Despite the rain and thick fog that often blankets the Oregon Coast Range, 79-year-old Lee Yamada spent his day in a grim forest with a rake in hand. With his eyes cast toward the ground and rain dripping down his blue hood, he searched the mossy forest floor for a hidden gem — a mushroom known as the Oregon truffle.
Although Yamada didn’t find any on his first outing, like many others, he plans on foraging again. The North American Truffling Society is a Corvallis-based organization that hosts educational events and monthly forays such as the one Yamada participated in. As the Oregon truffle’s popularity grows, so does the community that surrounds it.
Known for their rarity and aromatic variety, Oregon truffles are a culinary delicacy that add complexity to many dishes.
Although they haven’t always held the prestige of their wider-known French and Italian counterparts, an ounce of Oregon truffles costs $30 to $45 at specialty grocers in Eugene.
Oregon truffles are now edging out their European competition for a variety of reasons, a prominent one being the Oregon Truffle Festival, founded by University of Oregon alum Dr. Charles Lefevre 12 years ago.
The Oregon Truffle Festival features a dinner and buffet, a marketplace and other educational events. Lefevre aims to teach everyone from experts to first-timers about what he calls the fruit of the mushroom world.
“When you think of truffles in North America, Oregon is the place that comes to mind,” Lefevre said. “They are really everywhere.”
Since ripe truffles have a strong aroma, a well-trained dog can find them with ease. People without trained dogs use wide rakes to uncover truffles. The latter method tends to be hit-or-miss.
Eric Lyon, a professional truffle forager in Portland, said that the rakes used to commercially harvest truffles often pull up some that aren’t ripe.
On the coastal foray, Austin Carter Browder and his girlfriend were out looking with their newly trained dog, Fenrir.
Browder trained Fenrir by putting truffle oil on a piece of paper and hiding it around their house. Eventually, Browder hid the scented pieces of paper outside. This was their first time foraging for actual truffles.
“Many people are captivated by this sense that it’s like an Easter egg hunt,” Lefevre added. “These treasures in the woods are hidden and you search all over the place for them.”
Stephanie Pearl Kimmel owns Provisions Market Hall, a specialty grocer in Eugene that sells truffles. Kimmel first tried an Oregon truffle in the 1990s. It was harvested by rake rather than with a trained dog’s sense of smell. Her first experience was underwhelming because the truffle was not ripe. Now, Kimmel appreciates the unique mushroom more after tasting a ripe one.
“We have so many amazing ingredients here. To add another one, it was like discovering a hidden treasure,” she said.
There are two types of Oregon truffles: black and white. Some people describe an Oregon black truffle’s taste as similar to pineapple. Lefevre describes the Oregon white truffle as something that “you experience in your sinuses.”
Once an edible truffle is found, it can be used in a range of dishes and recipes, some of which will appear at the Oregon Truffle Festival. Tickets for the marketplace and the Joriad, a truffle dog competition, are $15 each.
The Market of Choice on Franklin Boulevard sells most of its truffle products near the cheese section. There are bries and chevres with French black truffles. The store also sells Oregon white truffle oils and salts.
The Oregon Electric Station, a restaurant commonly visited by UO students when parents come to town, has truffle fries on its menu and Little Big Burger does too.
Kimmel uses the elusive mushroom in many ways at her restaurant, Marche. Heat destroys the aroma that a truffle is known for, Kimmel said, so it’s best to use them as accents rather than in actual cooking.
Kimmel will be a featured chef at the truffle festival this weekend. There will be a buffet event at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art on campus for ticket holders. Kimmel will also be preparing a prix-fixe menu featuring three courses using truffles.
“I always want to be very connected with where my ingredients are coming from,” Kimmel said. “We are amazingly blessed here with what we have.”
Kimmel adorns pasta with shredded truffles or infuses desserts with them.
She foraged once with Lefevre and found it very satisfying to cook with a truffle she uncovered on that outing. Lefevre and other people in the foraging community call this curious feeling “catching the mushroom bug.” This passion is a common thread among those involved in the Oregon mushroom world, including scientists.
With a striped sweater and tattoos covering his arms, UO biology instructor Roo Vandegrift doesn’t look like a standard biologist. Vandegrift brings students from his mycology courses foraging.
He has yet to find any on his trips, though he’s not discouraged.
“Truffles take a fine touch,” Vandegrift said, noting that truffles aren’t the only edible mushrooms that he and his classes search for.
Yamada and the other foragers had better luck under the gray coastal sky. They found a few mushrooms and two truffles: one edible, one not. Still, they kept raking the ground and encouraging their dogs.
Foraging isn’t the only way they appreciate truffles. Many of those who attended the foray plan on going to the Oregon Truffle Festival intent on trying new truffle-infused foods.
“The genesis of the festival was the idea that we could bring some old world culture to life in Oregon, the celebration of food and these local ingredients that is unique to this place,” Lefevre said. “Oregon truffles are emblematic of all of that.”