A fertile industry sprouts up around the costly little fungi.
BY SUSAN G. HAUSER
Above: Eric Lyon of Portland and Leroy, a black lab trained to sniff out underground truffles, make up one of just three commercial truffle hunting teams in Oregon.
Below: Lyon holds the day’s find: Oregon black truffles that he’ll sell for hundreds of dollars.
// Photos by Leah Nash
They look unappetizing. Truffles, the underground cousins to mushrooms, are knobby and lumpish, looking like a cross between a small potato and a battered old golf ball.
But the funky, earthy odor emanating from a culinary truffle goes straight to the brain, then to the stomach, leaving both organs in a state of bliss. Is it any wonder that these fungi have been praised through the ages and modern gourmands have paid upwards of $1,000 a pound for them? Usually shaved in thin wafers over eggs or pasta or used to impart flavor to butter, cheese or meat, truffles release a heady chorus of volatile oils that elevate food from good to gourmet.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley has the good fortune to be one of the few places in the world where native truffles grow in abundance. On top of that, a new industry of cultivated truffles, grown from trees whose roots have been inoculated with the spores of the highly valued Perigord truffles, is taking off in Oregon as well as in several other states.
And according to a 2009 feasibility study by Dr. Charles Lefevre, Oregon Culinary Truffles: An Emergent Industry for Forestry, Agriculture and Culinary Tourism, a local industry based on native and cultivated truffles could exceed $200 million a year in direct sales. That figure jumps to more than $1.5 billion by including secondary economic benefits. The study goes on to say that “if Oregon pursues truffle production with similar passion and focus” as for Oregon wines, the value of the truffle industry could very well exceed that of the lucrative wine industry, currently valued at $2.7 billion.
Above: Lyon digs up the fruit of Leroy’s labor. Truffles are found either just below the surface or a few inches deep.
Below: Lyon does a sniff test. Truffles are worthless without their distinctive odor.
// Photos by Leah Nash
Anyone who’s regularly attended the Oregon Truffle Festival, founded by Lefevre and his wife, Leslie Scott, and held in Eugene for the seventh year this past January, would not be surprised by those predictions. The festival, now with numerous events to accommodate attendance that has nearly tripled, attracts an international crowd of truffle growers, truffle hunters, truffle chefs, truffle eaters and hopeful owners of prospective truffle-hunting dogs.
Truffle-hunting training for dogs is a popular “track” of the three-day festival. Any dog can be trained to sniff out the location of ripe native truffles, so the hunters can dig the few inches underground to find truffles nestled in the roots of Douglas fir trees. According to Lefevre, trained dogs will make all the difference in building an Oregon truffle industry, because they only go for the ripe ones. The reputation of Oregon truffles has been less than stellar because some hunters rake or dig up unripe truffles, which have no culinary value, and sell them to chefs.
Lefevre received his doctorate in forest mycology from Oregon State University. Scott produced the Oregon Country Fair for 17 years. Both were co-authors, along with forest mycologist David Pilz and horticulturist James Julian, of the truffle industry feasibility study.
Lefevre also is founder and president of New World Truffieres, a company that plants truffieres, that is, orchards of hazelnut and oak trees whose roots are inoculated with the spores of European truffles, most commonly the French black truffle known as the Perigord. After a period of usually five to seven years, black truffles, worth from $600 to $1,100 per pound, will be ripe for the digging. (By comparison, Oregon truffles rarely fetch more than $250 per pound because the paucity of trained truffle dogs leaves the harvest sub-standard.)
// Photo by Leah Nash
To date, Lefevre has planted about a dozen truffieres in Oregon, and many in other states. One of his customers is Jim Bernau, founder and president of Willamette Valley Vineyards. Bernau recently hired Lefevre to plant three acres of truffle trees on land near Tualatin. He serves on the Oregon Truffle Festival’s advisory board and his winery is a longtime festival sponsor.
Bernau also bankrolled the 2009 feasibility study because he felt the nascent truffle industry needed the sort of guidance that Ted Casteel’s popular tome, Oregon Winegrape Growers’ Guide, provided early Oregon winemakers. As far as he’s concerned, Oregon wine and Oregon truffles go hand in hand. “The pairing of pinot noir and truffle-infused food is just perfect,” says Bernau. “They’re meant to be with each other.”
