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12.03.08

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Phaedra

Photos by Michael Amsler
TREASURE HUNTER: Rousek is being trained by handler Pierre Rivard to sniff out yummy truffles.

Black Diamonds

As Europe's truffle industry declines, a vigorous new world of fungus grows up north

By Alastair Bland

In 2005, Mike Hoppe and his family moved from their home in Santa Rosa to central Oregon. Lured by cheaper land prices, they intended to own and operate an organic family farm. They purchased an old Christmas tree farm, studded for most of its 12 acres with adolescent Douglas firs, which they planned to remove. As they explored the new property, cleared the brush and prepared to fell the forest, Hoppe observed strange, globular growths protruding in numbers beneath the trees. He examined the cream-colored, shapeless creatures and quickly decided they were a fungus of some sort. More interestingly, some smelled intoxicatingly good.

In fact, the Hoppes had landed on a goldmine, for their land was riddled with white truffles, the most expensive wild mushroom in North America. Their plans changed abruptly. Hoppe and his wife still planted several hundred grapevines and some vegetables, but they have shifted their attention fully to truffles, which Hoppe has been selling to individual buyers under the name ShireWood Truffles and Wild Edibles, and which visitors may pay to come and harvest on their own.

The Hoppes' truffles are not quite the same as the revered species of Europe, the Périgord black (Tuber melanosporum) and the Italian white (Tuber magnatum). They are one in a family of several Northwest natives, collectively referred to as "Oregon truffles." Chefs who believe in the virtues of Oregon truffles pay big bucks for the delicacy, and to cash in on the demand, some 300 men and women stalk furtively through the dark forests each winter and spring with rakes, shovels and sacks, seeking a prize as legendary as they come.

But these truffles often pull just $100 per pound wholesale—barely a tenth the price of Europe's gems—and, in fact, not everyone cares for the taste of Oregon truffles. Some chefs have scarcely heard of them, while others, enamored of European truffles, plainly denounce the Oregon black truffle, the Oregon white truffle and the Oregon spring truffle as comparatively worthless. Yet advocates maintain that these morsels could well take their place among the big hitters of the world's delicacies. At their best, Oregon truffles can be smelled by the human nose from 10 feet away in another person's backpack, and in the refrigerator their aromas will penetrate eggshells and sink into squares of butter.

Why, then, has the Oregon truffle industry, which launched more than two decades ago, remained at a rather listless idle ever since? Jim Wells, a Eugene truffle specialist and mushroom purveyor with Oregon Wild Edibles, asserts that abusive harvesting and careless marketing have crippled the industry, which Wells helped spark back in 1983.

Early that winter, he drove from Eugene to San Francisco on a routine produce run as a supplier for several markets. Wells usually transported iced boxes of specialty fruits. On this particular trip, though, he bore with him an experimental piece of cargo—five pounds of a little-known fungus called the Oregon white truffle. Wells sold them to two retailers for $50 per pound. To his curiosity, Wells heard not a word of praise in the days that followed, and apparently the chefs and consumers who received the truffles were unimpressed.

At about the same time, Oregon-born food and wine enthusiast James Beard declared Northwest truffles to be just as noble and worthy as their European counterparts, giving the industry a firm boost. Negative reviews persisted, however, and clearly the culinary experience of the Oregon truffle was not the same for everyone.

Wells dropped out of the scene in 1986 to pursue other career paths, and only in September of 2001 did he take up work as a full-time wild mushroom purveyor. In doing so, he reacquainted himself with the Oregon truffle trade, now 200 hunters strong. Wells recalls that, to his surprise, the price of Oregon truffles, though far from cheap, had actually dropped since the last time he handled them two decades prior. He also grew aware of the many cool opinions toward Oregon truffles, and began to develop theories to explain why the items had not gained the attention he felt they deserved.

By 2003, Wells had come to a conclusion. Today, he believes that the vast majority of truffles that wind up in the hands of chefs and shoppers are harvested prematurely and thus never develop their full potential of ripeness and aroma. In turn, they leave a poor impression on those who eat them.

The main root of the problem is the gold-rush mentality of truffle hunters; striving to beat their competitors to the best spots, they dig far too early in the season, Wells says. In the race, they uncover entire beds of truffles that should have been harvested at a later time. Such hasty hunters may find only a handful of mature specimens, yet most sell the entire batch. Alice Waters reportedly dabbled with a few such subprime Oregon truffles in the 1980s and has kept her back to the fungi ever since. Wells believes that untold numbers of consumers have had similarly disappointing experiences.

