I never imagined that there was so much to know about the small, round and frankly ugly fungus known as the truffle.
But it’s hard to come down too hard on an edible tuber that can fetch more than $1,000 a pound.
Today is the first day of the annual Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene. Several hundred individuals from as far away as Italy and Australia have descended upon the Valley River Inn to learn everything they can about the truffle.
They are discovering how to propagate and grow the truffle, how to market it, how to cook it, even how to train their dogs to sniff it out when it’s ripe.
Due in part to research done by scientists at Oregon State University, the highest concentration of farmed truffles in North America may be found in the Oregon Coast Range near Corvallis. But they are found throughout western Oregon, and in a band extending from San Francisco north to Vancouver, B.C.
“Oregon white truffles are underappreciated,” said Dr. Charles Lefevre, the festival founder. “They are more powerful than their reputation and their price would suggest.
“The white truffles live almost exclusively beneath Douglas fir trees,” Lefevre continued. “The only exceptions I know of are beneath noble firs in Christmas tree farms.
“They smell like model glue. But it’s beautiful model glue!”
Lefevre said 46 separate species of North American truffles have been named, and another 30 collected. Four of them, he said, are commercially harvested in Oregon — two white truffles, one black truffle and one brown truffle, the “Kalapuya.”
The first commercial truffle farm outside of Europe was planted near Laytonville, Calif., in 1982, and harvested in 1987. Now there are several hundred, but no more than 10 of them exceed 10 acres in size.
The yield is not large; fewer than 200 pounds of North American truffles are harvested per year. Most of them are pressed into expensive oils.
A highlight of Saturday’s schedule will be field trials for truffle dogs. Eighteen animals, ranging from Italian Lagotto Romagnolos and German Shepherds to a Dachshund and a tiny Papillon, are being trained by amateur and professional owners.
Although pigs were traditionally used to dig truffles, Danilo Bernardini of the Association Mondo Tartufo (World Truffle Association) said dogs are now preferred in Europe, just as they are in North America.
“The pig is more wild, so it is harder to manage than the dog,” Bernardini said. “In Italy, most farmers have at least two dogs, and some have six or seven.”
Saturday’s events, which include a truffle-cooking clinic with chef Johnathan Sundstrom of Seattle’s Lark Restaurant, will finish with a Grand Truffle Dinner. An all-day marketplace is scheduled on Sunday.