Truffles are one of the highest-priced ingredients available, earning one variety the nickname of “black diamond.” These prized ingredients are hard to come by naturally, difficult to cultivate, and require the help of some four-legged friends to harvest, all of which comes together to drive the prices up. However, the earthy aroma they give off is coveted by diners, so some chefs go to great lengths to obtain them.
What is a Truffle?
Truffles are the fruit of a type of fungus that grows exclusively underground, most often found on or near the roots of well-established trees. There are more than 200 species of truffle, but not all of them are edible and most of the ones that are only grow in Europe. When a truffle is harvested, its appearance is unassuming, akin to a dirt-encrusted rock. Once it’s cleaned off, it’s still hard to see the appeal. Some truffle varieties look almost scaled, with a rough texture on a black exterior that makes them look a bit like a dog’s nose. Others are white to light brown and have a smoother exterior, resembling a piece of raw ginger. They can range in size from as small as a marble to as large as a golf ball, with some remarkable specimens growing even larger (and usually selling for thousands).
So what makes these fungi so desired in the kitchen? Most chefs claim it’s less about the flavor than it is the scent. The flavor is often described as earthy, with hints of garlic and mushroom (and gasoline and fruit and even “lost youth and old love affairs,” depending on who you ask), but the scent is what chefs and farmers alike judge each piece by. This method of determining a truffle’s quality is difficult because, from the moment the truffle is picked, it begins to lose both water weight and scent, with about half of the scent dissipating by the 5-day mark.
With the aroma dissipating so quickly, time is of the essence in serving truffles, which makes things difficult for those of us in the states who want to enjoy European-grown truffles. The truffle variety most highly prized by chefs is the Italian white truffle, which is also called the winter white truffle, a nod to its growing season, and Alba or Piedmont truffle after the region in which it grows. These are the most heavily scented truffles available, but their scent also dissipates the fastest. The winter black truffle, also known as the Périgord truffle, is most commonly found in France and is one of the most sought-after ingredients in the world. These have a more subtle scent, but it lasts longer, making them more suitable for shipping long distances.
Fields of Import
Because truffles lose their aroma so quickly, using them within a few days of harvest is essential. This puts American chefs at a disadvantage, since it takes several days for imported truffles to make it to their restaurants. This dichotomy is what has made Pat Long’s sudden success in cultivating Périgord truffles in Corvallis, Ore., so exciting.
“If it’s picked in France and shipped over here and goes between a couple middle-men, it might be four or five days before it gets here,” says Long. “Last year we went to a couple different restaurants, and the restaurants are certainly excited to be able to get the truffle fresh. The fact that we can pick it and deliver it on the same day is a huge advantage to the chefs here.”
Long stumbled into cultivating truffles almost by accident. After being raised in a farming family, he turned to a career in veterinary work, but his past caught up to him when he moved onto a large parcel of land.
“I was certainly the black sheep of the family by going to vet school and becoming a veterinarian,” he explains. “In 1996, we moved to a place that had about 50 acres here, so I knew I wanted to do something with that.”
Long leased the majority of his land out to a local farmer, then considered what to do with the few acres he had left.
“I recognized that with the small acreage I had, I had to have a niche crop. With a small acreage you can’t justify all the equipment it takes to grow the crops that normally grow here.”
Long’s continuing work in his veterinary practice made things slightly more difficult. He needed a crop that was low-maintenance and could be harvested over time, instead of the short two- to three-week period that other local crops like blueberries and strawberries offer.
“I happened to be sitting on an airplane reading a magazine back in, oh, ’98 [or] ’99, and there was an article about truffles,” says Long. “There was a guy named Franklin Garland in North Carolina, and they were interviewing him. It caught my eye because his claim was that they grow best at about the 45th parallel, which I happen to live on, and that the world’s experts on mycology are at Oregon State University. I thought, ‘Gee, everything’s aligning.’ They grow underground [and] are high value. You’ve got a couple of months there, mid-November ’til first of March, to harvest them, and that’s kind of a slower time in my veterinary practice. So I went to Oregon State and the man they referenced, Dr. Jim Trappe, was on sabbatical, but he hooked me up with one of his grad students, Charles Lefevre. He inoculated some trees for me and I planted them in 2000.”
For most crops, you can plan on harvesting the results of your work in a few months, but truffles are hardly a normal crop. Trees must be inoculated with the spores of the fungus, then the trees must be planted in favorable soil and left to grow, usually for at least six to seven years. Long’s wait was two times that.
“I had a pretty busy veterinary practice and I didn’t pay as much attention to the trees as I should have the first few years, and it set me back because I wasn’t taking care of them as well as I should. Then, about six years ago now we found our first truffle, and of course that started piquing my interest. From there, we’ve increased production every year. We’re certainly not to hundreds of pounds a year yet, but we are getting more truffles each year.”
Long isn’t the first person to successfully grow Périgord truffles in America. There have been multiple truffle successes in the southeast, including Tom Michaels and Tom Leonard, both in East Tennessee, and Garland, the North Carolina farmer who inspired Long to start his orchard. However, each of these farms had their trees wiped out by the Eastern Filbert Blight, a fungus that is lethal to the trees used to grow truffles and is common in the Eastern United States. Long’s location makes this outcome unlikely for his farm, which has led to quite a bit of excitement in both the truffle and culinary communities for the success he is currently seeing.
As the availability of European truffles has dwindled, a fact often blamed on climate change, a focus has been put on alternative sources. While Long has worked to cultivate European truffles domestically, there are also a few native options. The North American Truffling Society was founded in 1978 with the intent of educating members about the types of truffles available in the United States. These truffles are mostly located in the Pacific Northwest, and for years were considered barely edible by most chefs.
“For many years, the Oregon truffles were considered not as valuable in the culinary world, because people would go out with rakes in the forest and just rake them up, so they would get immature ones, as well as mature,” says Long. “Charles [Lefevre] has really promoted the use of dogs. There’s less damage to the forest floor, and we get ripe truffles, which translates into now Oregon truffles are quite high on the culinary list for many fine chefs.”
Lefevre, who inoculated Long’s trees while still in grad school, later went on to found New World Truffieres, a company that inoculates trees for truffle cultivation and assists with that process. He also began a festival focused on these underground delicacies.
The Oregon Truffle Festival was founded in 2006, and features multiple truffle-based dinners, a truffle marketplace, the Joriad&tm; North American Truffle Dog Championship, and foraging events. The event has grown each year, with attendees coming from around the world to experience truffles native to the American northwest.