Wells is now advocating for the development of industry standards to eliminate premature harvesting. Local hunters must abandon their reckless shoveling habits, which he calls "wholesale excavation," and instead uncover the truffles one at a time, checking for maturity as they go. Wells also hopes to educate buyers and create "consumer-driven incentive" for change.

"Consumers must reject poor-quality truffles," he says. "First and foremost, any Oregon truffle on the market before December should not be bought. You might find a culinarily excellent truffle before December, but almost certainly 99 percent of that batch was immature, and paying for them just encourages the waste of the entire resource."

Even later in the season consumers must shop cautiously, still assuming any given truffle may be immature. Wells works with just several trusted truffle hunters, and he examines every truffle he receives. He slices off a small patch of skin from each one in a batch just enough to see that the inside is richly marbled, the mark of maturity. Only then does he sell them to chefs and retailers. Wells knows of no other purveyor who follows such a meticulous approach, and he advises consumers to look for the exposed marbling on each truffle's surface as his own signature.

"If you don't see that breach, you're playing roulette," warns Wells.

Only mature Oregon truffles will ever ripen, says Wells; those harvested too early will merely rot.

In late 2005, Wells founded Oregon Wild Edibles. As perhaps the only fully reliable wholesaler of quality Oregon truffles, Wells was recruited by another well-known truffle devotee and cultivation expert, Charles Lefevre, to be the sole supplier for the first Oregon Truffle Festival, held in January 2006. The festival has since become an annual event,  an extravagant wine-and-dine celebration of the virtues of Oregon truffles at their very best.

Still, the industry is limping. At the Girl and the Fig in Sonoma, executive chef John Toulze cooked with Oregon black truffles several years ago, shaving the specimens over a dish of pasta. He was not impressed.

"When you've had a real truffle, they're just not the same," he says. "The whole idea of truffles is that intoxicating scent, that umami quality, and my experience with Oregon truffles is that they taste like dirt."


Rake's Progress

Franklin Garland, who cultivates Périgord black truffles in North Carolina, touts the European species and ranks the Northwest natives far below.

"They're to European truffles what white button mushrooms are to chanterelles or morels."

But others decry this tendency of expectant consumers to compare the products. Connie Green, Napa County mushroom harvester and owner of Wine Forest Wild Mushrooms, likens Oregon truffles and European truffles to apples and oranges.

"[Oregon truffles] are what they are in their own right, and they can't be compared to the European truffles," she says. "I try to hammer that into the heads of my customers every day."

Jim Wells guesses that between 5,000 and 10,000 pounds of Oregon truffles are harvested each year, and he believes that 95 percent this season will be taken from the ground, blindly, often with rakes, and with zero discretion. But the Oregon truffle industry, though hampered by problems, is young and ambitious. Unscrupulous marketers and destructive harvesting techniques need only be banished, and Wells, Lefevre, Hoppe and others see a wide-open future.

The French may not be so lucky. In the Périgord and elsewhere around the continent, the curtains seem to be falling on the black truffle industry. Marketing is not the problem, as almost no food item on earth carries such a halo of renown, myth, lore and legend about its ungainly head; there is no questioning the delicacy's virtues, and people will pay thousands of dollars per pound to get it.

But Tuber melanosporum is simply disappearing. As recently as 1900, gatherers guided by pigs and dogs scrounged up an estimated 1,500 metric tons. Last century, production took a dramatic nosedive, and annual yields have been trending precipitously downward for decades. Last season was one of the worst on record, when French soil produced a scant 20 metric tons.

"They're scared stiff over there," says Dr. Ian Hall, New Zealand truffle cultivation expert and coauthor of Taming the Truffle. No one, though, can quite explain the collapse, and a popular default guess says that climate change is the culprit. Others, including Hall, surmise that the shift of human populations from rural parts of France to the cities has led to abandonment of many truffieres, or truffle groves.

Black truffles grow best in oak and hazelnut forests devoid of thick shrubbery. The roots of such plants interfere with the micorrhizal relationship between the truffle mycelium and the nut tree roots, and as firewood collectors, grazing livestock and other undergrowth controls disappeared in the 1900s, so did suitable truffle habitat. Experts also have noted that in European societies men have traditionally passed on the family secrets of the truffle trade to the next generation at ritualistic moments, often from the deathbed, and many ancestral traditions of truffling are believed to have ended abruptly in the trenches of WW I. 

