Since 2009, I’ve seen press releases on the Oregon Truffle Festival (OTF), held every January.  This year it is January 24-26th. OTF has always been of interest, as I thoroughly enjoy and appreciate truffles. After getting my down coat and pants for the holidays, I was able to cover “The Culinarian Experience” track at OTF in Eugene, Oregon in 2013 and highly recommend it for 2014 truffle lovers.

While a gourmet experience was expected, the opportunity of my meeting growers, owners and trainers of truffle dogs, research scientists, and worldwide truffle experts provided an exceptional weekend. The majority of Americans are not familiar with truffles, especially Oregon white truffles. Whereas Europeans have been forging truffles for centuries, they are costly. Forgers are a secretive group in general and dwindling, resulting in escalating truffle prices.

Costly Truffle on Scale Photo: Maralyn D. Hill

Truffle growing in the U.S. is somewhat secretive, as growers believed this would protect their investment. However, Dr. Charles Lefevre of New World Truffieres, has been instrumental in expanding the OTF educational event into one of sharing. An attendee from Finland stated that a huge difference in OTF versus European symposiums is the latter have minimal sharing. All American growers are going to have to start marketing. They need to educate and spread the word of great truffles being available in North America at a reasonable prices. That would allow chefs to use them.

According to a feasibility study by David Pilz, Charles Lefevre, Leslie Scott, and James Julian, “Annual truffle commerce is expected to exceed $6 billion within the next two decades. This would rival many other agricultural commodities traded worldwide. With adequate support, cultivated and native truffles produced in Oregon could annually exceed $200 million in direct sales income; counting secondary economic benefits, the value of the industry could exceed $1.5 billion. These figures rival the current value of the state’s lucrative wine industry, and could be greater if Oregon pursues truffle production with similar passion and focus.”

In France, pigs are commonly used for truffle hunting and Italy has a special breed of truffle dog. In the U.S., all breeds are being trained successfully, since dogs love the scent of truffles. Dogs are better hunting than humans raking truffles.  Raking up soil and unripe truffles kills them. Dogs smell the ripe truffles and paw down to nose them up.

Most of us were staying at the Eugene Hilton. It was interesting to come down for our breakfast and see trained truffle dogs with their owners, sitting quietly by the owners’ chairs. What was more fun was listening to experiences of those who brought their dogs of all breeds for successful training. They were so excited and proud! Some dogs catch truffle scents quickly, but some take up to a year to train. For more luxury and intimate accommodations, I’d consider The Inn at 5th, which is across the street and charming.

The first morning, when we went out forging, our group was divided. Each was composed of a small number of forgers with a dog owner and trained dog. Wow, what noses they have! It was fun to watch them run and find truffles.  The dog handler was more excited than the dog that waited patiently for its reward. Our handler used a red ball that the dog held for a couple of minutes and then dropped. If the handler could not find the truffle, he or she would tell him and the dog would sniff it out. I only found a couple, but several of our group members were used to spotting the telltale little holes and came home with a bag of white truffles, probably valued at $1,000 or more.

I was amazed at individuals who investigate planting the right trees for truffles. In the Northwest, from northern California to British Columbia, you’ll find Oregon white truffles. They grow under Douglas fir, hazelnut and oak trees.

I also met people with truffle groves from California, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Oregon, Tennessee and Finland. Throughout the U.S. and Canada, many growers are importing European strains for black truffles. The owner of Truffle Hill Winery, who sat next to me at the Grand Tasting Dinner, is cultivating a strain of European black truffles.

“The Culinarian Experience” included meals at various locales. Some were just with our track and others were with other tracks joining. We had cooking lessons from two well-known chefs, Chef Robin Jackson of Sooke Harbour House, Sooke, B.C., Canada and Dustin Clark, Executive Chef of Wildwood Restaurant, Portland, OR.  Every meal, whether simple or dining, featured truffles.

What I learned from all the delicious dishes served at our meals was my preference is for either truffle infused flavor or small truffle pieces/shavings with cascading aroma, rather than an over-abundance of large truffle shavings.

Before attending OTF, I had spoken with several chefs to ask how Oregon white truffles held up in comparison with European truffles. Those who were familiar with both types believed that the Oregon white variety passed the test for quality. They are certainly less than half the cost, which makes them feasible for use. The Oregon white truffle can sell for a few hundred dollars a pound, as opposed to closer to a thousand dollars for those from Europe.

The importance is having ripe ones. If harvested even a week or two early, they will be weak in flavor.

The Marketplace on Sunday provided an opportunity to purchase many Oregon products and truffles, as well as some great wine and more truffle cooking classes.

