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The Fungus Among Us

The cold, rich earth of the Pacific Northwest harbors a superb culinary secret—the Oregon truffle. Its gamy glory, now championed by local chefs, provides landowners with a powerful incentive to restore forest habitat.

By Jessica Maxwell
Photograph by Victoria Pearson

A truffle dog like Katie beats relying on a rake alone. She detects the musk of truffles, but unlike pigs, won't actually eat them.

Looking for a black truffle in the brown earth of a dark forest is like a treasure hunt for the blind. that is why i was on my knees, digging with my hands, beside Connie Getz. Connie is blind. She is also a truffle savant, able to detect the sexy über-musk of a wild truffle at 20 paces. she had sniffed definite eau de truffle where we were now digging.

Connie is married to premier truffle hunter John Getz. Getz had no idea his wife was such an olfactory talent until she accompanied him on a recent outing to test his mother's dog, Katie, a piebald mixed breed that appears to be a cross between a Jack Russell terrier and Dame Edna. Katie's basic training included finding truffles John had hidden around his house. It took her three minutes to locate her first in situ truffle once she entered the woods.

Moments later, Connie smelled truffle, too.

"It's like someone's holding a truffle under my nose," she told her husband.

Katie made leaky-balloon noises and began pawing at the soil between Connie's shoes. John saw that his wife was standing directly over a hole surrounded by truffle chips, left by a small mammal that had eaten its fill and fled. All of which would be interesting, but rather de rigueur, had they been truffle hunting in France or Italy. But Connie, Katie, and John were in Oregon, on property planted with Douglas firs, about 30 miles from the Pacific Coast. They were scouting for Leucangium carthusianum, the powerful but virtually undiscovered Oregon black truffle known to a handful of scientists and chefs as "little gods."

Oregon also has three species of heavenly white truffles (until recently, assumed to be just one), though even most Oregonian foodies don't know their state's forest floor holds such culinary buried treasure. Nor that the northern flying squirrel shares their epicurean tastes. Squirrels eat truffles, which deliver nutrients to trees, and northern spotted owls eat squirrels. Truffles are as valuable to the woodland food chain as they are to high-end restaurants. And harvested intelligently, they become an excellent incentive to protect important wildlife habitat.


I had driven to this privately owned truffle patch with Charles Lefevre, president of the North American Truffling Society and founder of New World Truffieres, a company that is developing trees inoculated with Oregon truffle spores to sell to landowners. Lefevre holds a Ph.D. in mycology from Oregon State University and was declared the world expert on Oregon truffles at the Fifth International Truffle Congress in Aix-en-Provence, France, in 1999.

"Actually, Jim Trappe is," Lefevre insisted, laughing. "But he refers everyone to me so they don't interrupt his truffle research."

All Oregon truffle queries do seem to lead to Lefevre's mentor, James Trappe, an internationally recognized truffle expert and professor emeritus in the Department of Forest Science at Oregon State University. Trappe was due to meet us in the woods soon, accompanied by a convoy of Russian businessmen with truffle profits on their minds.

"Truffles grow everywhere," Lefevre explained, "even Siberia." While no truffle varieties are known to be toxic to humans, most aren't good to eat. The Provençal black Périgord truffle and the Italian white Alba are, of course, notable exceptions: This haute cuisine royalty retails for upwards of $1,300 and $3,000 per pound, respectively. The American South has recently discovered what's called the "pecan truffle," which Lefevre claimed is "very good." There is even a desert truffle that grows under the sand in much of the Middle East. "It's bready, yeasty, and shows up in the Lebanese market by the truckload," he added.

Of the 30 Northwest truffle species, just three—two whites and a black—are harvested commercially. They fruit only west of the Cascade Mountains, from Vancouver Island to San Francisco Bay, only below 2,000 feet, and always in association with Douglas fir trees.

When the state's long-established coterie of mushroom pickers learned in the 1980s that truffles can fetch them four times what mushrooms do, a sylvan gold rush ensued. "It was like finding twenty-dollar bills lying around on the forest floor," Lefevre said. Neo–truffle hunters didn't know—or care—that truffles must be mature and ripe to be any good, and the majority of them still don't. An Oregon truffle taken before its time has the aromatic allure of an old carrot. As a result, most chefs remain underwhelmed.

Happily, though, a handful have cracked the culinary code of the beleaguered fungus to which timing really is everything. "Ripe Oregon truffles transform the simplest dish to something sublime," says Stephanie Pearl Kimmel, chef-owner of Marché in Eugene. "Their earthiness, that smoky darkness—they express the Northwest winter so beautifully."

