A year ago I began my truffle quest. (You can read initial findings here.) Truffles are ectomycorrhizal fungi that fruit underground and form symbiotic relationships with certain species of trees. In exchange for sugars from the tree roots, truffles provide the host with water and nutrients through their web-like network of subterranean mycelia.
In addition to playing an important role in forest ecosystems, truffles are a highly coveted luxury food, prized for their pungent aroma and taste, with a rich culinary and cultural history. Just a few shavings of a ripe truffle can transform an ordinary dish of pasta into something truly memorable. You might wonder why a fungus that grows out of sight underground and lives a peaceful co-existence with plants would be the owner of such a powerful flavor. Well, humans aren't the only truffle eaters. It's thought that truffles evolved their pungency to attract animals such as voles and other small rodents, which dig up the truffles and eat them and then in turn spread the reproductive spores with their droppings.
To the uninitiated, hunting truffles can seem like looking for a needle in a haystack, and while a knowledgeable truffler uses more than guesswork to locate the fungal gems, it's still hard work—"stoop labor"—and unpredictable, which is why fresh truffles command such a hefty price-tag. For instance, Marx Foods in Seattle will ship you 4 ounces of Oregon black truffles for $80.25. European truffles are even more costly, fetching $2,000 or more a pound for premium Italian whites.
So late last week I piled a few garden tools into the Subaru and made tracks for a low-elevation hideaway in the Cascade foothills where my friend L. has a Christmas tree farm. Edible Northwest truffles, of which there are several species, seem to live in association most frequently with young Douglas-fir, so we found a nearby plantation of 30-year-old trees without too much ground cover and a thick mat of duff. The soil was loose and sandy—perfect for little critters that like to scratch around underground.
The photo at left illustrates the network of holes and runs we were looking for. After pulling back a layer of duff like a rolled carpet, I found this tunnel. More digging with my cultivator unearthed a large black truffle that had been squirrelled away by some industrious rodent for future gnawing. It looked like a round lump of coal. Nearby was another one. My fellow hunters L. and P. hit paydirt as well. After an hour of digging we had more than a dozen in all. (For a post on the ethics of truffle hunting technique, click here.)
Unfortunately, a majority of the truffles were past their prime. This has been a tough winter in the normally temperate Northwest, with weather extremes fluctuating between snowstorms and floods. Most of the truffles exhibited evidence of frost damage, though a few were salvageable, if not in tip-top shape. These we trimmed back at the house and shaved over a spare dish of buttered pasta with a light grating of parmesan cheese. Simple is better with truffles. You want to let the fungus shine. In most cases it's not even necessary to cook the truffle. Instead, the truffle is shaved over the drained pasta and the heat is enough to react with the truffle, unlocking its complex flavors
It's hard to parse the taste of truffles without sounding like a wine snob. Our local black truffles, also called Oregon black truffles (Leucangium carthusianum), exude a complicated aroma/flavor of very ripe fruit, including hints of pineapple up front, with a secondary layer of earthy muskiness with notes of coffee, chocolate, and loam. My meal on this day, prepared immediately after the hunt, is perhaps the closest I've gotten to experiencing the magical power of local truffles. A second meal, prepared a day later with the same batch (pictured at top), was subtler, more restrained. And a recent meal of black truffles at a restaurant was subtler still.
If you haven't experienced good truffles, the best I can do is to describe them this way: Truffles act on the brain. Their taste and aroma nearly overwhelm the senses, flirting with mental associations of over-indulgence and decadence, even naughtiness. Eating them at a restaurant, you might feel like you're doing something that shouldn't be done in public. This, of course, is part of their charm, and goes a long way to explain their cachet and expense.