Hunting for Oregon Truffles

Last Sunday I joined a local truffle hunter and a few other Slow Food members on an expedition to a farm near Sweet Home. The farm includes groves of Douglas fir trees, planted close in tidy rows. This was just the sort of place to find Oregon white truffles, said Marcie, the truffle hunter. The truffles favor 20- to 50-year-old stands of “Doug fir,” now our dominant conifer, the favorite of timber companies because it grows well and fast on clear-cut land.

img_9932Luna the truffle dog had to be harnessed and leashed; she couldn’t wait to get hunting. Regardless of breed, dogs may or may not thrill to the smell of truffles. But Marcie had trained Luna with truffle-scented dog toys since early puppyhood, and the smell never failed to turn the little dog wild. She needed no treats to drive her on.

People are like dogs; some love truffles, and others are indifferent. To me the smell of truffles is chemical, like a strong cleaning product, and animal, like sweat. In fact, a major component of the truffle aroma, the steroidal pheromone androstenone, is also a component of male human sweat and female human urine. A scientific study found that some people learn to perceive androstenone only with repeated, intense exposure, and that others never sense it. The rest of us smell it strongly. We may like it or not, but at least subconsciously we may find it sexy. In another study people who sniffed androstenone rated photos of women as more sexually attractive than did people not exposed to the scent.

I don’t get to sniff truffles often, but the scent is growing on me. I loved my husband’s truffle-scented toasted hazelnut oil, which for months we sprinkled on salads, gnocchi, rice, and cooked vegetables. And the time I most enjoyed truffle-scented food was just a few weeks ago, when Marcie brought a truffle-scented triple crème cheese to a Slow Food meeting.

img_9936-2Luna pulled Marcie into the woods and began running to and fro as the rest of us scrambled behind. Almost immediately Luna stopped and began digging. She paused, snout buried in the soil, and inhaled deeply before frantically digging again. Marcie pulled her back, holding tight to Luna’s leash, while sifting the dirt for truffles with her free hand. They were hard to find, since they were less than an inch across and well coated with soil. Often Marcie is briefly fooled by a hazelnut or a cherry pit dropped by a bird. But she found a truffle at Luna’s first stop, and another and another as Luna ran a few yards and stopped to dig again. Apparently, truffles were everywhere.

IMG_0632.JPGOregon has two species of white truffles, one produced in winter and one in spring. Marcie never knows in advance exactly how the seasons are playing out in a particular woodland. Many of the truffles Luna found were falling apart or still intact but full of tiny worms. It seemed the winter truffle season was ending and the spring season hadn’t quite begun. Still, Marcie was finding a truffle or even two nearly everywhere Luna dug.

In the first, younger stand of trees that we explored, the truffles seemed to be only about four inches below the surface. In the second stand they were mostly deeper. Truffles can develop as deep as eighteen inches below ground, Marcie said. But she wouldn’t let Luna dig that deep; that would amount nearly to self-interment for such a small dog. Besides, the deeper Luna dug the more she disturbed the forest floor. And while she dug her teeth tore furiously at every root in her path.

Using a truffle dog isn’t nearly as destructive as searching for truffles with a rake can be. The craze for truffles in recent years has driven many prospectors armed with rakes into Oregon’s public and private forests. Some arrive with permission; others do not. Some rake away so much soil that roots are exposed in large circles around the trees. Understandably, more and more forest owners and managers are taking measures to keep out truffle hunters of all kinds.

Be assured: We had permission to hunt in these woods. And Marcie and her son carefully pushed the soil and duff back into every hole Luna dug.

After two hours of hunting and digging, Luna hadn’t tired, but we had. And Marcie had gathered more than a half-pint of usable truffles or truffle pieces. Many were wormy but still suitable for flavoring. Marcie washed the truffles and divided them among small plastic containers. One she left for the farmers, in payment. Luna would get a few wormy scraps.

img_9943At home, I let my truffles dry a bit and then put them into a large Tupperware container with two half-sticks of butter and a piece of cheese, an American imitation of young Asiago. Too bad I had no triple crème on hand. But I expect I’ll thoroughly enjoy this cheese and butter when, a day or two from now, I take the lid off the Tupperware and flood the kitchen with the scent of Oregon truffles.