Story & Photos By Jen Matteis for EDN
Although we were down to the last hours, an eclectic mix of gourmands, chefs, mycologists and truffle-savvy shoppers still crowded the tables at the Oregon Truffle Festival’s Marketplace. Eight wineries and more than 30 vendors are offering samples of everything from cheese to chocolate, tea, coffee, wine and baked goods, but the truffle is the true focus of this event, now in its seventh year.
The Marketplace is the final event of the three-day festival, which took place last weekend at The Hilton Eugene. Named one of the top ten food festivals in the country by Liveability.com, the festival featured a truffle foray, recipe contest, truffle breakfast and cooking demonstrations, culminating with Saturday evening’s five-course Grand Truffle Dinner which seated almost 300 people.
At Sunday’s Marketplace, an entry cost of $15 ($20 includes wine tastings) grants passage to an avenue of free samples, including truffle oil, truffle-flavored vinegar, truffle-flavored cream cheese and even chocolates infused with truffle flavor. This whirlwind of flavors and scents introduces the newcomer to the full possibilities offered by Oregon’s truffle industry. The Pacific Northwest is home to several varieties of truffles, notably the Oregon black truffle (Leucangium carthusianum) and the Oregon white truffle (Tuber oregonense), both of which grow beneath Douglas fir trees.
Near the Marketplace entrance, truffle expert Dr. Charles Lefevre greets festival-goers with a display of French, Oregon and Chinese truffles. Lefevre, who owns French truffle farms (known as truffières) in Oregon and California, founded the festival with his wife, Leslie Scott. Despite the late hour, Lefevre is surrounded by a lively audience interested in the differences between the celebrated French truffle, which sells for almost $70 per ounce and the Oregon black truffle. Our native truffle doesn’t carry the same price tag, but its scent, according to Lefevre, is superior. Others agree. In his blind taste tests, native truffles dominated the expensive imports.
With a proper system of quality control, grading, and more use of truffle dogs–who locate ripe truffles rather than the immature specimens often found by raking–he believes that the Oregon truffle industry has much potential. The festival’s purpose is to celebrate these often under-appreciated truffles, particularly in a culture that is becoming more centered around the French truffle as technology enables its cultivation across the United States. Eugene in particular, with its history of truffle research and its location in a vibrant artisan food industry, is in a position to become an important center for truffles.
“There’s sort of a race to become that truffle capital,” Lefevre said. “Because of our legacy of truffle research and our native truffles, it’s on some level ours to lose.”
Although words used to describe them include pungent, musky, garlicky and earthy, there’s really nothing like the smell of the Oregon black truffle. Grated raw onto foods, even a tiny amount lends a distinctive flavor to a dish. The quality varies according to the truffle’s ripeness, according to another expert, Jack Czarnecki.
“Truffles are like little biochemical factories,” he said. “They’re always changing.”
The Marketplace isn’t all about food. For those interested in growing truffles, you could consult a truffle cultivation specialist such as Aaron Kennel of New World Truffières, Inc. Truffle-hunting dogs are another big attraction at the festival.
“We’re training lots of people to train their dogs,” said Lefevre.
I spot a speckled, friendly-looking dog across the Marketplace and make a beeline. Sure enough, it’s a truffle-hunting dog, Crystal, trained by her owner Bill Freese with truffle oil starting at seven weeks old. Freese reported that Crystal met with great success on the festival’s foray.
“She found truffles within a minute of entering the woods,” he said.
I’m not sure I’ll ever own a truffle dog, but for now I check back with my fiancé to see what he’s scrounged up at the Marketplace. He’s also met with success, and we head home with a small brown paper bag replete with truffle oil, truffle butter and goat cheese.