Some tips I picked up on truffles:

If you place a small amount of a truffle in an airtight container with butter, cheese, or eggs for several hours or a day, you will end up with a truffle infused product. Set it in a small bowl or on a couple of paper towels on top of the product with which it is stored. When you remove the truffle, you can still use it for shaving and recipes.

Truffles should be stored in the refrigerator in an airtight container. Otherwise, you will infuse all contents with truffles.

The next Oregon Truffle Festival will be held January 24-26, 2014. It is well worth attending and attracts people from around the world. As much as I enjoy the culinary, I’m intrigued by all of its learning opportunities. I’d highly recommend OTF for a combination of learning, fun, and delicious food.

Discover more about truffles.

Oregon Truffle Festival  http://www.oregontrufflefestival.com/

New World Truffieres,  http://truffletree.com Supplier for orchard seedlings inoculated with European truffle spores – Owner Charles Lefevre.

North American Truffling Society  http://www.natruffling.org/

Check out the OTF website for more information.

I’ll share one of chef Dustin Clark’s recipes for Slow-Cooked Venison Stew that we enjoyed at the festival with one of our demonstrations..

I was fortunate to attend a cooking class with Dustin Clark, executive chef of Wildwood Restaurant in Portland, OR.

Raised in Pierre, South Dakota, Clark moved to Vermont to attend the New England Culinary Institute. An externship took him to Portland, but he also spent time in Europe.

Executive Chef Dustin Clark Photo: Maralyn D. Hill

Executive Chef Dustin Clark Photo: Maralyn D. Hill

Clark said, “When I spent time traveling around Europe, I compared its food to the great fruits and vegetables in Oregon.”

When Clark returned to Oregon, he worked at Zefiro and In Good Taste cooking school. In 1998, there was an opportunity at Wildwood to “cook from the source.” Starting in pastry, he moved on to the wood oven and evening line cook position. A year later, Clark was sous chef. Clark became chef de cuisine in 2006 and was promoted to executive chef in 2007.

Clark prides himself in involving his entire team to steer Pacific Northwest cuisine to a new level. Wildwood offers New American dishes by drawing on experience from many cultures, including Italian, Eastern European, Moroccan, French and Indian.

While watching chef Clark in action, his passion and love of product are evident.

Our luncheon menu consisted of the following dishes:

Grilled Parsnip and Grapefruit Salad

Roasted Sunchoke Velouth with Leek Fondue

Slow-Cooked Venison Stew with Amish Butter Polenta and Black Truffle Gremolata

Baked Pumpkin Flan with Honey Chantilly, Truffle Popcorn Brittle with Salted Caramel Sauce

Slow-Cooked Venison Stew

Serves 8

Ingredients:

 3 lb. venison shoulder, large dice

2 tbs flour

4 oz pancetta, small dice

1 oz olive oil

1 yellow onion, medium dice

1 rutabaga, peeled, medium dice

1 parsnip, peeled medium dice

8 cloves garlic

2 tbs tomato paste

1 cup rich red wine

6 sprigs thyme

4 bay leaves

1 ½ qt brown stock

6 oz dried chestnuts, placed in cheesecloth

truffle shavings

Method:

Preheat oven to 325°F.

In a large pan, heat olive oil over medium-high heat.

Add pancetta and cook until caramelized and fragrant.

Remove from pan and reserve fat in pot.

Toss venison with salt, pepper and flour.

In small batches, cook in pancetta fat until well browned.

Place browned meat in a braising dish.

Add vegetables and tomato paste to pan and cook until well caramelized.

Season lightly with salt and pepper.

Add red wine and reduce until vegetables are glazed.

Pour over venison along with bay leaves, thyme, truffle shavings and chestnuts.

Add warm brown stock, cover and place in oven for 2 ½ hours or until tender.

Ideally, let the stew rest overnight in the refrigerator.

When ready to serve, remove chestnuts from cheesecloth and place back into braise.

Gently warm stew over medium heat or in oven.

Allow sauce to reduce and become glossy.

Spoon braise over creamy polenta, garnish with black truffle gremolata and more shaved black truffle.

Amish Butter Polenta

Ingredients:

1 c stone ground polenta

1 ¼ qts light chicken stock

4 oz mascarpone

2 oz butter

2 T lemon

salt and pepper

Method:

In a saucepan, heat chicken stock until reaches a boil.

Season with salt to taste.

Slowly whisk in polenta and cook, stirring regularly over medium-low heat.

Cook for at least two hours, adding water if polenta becomes too thick.

Mix in butter and mascarpone.

Adjust seasoning and add lemon.

Black Truffle Gremolata

Ingredients:

2 oz ripe black truffle, julienned

1 T parsley chopped

½  clove garlic minced

pinch of chopped orange zest

¼  t grated fresh horseradish

Method:

Combine ingredients.

Reserve some truffle for shaving as well.