Ode to the Oregon Truffle

Oh, Oregon Truffle!
Living in the shadows of your European cousins
Never getting the respect you deserve
It’s time for a change!

Oh, Oregon Truffle!

Dug from the rich Oregon soil
Shaped by the hand of nature.
Your earthy scent: remeniscent of all that made you

Oh, Oregon Truffle!

Your time has come:
Break out of your silence
And grace our plates and palates.

"Who ever says truffle, pronounces a great word, which awakens erotic and gourmand ideas both in the sex dressed in petticoats and in the bearded portion of humanity." Brillat-Savarin, 1825

This weekend, I was fortunate to be a patron at the First Ever (and I hope, Annual) Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene. And no, not the sugary kind of truffle, but the lovely, lumpy, sweet-smelling fungi kind of truffle. Truffles across Europe have been the fodder for gourmands and chefs for centuries – some of these small fungi now rope in a hefty $2000 a pound! But this event was to honor a lesser-known variety of truffle called the Oregon truffle, whose range extends from Vancouver Island, British Columbia to Southern California. These little truffles were virtually unknown about 20 years ago, they began to get the culinary recognition they deserved. James Beard (born in Portland, by the way) declared in 1983 that Oregon truffles were at least as good as the French Black and Italian White truffles."

Truffles are a fungi, like mushrooms, but which grow under ground. They are the fruiting bodies of mycorrhizal fungi (symbiotic) that live in soil and associate with tree roots. But, instead of fruiting above ground, the truffle fruits below ground - and never sees the light of day (unless it is dug up). Yet, truffles are common in the Pacific Northwest, especially in Douglas Fir forests, as they grow in the needles and topsoil around the Douglas fir tree. The beauty of a truffle is that it is one of nature's own exquisite creations: it is rare, and no human has been able to reproduce it's subtle, complex flavor.

Oregon Wild Edibles

Browsing the goodies displayed at the Truffle Marketplace, one of the vendors I came across was Juan Alcala, a truffle specialist for Oregon Wild Edibles. He and his partner, Jim Wells, have been friends for 34 years and recently began their business to help the plight of the Oregon truffle. The two gentlemen know a lot about truffles… they were kind enough to answer all of my questions, and each of their truffles comes with sheets full of truffle information and a guarantee that each truffle passes their very high standards and was grown in clean, unpolluted soil. They even recommend that you squeeze, smell and handle your truffles every day (Who wouldn’t want to play with their food? Especially with this bunch?).

Juan Acala

Oregon Wild Edibles has both white and black truffles available. Each truffle is graded as either Small, Medium, or Premium (the “cream of the crop,” so to speak), which in part determines the price; and each type of truffle is denoted by season: spring or winter. This time of year, the winter truffles smelled most heavenly, and had truly gorgeous brownish-red marbling, while the spring truffles had much less marbling and were far less fragrant. Because of their value, commercial collectors often have incentive to sell all the truffles they find, whether they are mature or not. Immature truffles have little culinary value, as they have not yet developed the pungent aromas that chefs seek. This frequent presence of immature specimens in commercially available Oregon white truffles has diminished their reputation and value on the world market compared to their European counterparts. Not so with the truffles that Jim and Juan collect and sell: Quality is one of their top priorities...they won't sell you a truffle that doesn't meet their standards.

A beautifully marbled White Oregon truffle

Oregon Black truffles are unique in both scent and flavor. Their fragrance is far different from that of the European Black truffle, which Juan and Jim had available for comparison. European truffles smell kind of like a spa to me - that earthy clean scent. The Oregon Black smelled more like an earthy cheese. We determined that the European truffle they had for display would fetch a pretty penny: almost $675 dollars!

So what do you do with the gorgeous smelling fungi you’ve just purchased? Oregon Black truffles are typically used for desserts – they have a sweet, almost nutty and floral scent. But they are also wonderful for other culinary delights, depending on how ripe they are. There are 7 stages of ripeness, and depending on the stage that the truffle is currently in (which can change from day to day, by the way), you can choose what kind of culinary magic you would like to make with your truffle. Juan and Jim recommend stage 1 for whipped cream or ice cream while stages 6 and 7 are best for sauces or filet mignon with demi-glaze. They also mentioned that although smell is the best determination of ripeness, what you make with it will not necessarily come out tasting like it smells (although it will still be wonderful, and that’s part of the fun of cooking, right?!)