Oregon truffles have become a festive fixture on the winter menus of local restaurants specializing in regional cuisine. Chef-owner Greg Higgins at Higgins in downtown Portland is a devotee, as is Jack Czarnecki, who runs the Joel Palmer House restaurant, a sumptuous ode to Oregon fungi in the heart of the state's wine country.

Upon trying her first Oregon black truffle, Audrey McRae, French-trained chef at San Francisco's Virgin Atlantic Airways Clubhouse, replied, "My mentor Chef Didi would have my head, but Oregon truffles rival the French!"

Philippe Boulot is French. As executive chef at Portland's famed Heathman Restaurant, he purchases "hundreds of pounds" of Oregon truffles a year. Boulot prefers to infuse Oregon blacks in pinot noir and port sauce, which "bring zee flavor like crazy." Oregon truffles are a gift from the earth, he concludes. "There ees nothing more beautiful."

Shaved over pasta or a hot leek tart, ripe Oregon truffles are downright swoon-inducing. Whites confer a glorious earthy gaminess known to send restaurant diners into fits of hand flapping. Oregon blacks emit a sweet apple-pineapple musk that invokes visions of making love in a Hawaiian peat bog.

"Ripe, mature Oregon truffles are like sex," Lefevre promised. "You can't get enough of them."

The sexual allure of the Oregon truffle is no accident. It is, in fact, a brilliant trompe le nez designed to lull us into private erotic reverie when we are really being used for the truffle's own reproductive purposes.

"Truffles are just spore balls," explained Lefevre. "They're the fruiting bodies of mycorrhizal fungi. Unlike mushrooms, they depend solely on animals to disperse their spores. They have to seduce us!"

Not that we mammals are tough customers. Bears eat truffles. So do elk, deer, and all of the small forest mammals, especially the northern flying squirrel, the main prey of the northern spotted owl. The diet of the California red-backed vole consists entirely of truffles.

"Mostly, I just look for animal signs," John Getz confided. "Animals smell truffles and go straight for 'em. You can see little truffle chips by the holes they dig."

Fast and lithe, even while carrying a long rake, Getz moved through the forest like a cat. Katie the Truffle Terrier, on the other hand, was pure canine. She raced excitedly from one tree to the next, nostrils flared, pupils dilated, thin aching whines directed at every promising scent.

"That's what truffles do to you," Getz said, shaking his head. "They're addictive."

"They're good with salmon, too," Lefevre offered. "And good for salmon. There's a stream just down that little hill that's loaded with coho. If this land is kept as a truffle patch, the trees will help keep the stream cool enough for salmon, and provide logs that create pools for them. Last week I watched coho jump up a waterfall made by a fallen log right over there."

When Trappe and the Russians showed up an hour later, none of us had found a single truffle, despite Katie's boundless enthusiasm and our seemingly endless raking. Light raking, and we took care to push the earth back into place afterward. Unfortunately, most commercial truffle hunters don't do either, and many trespass on private land.

"Ninety percent of pickers commit rake rape," reports Kathy Patterson, a truffle broker and owner of The Mushroom Patch in Lyons, Oregon. "I've been in the business since the '80s, and it's only gotten worse." Like MycoLogical in Eugene, Patterson buys solely from ecologically aware hunters like John Getz.

"When I see what other truffle hunters do to the woods," Getz said, "it really rips my heart out."

He had stopped to regard the beauty around him when Jim Trappe suddenly emerged from between two large firs, his beard glowing white in the low light of the forest. Behind him were the Russians, men in a post-Soviet interpretation of "sporty casual," their wives in short skirts and spike heels that hung up on every fallen branch. Trappe looked like a modern Gandalf leading a flock of 1950s tourists into the Lost Forest.

"Jim!" Lefevre hollered with a wave. "Over here!"

"Anything?" Trappe asked back.

"Not yet," Lefevre added with a touch of embarrassment.

"I keep getting little whiffs," Connie offered, poking the end of her cane into the earth and sniffing its tip.

Trappe nodded and informed the translator, who informed the Russians. One hitched a chin toward John Getz and asked how he got interested in truffles.

"Oh, I always liked mushrooms," Getz replied. "Even though my first wife wouldn't let me go into the woods."

The Russians snorted.

"But Connie loves truffle hunting," Getz added, smiling at his wife, angelic-looking in the arboreal light. "And you can make three or four times what you make picking mushrooms."

The translator translated; the Russians nodded.

"You eat trooffles?" one inquired.

"Oh, yeah," Getz replied. "We eat more than we sell!"