From a tourism standpoint, truer words were never spoken. To Holly MacFee, Travel Oregon’s vice president for Global Brand Strategy, the pairing of Oregon wine and Oregon truffles is a winning proposition for the state. “We’re lucky to have truffles because they really do elevate our reputation as a culinary destination,” she says.
The state does its part to promote the truffle industry through advertising, such as the 15-second spot filmed by Wieden+Kennedy as part of Travel Oregon’s Oregon Bounty campaign that features a truffle hunter and his dog seeking fungal treasures in the forest. Oregon truffles also will be featured at Feast Portland, a food event already getting national attention that’s planned for Sept. 20-23. Mike Thelin, one of the event organizers, says local truffles will impress attendees of the keystone event on Sept. 22, “Porklandia.”
“When people come from other places, they know we have pinot, they know we have pork, they know we have beer, they know we have great chef talent,” says Thelin. “And then they find out, oh, you have truffles too? It’s like, does it ever end? What’s next? Local bananas and pineapple?”
Above: Jack Czarnecki, retired chef of the Joel Palmer House restaurant, now hunts Oregon white truffles near his Dundee home to make all-natural Oregon Truffle Oil.
Below: Czarnecki uses a mild olive oil as the base for his truffle oil, which he recommends for flavoring butter, cheese, meat, creamy pasta sauces, risotto–even pizza.
// Photos by Leah Nash
Mushrooms, another prized food in Oregon’s cornucopia, attracted Eric Lyon to Oregon from Minnesota 10 years ago. But about six years ago he switched to the more lucrative truffles. Now he’s one of only three commercial truffle hunters in Oregon who work with truffle hunting dogs. Lyon trains his dogs to recognize the distinctive odor of a ripe truffle and indicate the location of the buried treasure. Lyon digs up the truffles and sells them to restaurant chefs and other customers.
Lyon, who lives in Portland, operates a flooring business during late spring and summer, when the demand for truffles recedes. But he’s looking to build up his truffle business by partnering with wineries that will prepare lunch for truffle hunters after Lyon and his dog have led a hunt in forests on winery property. Another possible boost for his business is a TV reality show. He says he’s in talks with a Hollywood production company about a show called The Truffle Hunters, featuring him and Eugene truffle hunter Toby Esthay.
The truffle hunter who really deserves the title is Jack Czarnecki. Although OSU mycologists had been studying Oregon truffles for decades, he was probably the first person to really put them on the map. Already regarded as a fungi expert from his James Beard Award-winning cookbook A Cook’s Book of Mushrooms, Czarnecki sold his restaurant in Pennsylvania and moved to Oregon in 1997, just to get his hands on all the native mushrooms and truffles. Until 2007, when he turned the kitchen over to his son Christopher, Czarnecki was the chef of the Joel Palmer House Restaurant in Dayton. His kitchen was the pulpit from which he spread the Oregon truffle gospel far and wide. Now he makes and sells Oregon Truffle Oil from Oregon white truffles he finds himself.
“There is no reason why the Oregon truffle industry shouldn’t soar,” says Czarnecki. “I’m doing my part to increase the profile of Oregon truffles, because I think they’re absolutely magnificent. They’re just amazing and beguiling.”
Czarnecki sells Oregon Truffle Oil at his website, OregonTruffleOil.com.
// Photo by Leah Nash
Scott says it was Czarnecki who gave her and Lefevre the idea of putting on a truffle festival. They were having dinner with friends at the Joel Palmer House and eating dishes that featured Oregon truffles, of course. “Jack said truffles were a regional phenomenon that could make this a culinary destination. He said, ‘This part of the Willamette Valley could be the next Tuscany or Provence.’”
Still, says Lefevre, in spite of the fact that the wholesale price of Oregon native truffles has doubled since he and Scott founded their festival, it’s hard to measure the industry, and because most truffle hunters are fiercely independent, organizing them would be akin to herding cats. The best way to gauge the growing strength of the industry, he says, is by seeing how the lure of truffles affects the state’s economy as a whole.
The value of the Oregon truffle industry is spread widely, he says, from harvesters and buyers in rural communities where truffles grow in natural forests, to farmers who will produce truffles in orchards, to restaurants and to hotels where truffle tourists stay.
“I don’t see a down-side to promoting them,” says Lefevre. “We predict that the up-side could eventually be on par with the scale of our current wine industry.”
Susan G. Hauser is a Portland journalist. Reach her at [email protected].