Digging up the dirt on Oregon truffles

May 29, 2019 

The elusive truffle is like buried treasure. If only we had a map to guide us to them. The pungent yet marvelous aromas the ugly little culinary nuggets emit — mustiness, garlic, earth, sweat — don’t sound or look appealing. But these gems of the kitchen are expensive and highly sought-after for a reason; they make even the simplest egg or pasta dish sing.

Like wine and other fine foods, truffles confer distinction to the farm and the area where they are produced, and like few other crops, they can be grown profitably on small acreages.

According to New World Truffieres’ mycologist, Dr. Charles Lefevre, “To cultivate truffles, inoculated truffle trees are planted in orchards much like those for fruits and nuts, except that the crop appears below ground and is usually harvested with the help of trained dogs or pigs that can smell the truffles through a layer of earth. Truffles begin to appear several years after the inoculated seedlings are planted, and production can continue for decades.”

While Oregon may have a long history of truffle research at Oregon State University, its truffle industry is still young and relatively undiscovered. Much like Oregon chanterelles, the few sources for wild truffles are limited, and harvesters who sell them are just as secretive about their source locations. A handful of wineries, however, are betting their hedges (or their vineyards) on Oregon truffles, designating valuable land to cultivate them, hoping they will take root.

Take for example Willamette Valley Vineyards (WVV), which has had a truffle patch on its property for at least 12 years, which is the earliest Winery Director Christine Claire can recall. Claire explains that originally, this patch was one of the hunting and dog competing sites for the annual Oregon Truffle Festival. The festival events have been centered in Eugene and Yamhill County more recently, so the winery hasn't hosted lately, but they are still actively harvesting truffles to use in their kitchen.

WVV had planned to use the truffle patch for education and in-house culinary adventure. Not only would it be a way to show wine tourists another reason why the Willamette Valley is so special, but also, since truffles are so perfectly paired with Pinot Noir, they could use them in their food pairings and share them with chefs whom they partner with for events and wine dinners.

But production in the farmed truffle orchards has been inconsistent. According to Claire, “Unfortunately, this year, with the dry and warm weather we had early this winter, our truffle patch did not produce as it has in years past, and we were disappointed. I hope this too isn't a climate change reality for the long haul as truffles in our valley seem to be more and more intriguing to travelers and chefs.”

About eight years ago, Willamette Valley Vineyards also inoculated their Tualatin Estate Vineyard. When they checked last year, they didn't find any, but they remain hopeful the site will be productive.

Bill Steele, owner and winemaker of Cowhorn Wines in the Applegate Valley of southern Oregon concurs. Last year, Steele said they found several truffles, albeit quite small. They changed their irrigation pattern and hope to find some later this year or earlier next. Steele says there is definitely a demand for Oregon truffles, “We’ve had several restaurants in the country say they will buy them if we can produce them. Our intent would be to sell them, but we would probably share some (if we are so lucky) with our wine club releases.”

Left Coast Estate near Salem is also farming them and has had a similar experience. They have four acres of filbert trees inoculated with Périgord truffles (tuber melanosporum) that were planted between 2008-2010.

According to Left Coast Hospitality Manager Will Craigie, “While no truffles were found this season, there are visual indicators in the orchard that there is truffle activity.” The approach has been intentionally hands-off, letting the trees grow and allowing the underground network of mycelium to form and create the appropriate conditions for truffles. The orchard is the appropriate age to begin some light encouragement for a productive truffle season next year.

“The goal is to have the truffles for use in our culinary program at Left Coast,” he said. “If we happen to have a bumper crop, I’m sure it won’t be hard to find a home for them.”

Steele says, “The idea to farm truffles started with our soil and our soil scientist Andy Gallagher. We did extensive testing of the soils and our most northeast block was virtually PH neutral naturally. Andy said it might be ideal for Périgord.” Steele and his wife Barb continued their research, went to the Truffle Festival in Eugene and then decided to give it a go.

They first planted Black Périgord truffles in 2008 using trees specifically for this purpose. They’ve done two plantings in total; the first was done with inoculated hazelnuts from New World Truffieres Inc., and last year they added inoculated oaks from Mycorrhizel Online out of Grants Pass. And though they’ve designated one acre specifically for truffles, Bill is clear to point out that they grow several things at Cowhorn besides just grapes; farming asparagus (8,000 pounds a year) and lavender (1,000 plants).

So, what exactly is a truffle?

Truffles are actually the fruit of a fungus that grows on the root of a tree. In simple terms, they’re mushrooms that have adapted to grow underground. According to Lefevre, there is a mutually beneficial relationship between the trees and truffles. The fungi forms a glove over the root tip of the tree, drawing in nutrients for the tree and the tree, and in turn, it returns sugar to the fungi.

And as it turns out, the iron-rich, clay, red Jory soil found in the Willamette Valley that’s perfect for Pinot noir is also perfect for truffles. Lefevre goes on to explain, “Land that has been grazed by cattle or sheep, with lots of Douglas Fir planted, produces an abundance of Oregon black or white truffles. Oftentimes, this land is unknowingly right in someone’s backyard!” Or right in their vineyard.

Like different strains of grapes, the different varieties of truffles have different flavor and aroma profiles. Definitely savory and categorically umami, Oregon white truffles tend to have piercing aromas of butter, fresh-roasted hazelnuts and mint (when first harvested) whereas Oregon black truffles can show fruit flavors ranging from pineapple to strawberry when first harvested, that become more parmesan-like and chocolatey as they age.

Truffles need to be fully ripe to have culinary value, and it’s that ripe aroma (which is actually composed of chemicals that mimic mammalian reproduction) that attracts an animal. This is where the adorable truffle dogs come in. Though there are specific breeds of truffle dogs (called Lagotto Romagnolo), practically any dog can be trained to seek ripe truffles out. Craigie has a 6-month-old Lagotto Romagnolo named Maeva who had a great first season hunting Oregon white truffles in stands of Douglas fir.

Part of the beauty of truffle farming is that it doesn’t require teams of labor or lots of costly equipment. So, as prices for truffles continue to rise, and wineries like Willamette Valley Vineyards, Cowhorn, and Left Coast Estate show success with cultivation, it’s likely we’ll see more and more wineries getting in the game. And perhaps one day in the not too distant future, Oregon will be as widely recognized for farmed truffles as it is for fine wine.

TAMARA BELGARD is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. She is a regular contributor to www.satiatepdx.com and several northwest publications.

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