The Russians stabbed halfheartedly at the earth with fallen branches as their wives clung to their arms for dear life. Trappe continued to offer up scientific information in his pleasant, rapid-fire voice; the translator scrambled to keep up.

"Flying-squirrel remains are found in the stomachs of bobcats and coyotes," he said. "Why? By radio-tracking squirrels at night, we found they leave the treetops and glide to the ground to dig for truffles."

Do bears really eat truffles? I wanted to know.

"We once looked at a mess of bear scat under the microscope—it was 100 percent truffle spores."

What about birds?

"In Australia I once fed eight truffles to a yellow robin."

Trees have an especially close relationship with truffles, which are, in fact, the result of an ecological handshake called a mycorrhiza. Under the microscope, mycorrhizae look like corn dogs, explained Lefevre. Thinking of it as such, the tree root would be the hot dog and the fungus would be the batter.

Filaments from the mycorrhizae tap the soil for nutrients and water, then translocate those to the tree. In return, trees supply the fungi with sugars. Because of this symbiotic relationship, trees don't die an early death, and mycorrhizae happily produce truffles.

The fire of truffle science leapt in Charles Lefevre's eyes.

"Trees feed the truffles, which feed the squirrels, which feed the owls," he proclaimed, "and the squirrels and owls disperse the truffle spores, which make more truffles, which are necessary for trees to grow. It's one big feedback system. Each piece of the loop helps hold the system together, and all parts are absolutely dependent on each other."

So doesn't truffle hunting upset this delicate balance?

"Not if we make a point of pooping in the woods," Lefevre answered with a hoot-owl laugh.

"Seriously," he said, "truffle farming is a form of agriculture that restores health to the land." In Oregon, truffles give private landowners a good economic reason to turn old pasture and farmland into patches of Douglas fir, Lefevre goes on. Truffle farmers can harvest 100 pounds of truffles per acre each winter. At about $100 a pound, that's $10,000 an acre every year.

Truffle farming also shifts land-use practices away from those that erode the soil and pollute the air and water with chemicals to practices that can save salmon streams, create wildlife habitat, and eventually become a thriving forest. "When truffles are harvested and sold by enlightened brokers like Kathy Patterson, and Jim Wells and Owen Rice at MycoLogical," Lefevre concluded, "then the circle really is complete."

Trappe smiled at his passionate protégé. "The truth is," he added, "clear-cutting has a much more profound effect on the environment than all our truffle harvesting combined."


After 45 minutes in the woods, the Russians were ready to leave. "No trooffle," one of them declared with a shrug. Trappe led them all back out to their bus. Five minutes later Connie smelled truffle.

"Here, John, here!" she called out. "Right here!"

Katie began to whine and dig furiously in the earth in front of Connie's toes. Connie dropped to her knees, and so did I.

Four feet to our left, Charles Lefevre got The Fever, and began raking frantically beneath a particularly pretty fir.

"I just have a feeling . . ." he breathed.

Connie and I dug barehanded alongside Katie, whose whining approached warp speed. The earth felt cold and rich in my hands, its scent infused with truffle.

"Ooh, do you smell it?!" Connie cried.

I certainly did.

None of us can remember who hit pay dirt first. I think it was Lefevre, who pulled out a lemon-size black truffle moments before Connie's prize revealed itself: another perfect truffle, the size of a big peach.

"Is it a truffle, John? Is it?"

"Yes, sweetie. You found your first truffle. It's a beauty, too."

The forest gave us 20 truffles that day, from kumquat-size babies to Connie's fabulous orb. To tell the truth, they all looked exactly like dirt clods—until I held them in my hand. Globular and truly black, their heft was startling; their heady perfume, even fresh from the earth, almost shocking.

"Now you understand why only Catholic countries worship truffles," Lefevre said finally. "They're dark and hidden, mysterious and sensual. Sometimes I wonder if truffles were the real forbidden fruit. And to think that most Oregonians have them growing in their own backyards, and don't even know it."



 

© 2005 National Audubon Society


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MycoLogical Natural Products in Eugene (888-465-3247) will FedEx eco-friendly Oregon truffles virtually anywhere. You can generally order white truffles from December to February, and black truffles until April; spring whites are available from early June to mid-July. MycoLogical also offers frozen truffles year-round. To celebrate truffles in their native state, check out the first annual Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene, February 17, 2005. The celebration will include meals featuring Oregon truffles, as well as educational events, cooking demonstrations, and forays with truffle dogs in the beautiful Willamette Valley. For information, refer to the North American Truffling Society website at www.natruffling.org, or Charles Lefevre's website at www.truffletree.com.