France may be famous for black Périgord and Italy for the even more expensive white truffle found in Alba and Piedmont, which can cost thousands of dollars per pound depending on the year and season. But America has great truffles too. Throughout Oregon, from Eugene to the Willamette Valley, both white and black truffles grow wild and in abundance – if you know where to look. These truffles are different species from their European brethren, but no less pungent, garlicky, and earthy.
Oregon’s truffles have for many years had a bad reputation as weak and inferior substitutes for European truffles. This is because, unfortunately, most of the Oregon truffles available on the market are harvested indiscriminately and immaturely with rakes, as opposed to individually harvested by trusty Lagotto Romagnolo truffle dogs (along with retrievers, which also make good truffle dogs). These dogs follow their snouts to find truffles at the peak of ripeness.
“Would you rather eat a sour, hard peach or a sweet and juicy one?” asks Charles Lefevre of New World Truffieres. “It’s the same difference between an unripe versus ripe truffle.” Lefevre founded the Oregon Truffle Festival to educate landowners, farmers, harvesters, truffle dog trainers, chefs and consumers about truffle cultivation and appreciation. The emerging industry has huge economic and culinary potential, and slowly, foragers are learning to focus on quality over quantity.
Ripe Oregon truffles have a unique aroma compared to their European counterparts. Oregon black truffles have an even more musty odor than French Périgords and are just as robust. Oregon winter white truffles are more delicate and brighter, with a tantalizing touch of sweetness.
In February, during peak season, native Oregon black and white truffles sell for $45 per ounce. That’s $720 per pound. It’s still not as much as white Alba truffles, but it’s nothing to sneeze at.
Admittedly, it’s hard to find top quality Oregon truffles anywhere outside of Oregon. The crop is still relatively small and the only way to be sure you’re getting the freshest, ripest product is to buy directly from harvesters. If you visit Portland between February and April, look for this regional delicacy on the menu at Portland’s top restaurants. James Beard Award-winning chefs and finalists including Vitaly Paley, Naomi Pomeroy and Cathy Whims all feature them on their menus.
“I really like to cook with everything local and seasonal, so when truffles are in season we use them with abandon at all our places,” Chef Paley says. “As much as I enjoy eating a French truffle in France, I think it is even more special to cook with Oregon truffles in Oregon. Oregon truffles are still very affordable and because they are local, the source and their freshness can’t be beat.”
There’s hope for the rest of us though. Chefs nationally are starting to develop relationships with reliable independent foragers in Oregon for a steady supply of truffles. The Fifty/50 Restaurant Group in Chicago just purchased several shipments of Oregon truffles to use at their restaurants, including a special mushroom dinner at Steadfast on April 13th. The grand finale here will be an Oregon truffle soft serve ice cream, equally savory and sweet.