The Most Pungent Prize: Hunting the Truffle

“As a journalist working on a story about truffles, it felt like risky business. There’s a lot of cash flowing around, there’s a black market”

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A happy hunter, her Oregon white truffles and the dog that made the day. Photo by Andrea Johnson.

Some underground objects in Croatia will detonate at the slightest touch: landmines.

Other underground objects just smell. When journalist Lucy Burningham went to Croatia in 2007, she went looking for truffles. The Portland-based beer, food and travel writer was doing research for a book she’s writing about truffles of the world. She spent two weeks in northwest Croatia’s Istria peninsula, where she explored the local oak forests with pen and pad, fringed the secretive clan of local truffle hunters and, as she now concedes, poked her nose where not everyone wanted it.

“As a journalist working on a story about truffles, it felt like risky business,” Burningham said. “There’s a lot of cash flowing around, there’s a black market, and I felt like I was entering a world where I wasn’t wanted.”

Most truffle hunters aren’t lawbreakers. They are simply protective of their patches, which may be family-owned and passed along from generation to generation—the foundation of a wholesome industry across Europe. But lookalike truffles are sometimes falsely advertised and illegally sold, and in the dark woods of Europe and in the high-stakes marketplaces, strangers and foreigners are not always to be trusted. Burningham didn’t speak the language in Croatia, and she had just one local contact in the truffle-hunting underworld. The man, hardly a Luddite of the woods, carried four cell phones and seemed to be always negotiating a sale through one of his market connections. He served as her guide, and on one occasion as he drove into a remote truffle patch in the woods, he asked Burningham, seated shotgun in the Fiat, to cover herself with a blanket and hunker down and pose as a sack of potatoes.

“No one wanted to see an international journalist poking around in the forest,” Burningham explained.

Burningham observed the white truffle’s prominent place in Croatia’s culture and cuisine. She saw, too, that Croatian people object to the white truffle’s reputation as the “Alba truffle,” which suggests that this aromatic mushroom, Tuber magnatum, is an Italian specialty. In fact, though France and Italy have gained reputations for having the world’s best truffles, Burningham’s book project was conceived in Oregon, in the woods surrounding Portland, in the heart of North America’s very own truffle country.

Throughout the Pacific Northwest, three species of highly valued, highly aromatic, native truffles grow naturally in the soil among Douglas fir trees, though relatively few people know it. Burningham caught wind of Oregon truffles in 2006. Today an increasing number of chefs, gatherers, retailers and entrepreneurs of many makes are catching on. Though the industry struggled for several decades, demand is now growing, and prices have shot up from about $50 per pound wholesale five years ago to about $250 per pound today.

Truffle season is now in full swing, and those interested in unearthing their own truffles should contact the North American Truffling Society, a group of enthusiasts who meet in Corvallis, Oregon to discuss, study, hunt and eat truffles. The Cascade Mycological Society may also be able to help. The upcoming Oregon Truffle Festival, scheduled for January 27 to 29 in and around Eugene, will offer another opportunity to experience Oregon’s best-smelling mushrooms, both on the plate and in the woods.

Truffle hunting, whether in Europe or America, is usually conducted with truffle dogs, the best of which can smell underground truffles from 150 feet or more away. Only four such dogs, trained and certified through local truffle dog training programs, exist in Oregon, according to Leslie Scott, a managing partner of the truffle festival, where at least one of these dogs will be meeting and greeting guests. (Though truffle pigs still dwell in the lore of old European truffle hunting, the keen-nosed animals posed a problem for truffle hunters as they often attempted to eat the prize. Dogs will merely sniff out the fungus and gladly take a pat on the head in reward.)

Meanwhile, the Perigord black truffle is now under cultivation worldwide in orchards of hazelnut and oak trees “infected” at their roots with the mycelium of T. melanosporum. These orchards lie in furtive locations in California, Tennessee, North Carolina, Oregon, Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, Argentina and other places. Most are young and still maturing into production, and tourist hunting opportunities for the black truffle will likely grow more common in the near future. The Italian-Croatian truffle has not been successfully cultivated, but some landlords lucky enough to own a white truffle patch among their hardwood trees do host visitors to dig up this most expensive of fungi.

America's most prized fungus, the white winter truffle of Oregon. Photo courtesy of Charles Lefevre.

What’s a truffle good for? T. magnatum is favored for shaving over pasta or poached eggs. It is almost never cooked, and the raw aroma of this critter is so powerful, so intoxicating, so mesmerizing that it is said to drive some people—and female pigs—mad with lust. I’ve only smelled it once, in an Italian restaurant in San Francisco. The chef emerged from the kitchen with a freshly imported truffle on a silver platter, and the smell seemed to hit me like a gust from 25 feet away. If I’d been wearing a tie I think it would have blown up in my face, so powerful was that aroma. T. melanosporum, the black Perigord truffle, is considered almost as good as T. magnatum but is quite different and is often cooked into sauces and meats. Among the New World truffles, the Oregon black (Leucangium carthusianum) may smell like pineapple, wine and chocolate—a truffle that does well in creamy desserts. The autumn Oregon white (T. oregonese) bears similarities to its European counterpart, as does the spring Oregon white truffle (T. gibbosum). Each is piney, musky and garlicky. A favored trick with white truffles, from the Old World or the New, is to place one in a Tupperware along with an egg. The aroma will creep through the egg’s shell and flavor the yolk and the whites.

Almost wherever one goes, truffles can be found. Thousands of species grow worldwide. Most have no culinary worth. Some carry a respectable price tag, like the prized Saudi desert truffle—and just a few are valued like gold. Still others have no aroma or flavor at all but look enough like the coveted species of Europe that fraudsters slip them into the market and draw illicit incomes. T. indicum, for instance, is a worthless lump of a mushroom native to eastern Asia and which looks almost identical to the Perigord black truffle (T. melanosporum). The presence of imitation Chinese truffles in France and Italy has recently become an ecological problem: the species has found its way into the soil and established itself, posing a new threat to the already declining populations of native black truffles. Mixed deviously into a batch of the real thing, fakes add precious weight to a sale that can draw almost $1000 per pound from buyers who assume the product is legit. (T. magnatum draws even more money, often several thousand dollars per pound.) 

All of which should make for some good adventure reading, and we hope that Burningham will have a book chapter in which our heroine visits China and follow her nose into the black market for false truffles. She notes that doing so “will probably be even sketchier” than snooping around Croatia.

Safer, surely, to stay home—but sometimes there’s no resisting the truffle.

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