Sunday, February 19, 2012

Travel: Oregon Truffle Festival 2012

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Oregon black truffles
A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to spend the weekend at the Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene. I met interesting people, learned new things, saw new places, and tasted amazing dishes. For a truffle-lover like me, the Oregon Truffle Festival is as close to nirvana as I'm likely to get in a three-day weekend.

(Click here to see more photos from the 2012 Oregon Truffle Festival)

It's taken me longer than usual to pull together my thoughts about this trip, and I've been trying to figure out why. Normally I'm prompt and efficient with my reports: I go, I come back, I sort through my photos, and I write something within a day or two. This time I needed a few weeks to process and digest.

Mincing Oregon white truffles during a cooking demo

Part of it is that I'm convinced I'm onto something really important here, and I want to tell the story correctly. Oregon truffles are a food trend, a culinary story, in the making. Everyone knows about Italian truffles, French truffles, and (thanks to 60 Minutes) crappy Chinese truffles. But Oregon truffles are something quite different. They're kissing cousins to the European truffles biologically, and they cast the same kind of pheromonal spell, but their flavors, textures and scents are uniquely American.

Foodies in Oregon know that native truffles grow among the roots of the Pacific northwest's Douglas fir plantations. Some food-lovers in Seattle and California know it, too. But outside of the west coast, few foodies, chefs or food writers know they exist. Oregon truffles travel neither well nor often: As in Europe, the best ones never make it far from the dirt from which they were dug.

But that is going to change, and it's going to change soon. Sunset magazine sent a reporter and photographer to cover the festival this year. And renowned food writer Molly O'Neill and her One Big Table project hosted the opening dinner and sponsored the truffle recipe contest (my truffled Pacific rockfish "brandade" was one of the finalists). Oregon truffles are ready for their close-up.

Crystal, a trained truffle-hunting dog, sniffs for white truffles near Eugene


The other reason I've hesitated to write about my weekend at the Oregon Truffle Festival is that while the food was remarkable, most of the dishes prepared by the chefs during the festival were very different from my own style of cooking with truffles.

I'm a purist, I guess. I like my backgrounds bland, my canvas clean, so the truffles sit on top of the other flavors and sing out loud and clear.

Don't get me wrong. I enjoyed tasting dishes like Robin Jackson's white truffle-scented red & white quinoa in a creamy risotto style with Riesling-poached hen's egg, shaved coppa, wild winter herbs, lemon thyme emulsion and shaved Oregon white truffles. And Jason Stoller Smith's apple brandy advocaat with Oregon black truffles, Hood River apples, Iberico de Bellota panceta ahumado, cider gelee, yogurt biscuit, pine nuts and Oregon white truffle "snow." And a dozen or more other complicated, multi-layered truffle-laced dishes from some of the Pacific northwest's best chefs.

But in a lot of these fancy dishes I felt like the truffles were sort of lost. Overpowered, maybe. My palate got confused, fatigued, a little numb.

Truffled quinoa "risotto" with poached egg and coppa - tasty and complicated
 Which is why I've been treating the Oregon truffles I get at the Santa Monica farmers market much more simply. I shave them over scrambled eggs. Mix them with butter and make sandwiches of truffle butter and radishes. Grate them into a grilled cheese sandwich.

I think Oregon truffles are remarkable, and I probably don't have the technical skills to execute most of the dishes I tasted at the festival anyway. But the truth is that even if I did, I prefer my truffles in more casual clothing.

All that said, it was a magical weekend. I spent time with writers I admire (Molly O'Neill, Kathy Gunst, Langdon Cook). I met new friends (Merry, Jennifer, Jen). I followed Crystal the truffle dog into the woods and dug in the dirt with a stick. I learned that growers are ripping out grapevines in Napa and planting truffle-inoculated hazelnut trees, waiting with fingers crossed to harvest their first lumps of black gold.

And the whole experience felt a bit like a luscious, smug secret. The Willamette valley has it all: lush green hills and fields, remarkable wines, passionate chefs turning out spectacular food using extraordinary ingredients, including Oregon truffles. Someday soon hordes of culinary tourists will descend upon Eugene to experience Oregon truffles in their native habitat, the way tour buses pull up at vineyards in Napa and Sonoma. And it will be well deserved.

Click here to see more photos from the 2012 Oregon Truffle Festival

2 comments:

Chef Sam said...

I'm with you- simple food enhanced with a special flavor is the best. This white truffle-scented red & white quinoa in a creamy risotto style with Riesling-poached hen's egg, shaved coppa, wild winter herbs, lemon thyme emulsion and shaved Oregon white truffles. -sounds ridiculous and it looks like there is not enough there for a cavity filling. What ARE these people thinking!

Erika Kerekes said...

To the quinoa's credit, it was quite delicious, and portions were small because it was one course in an extravagant five-course menu. But yes - to my mind, when it comes to truffles simpler is better.

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