Hall reports that "things got really seriously bad" in the 1960s, and those who still made a living in truffles "knew that something had to be done to save the truffle."

The solution, it now seems, could be truffle farming in other parts of the world. Though written records of truffle tree transplanting and other simple forms of cultivation in France date back to the late 1700s, efforts to introduce Périgord truffles to new regions of the globe accelerated only 40 years ago, when researchers began to understand precisely what conditions of soil chemistry, local biodiversity and climate make these underground mushrooms grow. Ten years or more may lapse between planting trees and reaping the truffles, so experimenters in this field do not see quick results.

Still, great progress has been made, and Périgord truffles are today grown and harvested in Chile, Argentina, Israel, South Africa and the United States, and a particularly successful trade has developed Down Under. There, Australia's Périgord production is on a snowballing roll and within 15 years is predicted to surpass the waning truffle production of France.

But there seems to be no soil so lucrative in producing Tuber melanosporum as that of New Zealand. The nation's first New Zealand truffiere was planted in 1988, and the wait was just five years before the first truffles arrived. Since then, Périgord truffle production on the islands has been phenomenally successful. One of the most productive farms on earth, a nine-year-old grove of oak and hazelnut trees in the Bay of Plenty, has yielded a gold-dripping 300 pounds of Périgord truffles per acre for several years running. Another farm in nearby Poverty Bay has produced as much as three pounds of the "black diamonds" per day.

In spite of cultivation progress, the cumulative global production is not expected anytime soon to equal the French yields of a century ago—perhaps never. New Zealand's brilliant success, in fact, has brought no relief to the global shortage, for as the domestic yields grow, local chefs and consumers are lined up with their wallets out to buy the fresh truffles.


Southern Comforts

The same is true for the leading producer of Périgord truffles in North America, a 20-acre farm near Knoxville called Tennessee Truffle. Owner Tom Michaels is one of the innovators of American Périgord truffle cultivation, and in 2000 the mycology expert and Ph.D. planted 2,500 self-inoculated oaks and hazelnuts. In December 2006, he saw his first fruits. Following the nose of his Lagotto Romagnolo, the premier pooch among European truffling breeds, Michaels pulled 50 pounds of truffles from his land that first winter.

Last year, fraught with drought conditions, he reaped 40. This year, he expects "north of 100 pounds," and he guesstimates that his peak yield could eventually hit 800 pounds of black diamonds per year. Harvest requires about four hours per day just one day per week—relatively easy money, he says, compared to other agricultural endeavors.

Local restaurants eagerly buy Michaels' truffles, as French imports can be a week old by the time they reach American chefs, he says.

"Mine come out of the ground, and overnight they're at the restaurant. Their freshness totally overwhelms the Périgord truffles that come from France."

Several hundred properties around the nation grow at least a handful of inoculated trees, according to Lefevre, who, apart from his labors to right the Oregon truffle trade, also owns New World Truffieres, a lab in Eugene that specializes in "infecting" seedlings with Tuber melanosporum mycelium. Lefevre sells trees at $20 each, preferably in bulk to commercial prospects. Clients include the Hoppes, who have planted 100 inoculated hazelnut trees adjacent to their grove of Douglas firs.

Most American truffieres are still waiting for their first crops, and domestic Périgord truffle production amounted to perhaps 100 pounds last year.


The Laytonville Connection

Tennessee Truffle takes the prize for the most, but the first Périgord truffle born outside its homeland came from a farm in Mendocino County. It was 20 years ago, about 30 miles north of Willits. Owned then by Bruce Hatch and the late Bill Griner, the farm is credited in the books as producing its first crop of truffles in 1991, but Hatch says the first handful appeared in 1988. In the early years of the farm, truffle advocates from France and New Zealand paid investigative visits, stunned by the achievement.

"Bill was sure that they were trying to sabotage his operation by trying to introduce a competing fungus into the soil," Hatch recalls.

Over the years, Griner kept quiet about his business, working with a handful of truffle dogs over the years and selling to several restaurants in Ukiah, San Francisco and New York.

