The only thing more difficult than gathering Oregon white truffles might be learning how to cook them properly.
Fortunately, there was no shortage of outstanding Northwest chefs willing to undertake the task during the Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene this weekend.
Day Two of the annual festival called upon participants to demonstrate their endurance. It began with a morning field workshop on cultivation techniques; followed with a truffle-hunting excursion into a Douglas fir forest; and continued with a three-course winery lunch.
After a couple of hours to reenergize, it wrapped up at the Valley River Inn with a gala five-course Saturday-night banquet — each course prepared by a different chef.
On Sunday, the festival concluded with the Oregon Truffle Marketplace, with a constant schedule of cooking demonstrations and a showcase for food producers and wineries.
Unlike many of the 300 people in attendance, I have no dreams of setting aside an acre of land to grow truffles beneath firs. So the sessions on soil science, irrigation and gopher control were of little interest to me.
As a gourmand, however, I was fascinated by the process of harvesting the small but valuable fungi.
I watched as a couple of dozen intrepid diggers, armed with trained dogs or three-pronged rakes, took to a forested hillside southwest of Eugene. Lacking those tools, I counted on sturdy boots and bare hands as I searched beneath the thick layer of needles underlying each tree.
After 90 minutes, my fingers caked with mud and my arms bearing the scratches of myriad fir twigs, I emerged from the woods with a dozen “winter truffles” in the palm of my hand. Although none was much larger than a marble, I was assured by the resident experts that the truffles were nearly ripe and would make a fine addition, perhaps, to a pasta dish.
Lunch was at the Sweet Cheeks Winery, where young Australian winemaker Mark Nicholl introduced us to his pinot gris, chardonnay and pinot noir — accompanied, of course, by food.
Chefs Evan and Jen Doughty of Florence’s Feast restaurant offered a poached egg-and-spinach salad with black and white truffles; pureed cauliflower soup with black truffle gremolata; and a pork belly steak served on wild rice with crispy mushrooms and white truffles.
But we barely had time to digest that meal before diving into the Grand Truffle Dinner. Fortunately, the multiple courses were spread out over several hours.
Two courses were particularly outstanding.
To start, Holly Smith, owner of Café Juanita in the Seattle suburb of Kirkland, served an oven-baked duck egg with shaved white truffles and a creamy Parmesan cheese sauce.
David Anderson, executive chef of Portland’s reborn Genoa restaurant, provided the entrée: beef Wellington with a black-truffle demi-glace, and a gratin of potatoes, cauliflower and white truffles.
I’m already counting down the days until next year’s end-of-January event.
For more about truffles and this festival, visit www.oregontrufflefestival.com.