in May, with January and February being the peak months. This is the reason that the festival is held in January. Additionally, another 350 species of truffles grow in the Pacific Northwest.
Oregon’s Truffle Festival is celebrated in two weekends late in January in Eugene, Oregon, and if you can’t make it then, there’s also a festival in February in the Yamhill Valley, which is closer to Portland.
The Pacific Northwest, specifically Oregon, is well-known for its mushrooms. As a matter of fact, the largest mushroom ever discovered was in Oregon, and measured almost one square acre. This species is called a honey mushroom. This mushroom is considered the oldest organism in the world and is estimated to be around 8,650 years old. This mushroom is connected underground with above ground caps appearing throughout the area. This has been confirmed through scientific DNA studies of the different growth areas. This size mushroom is actually a hindrance to the life of the trees it is drawing energy from.
Truffles can be verified as far back as 20,000 BC. They lost favor for a long time but regained their popularity during the Renaissance period. During this time the French cuisine stepped away from its use of Oriental spices and began using more earthy and indigenous ingredients. The greatest luxury at that time for the wealthy was a truffled turkey, which will be on my table next year. Truffles can be cultivated, but take a lot of space and moisture to take hold. Unfortunately, a lot of diseases can affect the quality and quantity of growth for truffles.
Beware of truffle oils as they are usually not made with true truffles, but rather a synthetic flavoring that replicates the truffle. The next thing I’m going to do with my beautiful truffles I brought home is make a flavored truffle vodka. I hope it’s as good as it sounds.