Few things unite Pacific Northwest culture, economy and ecology like food. And at the center of the Northwest food scene are the ingredients themselves. Home to hundreds of commercial crops and edible bounty, this region is a gastronomic powerhouse of diverse, essential and surprising foods.
Where do these ingredients come from? What communities do they support? What makes them delicious? And what can they become in the hands of the best food makers in the region? “Superabundant” is Oregon Public Broadcasting’s new video series dedicated to the stories behind the foods you love.
Editor’s note: We know it may be tempting to try mushroom hunting yourself, but please keep in mind that there are several species of mushrooms that are very dangerous to humans and animals. Never consume a wild mushroom without consulting an expert.
Oregon’s truffles are true hometown heroes. These superabundant mushrooms can fetch up to $800 a pound. Plus, they help Oregon’s mysterious and beautiful forests thrive, all while delighting adventurers, chefs, foodies and truffle dogs alike. Their culinary appeal is no accident: Truffles make their living by getting animals to do their bidding.
The fungus among us
“It’s thought that there are as many truffles fruiting below ground, as there are mushrooms above ground. There are truffle members of every major lineage of mushrooms,” said Charles Lefevre.
Lefevre is a world-renowned truffle scientist, hunter and cultivator and co-founder of the Oregon Truffle Festival.
Truffles are mushrooms that grow underground, where they can be safe and sound from the weather.
Underneath the soil, they produce an aroma that lures animals and insects to come and eat, proliferating their spores. It’s that very aroma that makes truffles so intriguing.
“I think it’s fascinating that this fungi, on the molecular level, is so compelling to people that we’re going to carry the story around,” said Christian DeBenedetti, owner of Wolves & People Brewery in Newberg, a spot known for its innovative use of Oregon truffles.
“We’re going to wander through forests, we’re going to try to figure out ways to try to harness it, celebrate it, capture it and share it,” he continued.
Oregon has four native, world-class culinary species of truffles, more than any other part of the country.
Thousands of years of cultivation of the land helped the truffles thrive in the region, Lefevre said.
“We do have a rich diversity, a tremendous abundance, and this lineage of this tradition of knowledge uniquely in this region,” he said.
“Gradually, it was planted with Douglas fir, and those young Douglas fir on that pasture land became the source, the habitat for our native Oregon truffles.”
The fungi has a mutually beneficial association with its environment, meaning as the forest thrived, so did the truffles, and vice-versa.
“They are actually providing an essential service to the tree. And in return, the tree is providing all of their energy. So the forest can’t exist without some fungi performing that role,” Lefevre said.
Oregon’s love for hunting and selling other wild mushroom varieties, like chanterelles and porcinis, also helped the state’s truffle industry get started.
“There was an existing industry infrastructure that the truffles could be sold into,” Lefevre said.
The infrastructure was there, the stage was set, and the truffles seemed to be waiting to be found. The unique aroma is an impressive tactic, like a delicious billboard leading the way — if you know where to look.
“You just got to have that experience and that thirst and that hunger to find them,” DeBenedetti said.
Lefevre uses dogs to hunt for truffles, and he says they couldn’t be happier about the job, gorging themselves on truffles whenever they can.
“It’s self-reinforcing behavior. They hunt truffles because they love them too,” he said.
The lightning strike
Lefevre co-founded the Oregon Truffle Festival in 2006 as a way to promote Northwest truffles use among local chefs, and local chefs have found no shortage of ways to use them.
“In Oregon, it’s all about ingredients, and the most unique example of Oregon ingredients is truffles,” Vitaly Paley, chef and owner of Paley’s Place in Portland, said. Paley is a former Iron Chef, and a veteran of Portland’s food scene.
“When the truffle season starts, I can’t wait until the first truffle walks in through the door of our restaurant. To be able to smell it for the first time that year opens up new possibilities,” he said.
What exactly is that smell? It’s a difficult question to answer because as truffles mature their aroma evolves.
“A ripe truffle is unmistakable. It has the aroma of chocolate, coffee, tobacco, black currant, a little bit of earthiness, some fungus-y smell, but for the most part, it’s really fruity,” Paley explained.
“A lot of people compare the aroma of truffles to ozone, a rare upper atmosphere gas that’s formed when lightning strikes the ground,” DeBenedetti said.
Truffles are versatile and can be used in a number of dishes, from pasta or salad dressing to omelets and more. Truffle flavor can be infused into anything with some sort of fat.
DeBenedetti even infuses Oregon hazelnuts with Oregon white truffles to create La Truffe stout.
It seems the possibilities are as abundant as the truffles themselves.
“North America generally represents probably the single largest market for fresh truffles on the planet,” Lefevre said, speaking from what could be seen as the epicenter of that market: Oregon.
“On some level, in the sense that say Wisconsin is identified with cheese and Idaho with potatoes, the brand of truffles is Oregon’s to lose.”