Friday, January 16, 2009

The Wonderful World of Truffles!

Looks a little like decrepit fruit, but cooking with these delicacies is oh so heavenly! Photo by Ulterior Epicure

It's prime fresh winter truffle season in the Pacific Northwest and the Oregon Truffle Festival is just around the corner, from Jan 30 through Feb 1st in Eugene and Portland, Oregon. And you can attend events for as cheap as $15 a ticket.

Do you remember that adorable talking badger in C.S. Lewis's The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe book called Trufflehunter?

For some reason, when I think about truffles, I imagine that cute badger from the Narnia series I first read about as a little girl. There's something magical and other-worldly about Narnian creatures, but there's something equally magical about the peculiar-looking underground mushrooms we call truffles. They reside deep among tree roots in the living soil and are a critical part of one of earth's most mysterious (least understood), but most important life forces: the tenacious web of mycorrhizae- that constant interaction between plants and fungi so critical to life as we know it.

I find the world under our feet -the presence of mycorrhizae in the soil food web- as fascinating as science fiction or fantasy. And truffles are bulbous, edible pieces of that mysterious realm that we can harvest, hold in our hands and incorporate into our daily meals. I only I wish it wasn't so expensive to buy truffle products. I also wish truffle hunting was more accessible and not such a guarded hobby/profession. Though the North American Truffling Society is based just 20 minutes away from where I live and I'm going to try and hook up with the group for a truffle hunt. Stay tuned!!

Truffles are the underground version of mushrooms created by a kind of fungal infection in the roots of some trees including poplar, oak, birch, pine Douglas-fir, oaks, hazel nuts, hickories, birches among others, says the North American Truffling Society newsletter. They have mutually beneficial relationships with the roots. "They are the reproductive bodies of certain species of mycorrhizal fungi which mature in the soil," writers the North American Truffling Society, headquartered in Corvallis, Oregon. Truffles look a little like irregular-shaped small potatoes and are distant relatives to mushrooms. Because they grow underground, they are more protected (from frost, etc.) than other mushrooms and the formation of truffles is dependent on animals to distribute their spores (critters like voles and flying squirrels eat the truffles and carry the spores in their stomachs and spread the spores when they poop.)

Exactly how they grow is still somewhat of a mystery, from what I've gathered (no pun intended), but I believe you can taste that mystery when you taste truffles. Truffle hunting has a storied past and reading about it is almost like reading fantasy!

Did I Hear Someone Say Free Truffles!

Here's a cool place to go to get 1/4 pounds of free black Italian winter truffles: the Truffle Giveaway from Marx Foods. All you have to do is leave a comment on their Website by January 26th at 12PM PST. Feel free to also write about what you would do with your winnings. They'll pick a winner at random and announce it on January 26th.

Here's a woman from the North American Truffling Society giving away a taste of truffle-infused spread on crackers during the Yachats Mushroom Festival this fall in Yachats, Oregon. I didn't just eat one sample!

My introduction to the underground delicacy

Maybe you haven't had a personal introduction to the truffle, like many foodies or others native to regions in Italy or France where truffle hunting has been a tradition for hundreds of years. I vividly recall my first truffle encounter. In my 20's, I worked as an intern for a lifestyle magazine in Salt Lake City, Utah and was invited to dine at a french eatery in Sugarhouse called L'Avenue Bistro. It was my first "media dinner" and a few siblings and I were introduced to a dishy young chef named Franck Piessel, who spent several years cooking in the Alps before he landed in Utah. Franck went on to have his own restaurant named for him, but recently the place folded and he's now a chef at Tuscany restaurant.

I recall ordering Franck's Filet Mignon cooked with mysterious, rich and earthy truffle sauce.... and I instantly fell in love with the taste of truffles.

How does a raw truffle taste?
"Aficionados liken it to a mix of methane gas, garlic, and soil with hints of honey, yeast, and mushrooms," Sean Marky, Alby, Italy, National Geographic News White truffles contain a compound called bismethylthiomethane, also found in wine. The smell is so pungent if you crawl around on all fours near prime truffle hunting ground, you can smell if with your nose. But since humans are more civilized than that, we train pigs and dogs to do the rooting for us (and make mortal enemies and enter into all kinds dangerous and criminal activities to carry on our affair with this lifestyles-of-the-rich-and-famous Truffle mistress- this mysterious, irresistible, "black or white gold" of the earth as it is called!)

Wanna buy some truffles? Click on this truffle seller to order fresh Oregon white and black truffles and Italian white and black winter truffles.

Truffle lovers give thanks to this little guy. Adopt a Vole Today!
Photo Source

If you love truffles, give thanks for the elusive vole, a little critter than lives in the ground whose job is to spread truffle spores. (I'm not sure the photoed vole looks anything like the Red-backed Vole mentioned below, but I image they are equally cute.) Daniel Wheeler writes here about Chris Maser's research on truffles and the elusive voles, which truffles are dependent on:
In the Pacific Northwest of the United States, the most common dispersal agents for truffles are small rodents called voles. Chris Maser in The Redefined Forest notes voles are the most common animals west of the Cascade Mountains, with potentially over 500 animals per acre of forest. Almost no one has actually seen voles, and in the 1970's, the California Red-backed voles was listed on the Endangered Species Act. By careful research, Chris Maser has shown that not only are these animals not endangered, but are an essential part of the forest health through their dispersal of truffle spores. Maser notes that each vole produces about 300 fecal pellets daily, each of which contains over 100,000 spores. Each spore is capable of inoculating a new tree with several species of MF. Another important dispersal animal for truffles in the Northern Flying squirrel. Studies have shown that during six months of the year, the flying squirrel eats almost nothing but truffles.

Ah, the irony! A story about how to get rid of voles that are getting into your truffles.

Minutiae about Truffles

**This 11-year old boy from Little Bedwyn, Wiltshire has a talent for discovering truffles with his feet.

"I can feel them with my feet through the soles of my trainers," explains Richard . . . But mainly it's just that I can see them better than everyone else, I think it's because I'm shorter so closer to the ground."

**Italian Truffle Hunters are called trifolau

**The earth giveth and the earth taketh away, in the case of this giant white truffle, it giveth. The hunter who found this beauty made $200,000at an auction last fall. New reports have been talking about how climate change is affecting the truffle industry in Europe. The last few years the dry hot summers in regions of truffle hunting, are keeping truffles from growing like they should.

**In Italy, a truffle dog is taught to retrieve a ball, then Gorgonzola cheese. Then the cheese is hidden and the dog has to sniff it out. It then get's rewarded for doing so. Finally, a small truffle is substituted for the cheese- you get the picture.

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