Aaron Kennel of Monmouth, Ore., examines a truffle found by his truffle-sniffing dog, Stella. Truffle dogs are rare in the Northwest, so hunters often use rakes to tear up the ground instead, a harvesting technique that has driven down the price for Oregon Truffles over the years.
COTTAGE GROVE — Dozens of hunters set out into the woods searching for buried treasure over the weekend. But they weren’t pirates and they weren’t looking for gold coins, jewelry or other kinds of conventional loot. Rather, these explorers were looking for what chefs and food aficionados around the world refer to as “the diamonds of cuisine” — truffles.
It was the second annual Truffle Foray held at Shirewood Farm outside of Cottage Grove, a part of the three-day Oregon Truffle Festival based in Eugene. More than 80 people showed up on Jan. 27 to scour the dirt at the base of a stand of pine trees at Shirewood, hoping to gather just a handful of Oregon White Truffles — the Northwest counterpart of the mushrooms considered a fungal delicacy from Oregon to France to New Zealand. There were varying degrees of success.
“I think I found a rabbit turd,” said a laughing truffle hunter named Phillip Hughes, who made the trip down from Seabeck, Wa. with his wife, Cicilia, to attend the event.
“It just smells like dirt,” said Cicilia, as she tentatively sniffed the suspicious clod of… something .
Others were having better luck. The star of the day was Stella, a truffle-sniffing dog who located a tennis ball-sized truffle for her owner, Aaron Kennel of Monmouth, Ore.
Olfactory search methods certainly seemed to be the way to go. Connie Getz of Florence, Ore., who is legally blind, stuck her nose in the ground and uncovered cache after cache of the incognito fungus.
“I can smell them through the dirt,” said Getz, taking a break from sifting through the soil with a small trowel. “It’s how I can tell where to dig deeper.”
The glee displayed by the hopeful truffle hunters as they searched through layers of fallen pine needles and a thin veneer of topsoil, hoping to find just a few fungal gems, spoke to the enormous popularity of truffles worldwide. And the world community was well represented.
Gareth Renowden, the president of the New Zealand Truffle Association and the keynote speaker for the Oregon Truffle Festival, was on hand to observe the foray and throw in his two cents about Oregon truffles.
“The quality of the Oregon truffle is magnificent,” said the truffle-crazed Kiwi. “I’ve really enjoyed tasting them, they’re quite unique.”
But Renowden’s visit wasn’t all fun and games. He was quick to point out the main goals of the foray and the Festival in general: to raise awareness about the excellence of the Oregon truffle and to teach American truffle hunters how to be better, more conscientious seekers of the mushrooms.
According to Renowden and the organizers of the Festival, Oregon truffles have been greatly devalued by what are considered to be amateurish harvesting techniques, such as using rakes to gather entire crops of truffles rather than dogs that only sniff out the ones that are ready for cultivation.
When entire troves are uncovered and sold, many of the fungi are immature and bland. Chefs get hold of these prematurely harvested truffles and come to the conclusion that Oregon truffles are sub-par in taste and smell. Advocates of Oregon truffles say that this is why Oregon black and white truffles go for about $100- $200 a pound while European varieties range into the thousands of dollars.
“When you harvest with a rake you get whatever is there — you’re guaranteed to go home with a box of truffles,” Renowden said. “But with a dog, you only get the ones that are ripe, because that’s what they smell. You have quality control right there.”
But on this sunny day at Shirewood, there was just a single truffle-sniffing dog, Stella, and she served only one master. The rest of the hopeful hunters were forced to use rakes, or, failing that, their own limbs.
Julie Paulson, who made the trek up from San Francisco with her husband to attend the Festival, moved from tree to tree, scraping soil back with only her tennis shoes.
“We love to eat, and we love truffles, but we’ve only had the European varieties,” she said. “I didn’t even know Oregon truffles existed.”
The truffles do exist, though, and at the end of the day pretty much everyone went home with at least a handful of them, carried in Ziploc bags or little cardboard containers that looked like takeout cartons from a restaurant.
Even Cicilia and Philip Hughes managed to take away a tiny pile of pebble-sized truffles. It wasn’t clear how many rabbit droppings they managed to round up.