One of the world’s most cherished culinary delights, the mere thought of fragrant truffles immediately brings to mind delicious dreams of decadent dining. But whatever you do, don’t call them mushrooms. Truffles are actually the fruit of the mycorrhizal fungi, a naturally occurring organism that develops underground as part of a symbiotic relationship with the roots of certain trees.
“Truffles grow wild all over the world with the exception of Antarctica and a few small islands, but not all wild truffles are culinary truffles,” says Dr. Charles Lefevre, president of the Eugene-based New World Truffieres Cultivation Specialists and co-founder of the Oregon Truffle Festival.
Often associated with rural France, several native truffle species can be found in the American Pacific Northwest, including the Oregon Winter White Truffle, the Oregon Spring White Truffle, the Oregon Black Truffle, and the Oregon Brown Truffle. While these truffles tend to grow well in young Douglas fir forests atop grassland, European truffle varieties can thrive under any number of host trees and in a variety of different soils and environmental habitats.
“European truffles can be grown in truffle orchards in North America by grafting the roots of trees,” adds Dr. Live for it. “We have more than a dozen productive orchards in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia growing winter European black truffles, bianchetto truffles and Burgundy truffles.”
Traditionally harvested by foragers with the help of highly skilled hunting dogs trained to sniff out the distinctive scent at the peak of ripeness, Oregon truffles are in season between January and June, while their European counterparts usually appear a month or so earlier. . Fortunately, with today’s widespread cultivation in the Southern Hemisphere and other locations, it is possible to buy fresh truffles all year round if you know where and when to look for them.
“Rarity, seasonality and the delicate handling required to transport them from ground to plate are all responsible for their high prices,” Dr. Lefevre. “The prestige is in the quality of the truffles harvested by dogs. Only dogs can sniff the ripest truffles, which are then carefully and promptly handled for delivery, dropped off at local restaurants or shipped further afield.”
Fresh truffles, when available, are in high demand. Wholesale prices for sought-after European black winter truffles can range anywhere from $600 to as much as $1,100 per pound, while the Oregon black and white truffles typically sell for between $400 and $800 per pound.
What makes truffles so delicious is a matter of opinion.
“It’s very difficult to describe the taste of truffles, and each one is different from the other,” says Dr. Lefevre. “In the case of Oregon white truffles, I like to say that they add ‘electricity’ to food. Oregon black truffles often add fruit flavors, where other truffles add garlic and animal musk.
To store truffles, store them in a sealed plastic container lined with paper towels to preserve their precious aroma and expose them to fresh air a few times a day. Also plan to use them soon. The shelf life of a fresh Oregon truffle is only 10 days or so; European truffle varieties last a little longer, but keep in mind that they are on the road for some of that time. Since the truffle’s appeal lies primarily in its intoxicating, earthy aroma, it plays beautifully with rich foods that can easily absorb and emphasize the aroma and flavor, especially butter, eggs, cheese, pasta, and avocado.
“At the Oregon Truffle Festival you can get the experience of [enjoying] truffles in every course of every meal, from appetizer to dessert, starting with the cream in your coffee!” dr. Lefevre laughs.