Thursday, January 24, 2008

The Hunt Begins

Yesterday I made my first scouting mission in search of truffles. No, not overpriced chocolates but those even more costly tuberous gems so prized in Europe for their culinary alchemy, the sort found mostly in gourmet food shops and fancy restaurants that, at peak ripeness, can smell like "a dirty whore" and drive epicures to madness.

Commonly gumball-sized, truffles are fungi that fruit beneath the soil in association with particular trees. The world's most famous truffles are the Perigord (or black) truffle of France and the Alba (or white) truffle of Italy. Black truffles have been described as fruity and spicy, with deep scents of chocolate, coffee, and other earthy flavors. White truffles are renowned for their overpowering aroma (the word "funky" comes to mind). When properly ripe, it only takes a small shaving of truffle to flavor a dish with a pungent kick of the earth. They're shaved over pasta, meats, and even mashed potatoes.

Only recently has the Pacific Northwest been recognized as a suitable place to harvest truffles, if not in the same rarified realm as France and Italy. Some chefs, notably James Beard, have suggested that our native truffles are just as kitchen-worthy as European truffles, but because the truffle culture here is young and inexperienced, wild truffles sold to market and on to restaurants and consumers are sometimes of dubious quality, either under-ripe or past their prime. This has hurt the culinary reputation of what are collectively known as "Oregon truffles."

Anyway, I once again find myself in a familiar fungal spot. Mushrooming and truffling are secretive pursuits, and rarely will someone give away information for free. You can spend all day researching on the Internet and have no clearer idea where to go than when you started; the public library is near useless. Even joining a mycological society can only get you so far. The bottom line is boots-on-the-ground trial and error. I have to remind myself that I learned how to find chanterelles, then morels, and both spring and fall king boletes. Each species was like starting over. This detective work is part of the fun, though, so I'm looking forward to my first truffle discovery. (Don't hold your breath!)

As for yesterday: It was a nice walk in the woods, but I never found the right forest conditions. Being a rare sunny winter day, I did get a nice photo of a sun-spotted clump of moss.

No comments: