Hunting for truffles can be a lucrative business as they commonly sell for $1000 per pound, but finding them is a trick — their growth is considered a rare natural phenomenon found primarily in France and Italy, and you generally need to employ the skills of a pig to find them.
Folks in Oregon are trying to show that truffles can be planted, managed and harvested just like any other agricultural product.
Chef Daniel Orr went on a field trip to Eugene, Oregon to attend the annual Oregon Truffle Festival. Their truffière, or truffle field, is located near a number of local wineries by the Willamette River.
Man’s Best Friend?
It’s an odd coincidence that there’s a molecule in a ripe truffle that exactly mimics a sex pheromone in a pig. That’s why pigs are invaluable for finding truffles. But according to Jim Sanford, the handler for North America’s only professional truffle dog, hunting with a pig can give away one’s closely-guarded truffle location.
“Pigs can weigh hundreds of pounds, and if you’re walking your pig down the road in Italy, it might be a pretty good indication to people what you’re about to do,” he says.
The Oregon Truffle Festival offers seminars for training dogs to sniff out truffles. Sanford says there are three basic steps to teach a dog to find anything with its nose:
- Imprint the scent
- Hide the truffle so the dog must find it with its nose alone.
- Train the dog to provide an alert when it locates a truffle. Sanford’s dog scratches at the soil.
One of the founders of the festival is Dr. Charles Lefevre. He is perhaps the world’s foremost culinary truffle cultivator. His job is to work with trees that are known to be good truffle hosts and then plant those in truffières across the country.
“I had always been told that Oregon truffles were weak and had no aroma,” he says, “but the reality is they are very, very good!” He saw the festival as an opportunity to not only redeem Oregon truffles, but give people the opportunity to experience hunting for truffles in the wild.
He feels a special connection to the land because he grew up in Oregon. Knowing that a delicacy comes from the same earth that he also came from has changed how he views himself. “That might explain why so many Europeans are so proud of the places they come from and why they think their place is the absolute best place in the world – because they see the other stuff that comes from it!”