Truffle expert keeps nose to grindstone in Oregon


POSTED: Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Humans, despite our opposable thumbs and swiftly ticking brains, are lacking in some things. For example, the olfactory skill to detect a truffle at its prime.

Dogs and pigs can do this, making them the primary truffle hunters in Europe, able to sniff out a prime specimen just below ground, just as it's ripe and ready.

Humans, who mostly hunt truffles with rakes that comb the surface of the ground, tend to go by visual clues, and in Oregon that means the native truffle is often harvested too early.

“;So the Oregon truffle has gained an inferior reputation,”; said Charles K. Lefevre, owner of New World Truffieres, an Oregon firm that specializes in the cultivation of edible fungi, particularly the truffle.

Lefevre said 300 species of truffles grow in Oregon, of which three are culinary delicacies—the spring white, winter white and a black truffle. “;The supply in Oregon is enormous.”;

This is a valuable fact because truffles are a valuable substance. A prime French specimen can sell for more than $1,000 per pound. A domestic industry would have a built-in market among chefs and gourmands who prize the truffle's deep, unmistakable aroma and the expensive essence it gives to food.

Building such an industry in the Pacific Northwest is two-pronged: Harvesting native truffles and cultivating the French black truffle, tuber melanosporum.

Lefevre is involved in both enterprises. His company supplies seedlings inoculated with the black-truffle fungus to farms in various parts of the country. As the trees grow, the truffles grow amid their roots, and in five years are ready for harvest.

Truffles are being produced in small numbers in Northern California and Tennessee, he said, and efforts are being made in other parts of the country as well.

In Oregon, 50 farms have been established, some of them ready to harvest this year, Lefevre said. Steady production from these farms, he said, will be the next “;huge leap forward”; for the industry.

Perfecting harvesting techniques also is crucial, as it is for hunting truffles in the wild.

Like a tomato, a truffle can be picked before its prime and allowed to ripen, but it will never be as good as one that is allowed to ripen on the vine (in the case of the tomato) or in the earth (the truffle).

This brings us back to the pigs and dogs. Of the two, dogs are preferred. For one thing, they don't try to eat the truffles, the way pigs do. “;And pigs are huge,”; Lefevre said. “;They don't fit very well in the back seat of your car.”;

At this weekend's Oregon Truffle Festival, Lefevre will be bringing in a pair of trained truffle dogs who will sniff out mature specimens in the wild and at local farms.

It's not that hard to teach a dog to identify the truffle scent, he said, but it does take serious training to get them to focus and hunt for hours at a time.

“;The lore and tradition that has developed over thousands of years in Europe hasn't developed here yet.”;