by Mattie John Bamman | Photo © Oregon Truffle Festival
Black and white truffles are some of the world’s most expensive delicacies, and until recently, many believed that culinary-quality truffles grew exclusively in France and Italy. In fact, a lot of misinformation has surrounded truffles, but this much is sure: The Oregon truffle industry is booming, and what was once nearly impossible to obtain is now locally available.
Fundamentally, truffles are a type of fungi. Dr. Charles Lefevre, a forest mycologist and founder of the Oregon Truffle Festival, points out that there are important differences between truffles. “Oregon black truffles are the most popular among chefs,” he says. “They have tropical fruit and chocolate aromas. White truffles are much more earthy; the European variety has an almost animal-musk aroma.”
As strange as “animal-musk” might sound, it was this flavor-quality that sold me on white truffles years ago. The scent is evasive but unforgettable. I’ve never found it in another culinary ingredient. In the best cases, it appears and disappears so suddenly that it can make my heart skip. What was that flavor? Words fail. And it’s better that way.
Researchers at Oregon State University have studied truffles for around 100 years, but food lovers didn’t notice Oregon’s native truffles until 1976, when chef James Beard famously proclaimed them as good as European truffles. Like European truffles, Oregon truffles are used in simple dishes, such as fresh pastas or omelets. The fewer distractions the better, because the beautiful aromas of truffles seem always one step ahead of the senses.
If you’ve ever tried the white truffle oil found on grocery store shelves, you’ve gotten a misleading taste. Sad but true—most white truffle oils are made with 2,4-dithiapentane, a compound that can be manufactured in labs. The organic compound is found naturally in Italian and Croatian white truffles, but it is only one of hundreds of odorants that influence truffle aroma and flavor. Accordingly, white truffle oils offer not only a synthetic-chemical but a one-dimensional version of white truffles, and they’re causing misconceptions about what white truffles actually taste like.
Oregon white truffles do not contain 2,4-dithiapentane, so you have to push white truffle oil out of your mind when you taste them. Peak season for Oregon white winter truffles is January-February, and black truffles can be purchased year-round, though they are best April-May. White truffles retail for around $35 an ounce, enough for a dinner for two, and black truffles cost slightly more. If you don’t find truffles in farmers markets or buy them at the Oregon Truffle Festival, Umami Truffle Dogs (umamitruffledogs.com) is a reliable seller.
To prepare a dish with truffles, you need two things: heat and fat. At home, to get the most out of your truffles, I recommend making a mushroom risotto and shaving fresh, ripe truffles atop the piping-hot dish right before serving.
James-Beard-award-winning author and founder of the Joel Palmer House Restaurant (joelpalmerhouse.com), Jack Czarnecki, suggests using a blender to combine truffles with olive oil and then briefly heating the oil to extract the aromas. Butter and cheese work well, too; just put butter or cheese with truffles in a bag to infuse them with flavor. Fascinatingly, Czarnecki has spent more than a decade attempting to perfect white and black truffle oils for retail and claims to use only fresh truffles and be able to preserve the aromas, or gases, of truffles. Czarnecki’s oils are worth sampling, and you can buy them year-round at oregontruffleoil.com.
Tickets sell out quickly for the Oregon Truffle Festival, which takes place January 15-18 and 23-25, 2015 (oregontrufflefestival.com).