The truffles are like cheese: alive. So when you’re storing them, be sure to give them room to breathe. As they ripen, they will continue to give off water vapor through their outer skins, which can begin to rot if not taken care of, but you also don’t want them to dry out either. Juan and Jim recommend keeping the truffles refrigerated, and in a sealed container, gently wrapped in unbleached paper towels or organic cloth. If you are using a plastic instead of glass, be sure to avoid contact with the plastic. When droplets begin to appear on the sides of the container, change the paper towel. You should also discard any rotting truffles lest they contaminate others – but not before gently peeling the outsides of them to preserve the deliciousness inside. If necessary, you can also freeze truffles for later use. They can be used in sauces or even grated if done quickly before they thaw too thoroughly.

I ended up with a single premium White truffle – medium sized, only .20 oz. (it's the end of the month, so I'm poor again!), but it was ripe and full of flavor and fragrance. Juan helped me pick it out himself. I took it home, cradled in an unbleached paper towel, and (after taking pictures of it, of course) decided to make a soup that would showcase my new purchase. With such a small amount, I wanted to maximize the flavor as much as possible – I could have put it in an omelet, but I just couldn’t wait that long! I decided on a savory white bean soup (recipe below). I had a few very small truffles that had been stashed in my freezer from the end of the farmer’s market, when we had been so busy that I wasn’t able to cook anything with them. They went into the pot to flavor the soup, while my newly arrived truffle was the star feature: thin shavings on top, accompanied by a tiny swirl of organic white truffle oil made by another local artisan from Yachats, Oregon.

Those of you that have been reading my site for a while are aware that I support the Slow Food Movement, and try my best (with the means I have as a student, of course) to give the majority of my business to local farmers and vendors that follow practices I believe in. Oregon Wild Edibles fits right in with these goals, their prices are reasonable, and their practices are admirable. So if you are a supporter of similar ideas, would just like to try one of Oregon's finest delicacies (Valentine's Day is coming up), or even learn more about these truffles or what to do with them, write to them, email them, or give them a call! (Remember, this is a small business, so they aren't set up to do direct website ordering yet) I'm sure that you'll be hearing much more about Oregon truffles in the future. Most of the pleuthera of information here was provided to me by Juan and Jim.

Oregon Wild Edibles
Jim Wells and Juan Acala
PO Box 11021
Eugene, OR 97440
Fax: 1-714-459-7147

I'll be posting a few of the other vendors I discovered while at the Truffle Marketplace in the next few days. For now, here's the soup recipe:

Truffle-scented White Bean Soup, adapted from Cooking Light

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 cup onion, chopped
1 tbsp. roasted garlic cloves, minced
1/2 tsp. freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 tsp. fresh rosemary, chopped
2 cups chicken stock
24 oz. of cooked cannelini beans
2 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
a few small Oregon White truffles for adding flavor to the soup
truffle oil, and one very ripe Oregon White truffle for garnish

This is a simple and tasty soup. Heat the olive oil in a large sauce pan and saute the onion for a few minutes or until it begins to turn translucent. Add the roasted garlic cloves, pepper and fresh rosemary and saute for 30 seconds more. Add the chicken stock, beans and small truffles to the pan, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 15 minutes. At this point, your house is going to smell delicious, I promise. Remove from heat and add lemon juice. Wait 5 minutes, then blend half of the soup at a time in a blender until smooth. Divide into bowls, then drizzle with truffle oil and garnish with thin shavings of a ripe Oregon white truffle. Serves 4.

Note: I might add a little cream to the soup at some point also; perhaps with the lemon juice. I know that this defeats the purpose of "cooking light," but I think it could really benefit from a little extra creaminess. A little gorgonzola thrown might also be lovely :)

12 comments from you:

ilva said...

drool drool I'm drooling over here! You know how i feel about white truffles! I simply go crazy when I feel that smell! I envy you! mmmmmmmmmmmm

vlb5757 said...

