Truffles 101

There’s a fungus among us, thanks to a handful of dedicated scientists who have once again proved the can-do American spirit. This time, it’s all about domestic truffles. The word “truffle” comes from the Latin term tuber, which means “lump.” And what a luxe lump it is!

There’s a fungus among us, thanks to a handful of dedicated scientists who have once again proved the can-do American spirit. This time, it’s all about domestic truffles. The word “truffle” comes from the Latin term tuber, which means “lump.” And what a luxe lump it is!

Originally, truffles only grew in the wild. Science trumped nature once Oregon State University became the hotbed of truffle study in the U.S. When plant pathologist Dr. Tom Michaels was at OSU writing his dissertation on the potential cultivation of the black French Perigord truffle, he never guessed that within a decade he would be the biggest producer in the U.S. Not only is his yield the biggest, his Perigords received the taste stamp of approval from the likes of chefs Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller and Jonathan Waxman.

When it comes to truffles, those earthy diamonds are not only a girl’s best friend — men, flying squirrels and sows covet them too. Truffles are underground mushrooms that come black and white, and these days, foreign and domestic.

The white Alba is the most sought after, priciest truffle in the world. Although it has yet to be cultivated, preeminent mycologist Dr. Charles Lefevre hopes that might change some day. Prized for its heavy, sensuous aroma, the Alba has been known to make grown men cry. You can bet the folks who had to fork over $6,000 to $10,000 a pound last year had tears running down their cheeks.

The Alba’s black counterpart is the French Perigord, which sells for a modest $800 a pound. The good news is Perigord orchards are popping up across the U.S. It takes five to ten years for the truffles to appear. Well, they don’t really appear. They don’t break the soil so they have to be found by an animal with a good nose. Nature helps out by providing ripe truffles with a musky, aphrodesial scent.

Once trufflers discovered that pigs go crazy after one whiff, they leashed that sexual energy and made them co-conspirators. The problem is that pigs like to eat truffles as much as humans. And guess who usually wins in a wrestling match involving a 250-pound, sex-crazed sow?

These days, canines trained to the scent have replaced pigs. For a pat on the head and a dog biscuit, they are happy to hand over their bounty.

When it comes to luxe truffles, caveat emptor — at every level. To counter lesser black mushroom wannabes getting mixed in with Perigords, Lefevre even verifies the DNA of every spore inoculated into his New World Truffieres seedlings, which are sold to prospective truffle farmers.

At the purveyor level, finding a good commercial source is a top priority too. Oregon truffles still haven’t recovered from the bad rap they got when greedy gatherers overzealously raked up and pawned off tasteless immature truffles along with the good mature ones.

Lefevre feels the only way to get Oregon truffles back on track is to shift to exclusive use of trained dogs who sniff out only mature truffles. That practice would both save the habitat and insure the quality of all truffles.

However, tradition dies hard. Oregon truffles often grow on public land. As it is now, anyone can walk into a Douglas fir forest and help themselves to truffles. No experience necessary, just a rake and a basket. Chef, biologist and wild mushroom expert Jack Czarnecki wants to keep it that way for locals.

From an executive chef’s point of view, Ciudad’s Jeremy Tummel expects consistency. “We like to buy local (well, Oregon is more local than France),” he tells me. Tummel uses Oregon blacks in his Uruguay beef carpaccio and also serves them in up a killer roasted tomato relleno.

L.A. chef Gary Menes got turned on to Oregon truffles in 1995 when he was working at Patina. Before recently opening Marche in Sherman Oaks, he used them at the French Laundry and Palate in Glendale. Menes’ reliable local source is David West of Clearwater Farms at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. “Most of my customers are home cooks who depend on my judgment,” said West. “I don’t market any truffles until Thanksgiving. That way I know they’re mature.”

At $15 an ounce, there’s a niche for Oregon truffles to become everyman’s treat—fungi for all! Using dogs could straighten out inconsistencies. Then all domestic truffles would be on their way to becoming world-class gems.

TO STORE AND RIPEN TUFFLES: After washing and drying, place truffles refrigerated in a sealed container with paper towels in it, glass is best. Only mature truffles can be ripened. A newly harvested truffle may have no aroma even if it is mature. To ripen, wash it with water and a brush. Dry with a paper towel. It takes from 1 to 5 days to ripen. You will know when it’s ripe from the aroma and flavor. A favorite thing to do with a fresh truffle is to infuse the seductive scent into eggs, rice or even popcorn. Make an omelet with the flavored eggs and shave some of the truffle on top. Double duty!

TO BE CERTAIN to get the exact truffle you want, always use the Latin name for it. (See description below)

OREGON WHITE (Tuber oregonense, also commonly called winter white. Season November through February. T. gibbosum known as spring white is often used interchangeably. Season February to June) grows from British Columbia to San Diego. Has a musky, mild aroma of butter, fresh-roasted hazelnuts, and dried morels with a hint of garlic. Loses aroma with heat so add at end of cooking or raw, shaved over finished dish.

OREGON BLACK TRUFFLE (Leucangium carthusiana. Season November through March) has a pungent, earthy odor when ripe—a strange mix or pineapple, mushrooms and chocolate. Blacks can withstand heat and are found in everything from garnishes, cooked foods and even desserts!

New World Truffieres, Dr. Charles Lefevre,, 541-513-4176

Garland Truffles, Franklin Garland,, 919-732-3041

Santa Monica Farmers’ Market, David West of Clearwater Farms, 310-828-9620, Season December through March.


Oregon Truffle Festival, January 29-31, 2010, in Eugene, Oregon,

National Truffle Fest, March 3-6, 2010, in Ashville, N.C.,

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