"It was a real shame that Bill was so paranoid," says Hatch, who left the partnership in the late 1990s and now lives in Ukiah. "He knew what to do, how to do it. He figured out exactly the pH the soil needed and what the consistency of the soil should be. That man really 'lived' his truffles, and now a lot of what he knew is gone."

But not entirely. Griner died suddenly of pneumonia and sepsis in February, and his body was not discovered for nearly two weeks. A neighbor found it, guarded over loyally by one of Griner's dogs, Ace. Griner's sister, Peggy Griner-Siniavsky, hurried from her home in New Jersey to the isolated farm several days later to help tie up the loose ends of her brother's life.

Some three pounds of truffles remained in Griner's refrigerator. Clearly this was still a viable operation, and Griner-Siniavsky, her husband, Nick, and their son, Nicholas, hope to keep it that way. In December, they plan to leave New Jersey, move onto the Mendocino property, learn the ropes and get down to business in the truffle trade. This winter, the heirs to America's first truffle farm, with the aid of Ace, expect 20 pounds from the 200-tree orchard. Griner-Siniavsky would also like to sell inoculated hazelnut trees to other prospective producers. Hosting guided truffle hunts could be in the future, too, as might a truffle cookbook dedicated to her brother.

"His brand name was Black Diamonds of Mendocino County," she says. "I just want people to know that the name is still here, and I'd like to carry on what he worked so hard to do."


All Bark, No Bite

Other Bay Area farms are just getting started. Katrina Wilhelm of Santa Rosa purchased a Sonoma County vineyard in the fall of 2007 and with her siblings tore out 10 acres of Chardonnay, Merlot and Pinot Noir vines. Their plan is to load the soil with calcium carbonate, or limestone, a necessity of Tuber melanosporum, then replant with more than 2,000 hazelnut trees in the spring of 2009.

Eventually the Wilhelms will acquire a truffle dog, perhaps a poodle, a Labrador or something in between. Further down the road, the endeavor could produce some $30,000 per acre per year or more, but it's the simpler pleasures of the truffle trade that Wilhelm anticipates the most.

"What could be better than digging in the dirt with a dog? That would be heaven. Bliss!"

In Sebastopol, researchers at the Bergin University of Canine Studies have sensed the local demand for truffle dogs and in September launched an experimental truffle-dog-training project. Truffles emit a pheromone that mimics those naturally produced by some sexually active animals. Female pigs are adept at picking up the scent with no training needed, but sows were long ago abandoned by most truffle hunters due to their desire to not only unearth truffles but to eat them. Dogs must be trained to answer to the pheromone, but are far less likely to devour the prize.

Pierre Rivard, venture programs manager at Bergin, is currently working with golden retrievers and Labradors on a local walnut grove to sniff out truffles using scented decoys. Instilling in the dogs a positive association between a truffle's scent and a reward may take just several minutes, says Rivard, and creating a fully trained truffle dog may take just two months.

"It's easier than people might think. It's not rocket science, and it's not like training assistance dogs."

Bergin University will not provide truffle dogs for lease or sale but will instead act as an onsite consultant to farmers attempting to train their own dogs. Sources guess that there will be as many as 500 West Coast farmers harvesting their first truffles in the next five years, and demand for talented dogs will skyrocket.

A good truffle dog will react only to the presence of fully mature truffles, and such dogs, believes Charles Lefevre, could help to extricate the Oregon truffle industry from its current state of stagnation. Lefevre would like to see a voluntary certification system whereby select truffles are marked as "dog-harvested." Truffles not labeled as such would be due heavy scrutiny and suspicion.

"We need to rebrand this product, and that would mean starting with dogs to find them," Lefevre explains. "Chefs would eventually understand that not all Oregon truffles are the same." The fact that we have these wonderful domestically grown truffles so underappreciated is so wrong."

The use of dogs and the education of consumers could boost the value of the Oregon truffle crop, but already an army of hunters armed with rakes and shovels is at work in the Northwest, excavating native truffles from their beds, ready or not, and selling them in bulk like so many potatoes. Most will smell like nothing in the hands of expecting consumers, but can we complain? After all, Oregon truffles currently retail for a slim fraction of the price of their illustrious European counterparts, and perhaps those who buy Oregon truffles get what they pay for. Yet those two tantalizing syllables and that trademark pair of f's may always evoke imagery of bucolic France and rustic Italy, peasants and hogs, extravagant luxury and culinary heaven. For a shapeless American fungus, "truffle" must be a tough name to live up to.


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