In Oregon’s lush, green Willamette Valley, black and white winter truffles grow among the roots of young Douglas firs. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Truffle Festival)
In Oregon’s lush, green Willamette Valley, black and white winter truffles grow among the roots of young Douglas firs. (Photo courtesy of Oregon Truffle Festival)

Hunting Wild Truffles

European varieties of this delicacy command astronomical prices, but some foodies rave about the less-expensive, easier-to-find ones in Oregon. 

The Greeks and Romans ate them as aphrodisiacs. The French learned to hunt them with pigs. The Italians infused olive oils with their pungent, earthy flavor and shaved precious slices on risotto. For centuries, native European truffles—notably the black ones of the Périgord region in southwestern France and the white ones of the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy—have commanded an esteemed place in haute cuisine from top chefs and gastronomes around the world. They have also commanded a proverbial king’s ransom.

The French black truffle, famously used in paté de foie gras, runs about $1,200 per pound, while the Italian white variety has gone for as much as $3,500 per pound in recent years. Most French blacks are cultivated while the Italian whites are wild.

In Oregon’s lush, green Willamette Valley, which adds the flow of the long and winding river of its namesake to the wide Columbia at Portland, black and white winter truffles growing among the roots of young Douglas firs are attracting a local following. Oregon white truffles are closely related to the regal European fungi and proponents say they are every bit as tasty—at a fraction of the price. Top-quality Oregon truffles average $500 per pound during peak season, which generally runs from mid December through mid March. A decade ago, when virtually no market existed for local truffles, they might have cost as little as $50 a pound, if you could even find them.

“People around here talk about blind tastings, with our truffles coming out on top,” Joyce Eberhart, vice president of the North American Truffling Society, says with a smile. “But I don’t think that discussion is going on in Europe.” 

Eberhart is a senior faculty researcher at Oregon State University’s College of Forestry at Corvallis and an expert in another edible fungi: the Japanese pine mushroom, or Matsutake. “They are adored by the Japanese people,” she notes, explaining that when pine forests in Japan were destroyed during the 1970s, harvesters eagerly turned to alpine forests in the Pacific Northwest where the same species grows in abundance. Some pickers and buyers made huge amounts of money supplying the Asian boom for Matsutakes. I remember talking during the 1980s with a pilot in British Columbia who paid for his helicopter by ferrying wild mushroom pickers in and out of the woods. 

Maybe a similar fever will ignite with native truffles. Oregon’s wonderful pinot noir and pinot gris wines had to start modestly, too. If savory truffles from the wintergreen Pacific Northwest spread through America’s culinary scene, two individuals will have had a lot to do with stoking the fire: mycologist Dr. Charles Lefevre and his wife, Leslie Scott, who in 2006 organized the first Oregon Truffle Festival. In January, the annual event will celebrate its 10th anniversary with presentations by well-known scientists, truffle-dog-training seminars, cooking demonstrations and food pairings with Oregon wines and craft beers, all capped by a sensational six-course Grand Truffle Dinner prepared by award-winning West Coast chefs.

For those who enjoy interesting food, fresh truffles are a rare treat. Their shelf life is about three weeks. They emit three distinct aromas—the first week fruity pineapple, the second earthy and the third musky.

“They are delicious,” Eberhart says. “The mystique is that they’re hard to find.” 


What’s Different about Truffles

Truffles are related to mushrooms but, because they mature underground, their spores must be spread by flying squirrels and voles that feast on the prizes they dig up. Truffles typically range from the size of walnuts to the size of baseballs. They are gnarly and unglamorous, unlike the elegant golden chanterelle mushrooms that festoon much of the same evergreen forest floor during earlier autumn months. While chanterelles unfold into the dappled sunlight, truffles stay hidden underground. They are the reproductive fruits of species of mycorrhizal fungi, forming symbiotic exchanges of nutrients with host plants. Traditionally, rakes have been used to unearth these delicacies, but use of trained, truffle-sniffing dogs is viewed as less damaging to the truffle and to future harvests. A favorite breed is the Italian-origin Lagotto Romagnoio water dog, which has been retrieving ducks and rooting out truffles for thousands of years. 


2015 Oregon Truffle Festival

This event is set for January 15–18 in Portland and January 23–25 in Eugene. For a schedule of events and details about participating, visit oregontrufflefestival.com or call (503) 296-5929. 

For additional information, check the website of the North American Truffling Society (natruffling.org). Private jet owners flying into Oregon have several airport choices, including Mahlon Sweet Field in Eugene, which has an 8,009-foot runway; Portland-Hillsboro in Portland, which has a 6,600-foot runway; and Portland International in Portland, which has an 11,000-foot runway. (See map below)


Thomas R. Pero is publisher of Wild River Press and the author of two books about fly fishing.

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