Yet another wrinkle in the old brain. I had no idea that truffles could be grown anywhere except for France. That was an exceptional blog entry. Kudos to you girl!

extramsg said...

Nice report. I almost went, but had to work on the weekend. Sigh.

So how much did they charge per ounce?

Up here most of the truffle sellers are bad at selling mature truffles. I generally have to leave them sitting for a while to mature. The exception is OM, but I haven't seen them around lately.

I still don't know if Oregon truffles truly compete with European truffles, despite Beard's Oregon pride. But they're much better than the ones you can get in a jar from Europe.

Jennifer said...

Oh my goodness... what an incredible event. I am ever-so jealous. And the soup sounds divine! Great post.

Kitchen Queen said...

I just had lunch and your soup has made me hungry again!!

Clare Eats said...

That looks beautiful Michelle! I am very jealous! I have been mushroom hunting here in OZ as we have micorhizal fungi that were brought over with our pine trees. Some of which are edible and easily identifiable, butnothing as sexy as your native ones! I am so glad you liked the Opor Ayam :) Do you have any indonesian restaurants in Eugene?

Easily Pleased said...

what a post! i learned a whole lot about truffles - had no idea they grew in OR - both wite and black. And that soup looks tasty. Keep up the super posting!

Melissa CookingDiva said...

Beautiful! Great work...congratulations. I didnt know about the truffles in Oregon. Hugs,

McAuliflower said...

I'm so glad you were able to go! I ended up getting dragged down under by the weather, blah. However, Sundance has black and white truffles for sale, of which I snagged one.

Great entry- had no idea about the levels of ripeness and Oregon Black Truffles tendency towards dessert!

Paz said...

What a wonderful post! More interesting information for me. I love your ode to the Oregon Truffle, which I'd never heard about before! Your recipe looks great. I look forward to reading about the other vendors. Thanks, Michelle!


michelle said...

Hi Ilva! I do know, and I wish that I could send you some and have them arrive in an edible form!

Hi Vickie! Aw, shucks, thanks...I didn't know until this last year either...in fact, I had never even tried a truffle until last year!

Hi ExtraMSG! Too bad...do let me know if you're ever planning on coming down for something - I'd love to meet you! I'll have to get a price list from them (that would have been a good thing to add, but I completely spaced it). I'll post it when I hear back from Juan. I spent $3 for the truffle I bought and it was .2 oz...so about $15 an oz for the premium, medium sized winter ones? I had heard about the immature sales problem, which is why I like these guys and that quality is such an issue with them. You may be right about them competing with European truffles, but they also have such a different scent, that perhaps they should just have their own category? I haven't had any European truffles not from a jar either, though, so you're a far better judge than I!

Hi Jennifer! Thanks for visiting from Novato! I love when events like this come through town. The soup is better the second day, I've decided.

Hi Kitchenqueen! That's my goal, my dear...just like everyone else does to me!

Hi Clare! There's just something cool about being able to go out and gather your food! I did love the Opor Ayam - I think I called it Indian again, huh? Duh. No - we aren't blessed with Indonesian restaurants here, but I wish we were. I'd love to have a good Ethiopian restaurant here also, but I guess I have to get my fixes in the big cities!

Hi Easily Pleased! Glad I could offer something helpful! Plus, I'm so enamoured with all the access to yummy stuff here in Oregon, I just want to share it with everyone!

Hi Melissa! Why thank you! I take my template from your lovely posts about great ingredients in Panama!

Hi McAuliflower! Oh Bummer! I wish I would have had your number, because I would have dragged you out despite the weather. These kind of things are always better with friends. I didn't know Sundance had them...I wonder where they get theirs?

Hi Paz! I'm happy to help! I'm glad that somebody learned something new from something I had to say! Thanks for the kudos on the poem...I knew I wanted to have one, but I couldn't find one anywhere!

Farmer de Ville said...

Great piece. I'm always excited to hear people hype up Oregon truffles...