The key to starting the Oregon truffle industry? Dogs.
Mycologist Charles Lefevre has always learned that Oregon truffles are not good. As a doctoral student in mycology at Oregon State University (OSU) in the late 1990s, he went to school picking wild mushrooms and selling them to local restaurants, but he didn’t never played with truffles, which were considered more of a novelty than a coveted ingredient. The few he encountered on the menus were either bland or rotten.
At that time, native truffles had several factors against them. First, there were no truffle dogs in the Pacific Northwest. Harvesters used rakes, sifting the soil around Douglas firs and pulling every truffle from the stand, regardless of size or maturity.
Second, Oregon truffles don’t start to ripen until mid-January, but low demand for native truffles tended to be around the holidays, the traditional time to taste European truffles. The result was that the truffles that hit the market had all the appeal of unripe peaches.
Third, Oregon truffles have a very short shelf life, so those that didn’t disappoint people with their woody appearance often terrified them with their ungodly growths.
The fourth factor was a consequence of the other three. The unloved truffles were selling for around $ 25 a pound. At this rate, nothing encouraged better handling, more careful harvesting, or even learning about truffles. Consumers and chefs did not budge, believing that the only good truffles came from Europe.
Charles, however, was fascinated by all the truffles. He knew that the French and the Spanish had successfully cultivated black winters for decades, but the pioneers had struggled to do so in North America. While still in high school, he invented new ways to inoculate tree seedlings with black winter spores and started New World Truffles in 2000, sowing a new wave of truffle love in the United States.
But native truffles? Charles didn’t take them seriously until he began to forage for his own food, also during his graduate studies. “Every year I wanted to find something bigger and better than what I had found before,” he says as we chase his two dogs, Lagotto Romagnolos named Dante and Mocha, through a valley forest. Willamette in Oregon. “You know, I had found chanterelles, but I wanted to find porcini mushrooms! Eventually I reached a point where I had found everything except truffles. All the expert mycologists were at OSU, so I asked them.
His teachers told him to look in the dense stands of old Douglas-fir, which was wrong. “Incredibly, even at OSU, no one knew what good truffle habitat was! The commercial fishermen knew, but they did not speak.
After a typical day of failure, Charles parked his car on the side of the road to escape. He entered a stand of young Douglas firs, planted on what had been pasture barely 15 years before. With a relieved bladder, he decided to poke around just for fun. “And there were truffles!
They were white people from Oregon. Over time, Charles understood where they lived. “It’s a very special type of habitat,” he says. “Pasture planted with Doug Fir, near the existing Doug Fir. This series of events takes place only on private land, usually on smaller plots. It’s almost always in someone’s backyard.
In other words, Oregon truffles aren’t just in symbiosis with the trees. They are also in symbiosis with us. Border species, they work with seedlings to colonize new areas, and the modern Pacific Northwest has given them a boon.
Charles believes that the current abundance of truffles in Oregon and Washington State is the result of grazing that has become less profitable in recent decades. The landowners planted their pastures with Douglas fir in the hope that the Christmas trees would save them. These open and airy 15-year-old stalls are truffle factories, the Pacific Northwest version of the truffle boom in 19th century France.
By the early 2000s, thanks to his work with New World Truffieres, Charles had experimented with truffles all over the world. At the same time, he was picking native truffles for fun. And one day he had an epiphany. “I had these Oregon truffles that I had harvested for recreation in my fridge,” he says. “And even though all the experts suggested they were nothing but poor, inexpensive substitutes for the real thing, every time I opened the fridge that mighty truffle blast came out. So it seemed like they were being neglected. And it looked like there was an opportunity to redeem this species.
Charles suspected that the raking had put the native truffles in the doghouse. He had seen dogs in action in Europe and knew they followed their noses to ripe truffles. Obviously, the collectors couldn’t do that and wouldn’t care, anyway. Only dogs could redeem Oregon truffles.
But how to start a culture of truffle dogs where they never existed? Well, on the one hand, you have to dramatically increase the price of truffles, and the only way to do that is to convince chefs and foodies that these things are special.
With this awareness, the Oregon Truffle Festival (OTF) was born. It would be at the end of January, when native truffles are at their peak. It would be characterized by rigorous quality control and first-rate culinary creativity.
And it would be dog-centric.
Not only would this improve the quality of the truffles, but it would also be good for the forests. Raking disturbs the ground. In a wilderness, it can be deeply destructive. “In an older forest, where the soil biome has developed over decades or centuries, there is so much interdependence,” says Charles. “Once this is disrupted, the biome dies and the recovery process can take decades. “
Fortunately, most truffles are not found in these regions. “These stands of trees that produce truffles are very young and simple systems,” explains Charles. “These are not deserts. So the act of raking is not necessarily more destructive than what happened when it was pasture. I just think there is a better way to do it. When you use a dog you get better truffles. The aesthetics are better, the prices are better, and it’s less work. Plus, working with a dog in the forest is part of the mystique. There is no reason not to use a dog.
The first festival, in 2006, was a straightforward affair, but it turned into a four-day blowout. It kicks off Thursday with the Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship, in which amateur pooches from all over compete to sniff the most truffles. The early years of competition were dominated by Lagotto Romagnolos and other specialists in perfume work, but in 2018 Gustave the Chihuahua crashed onto the pitch, captivated the crowd and made the Joriad a national sensation, reminding everyone that America is the land of opportunity.
La Joriad ends with a Dog Parade, an award ceremony and a truffle dinner. The rest of the weekend features a Producer Forum for pros and aspirants, a two-day dog training workshop and a Mercato del Tartufo night, where local restaurants present outrageous concoctions that would never compliment a real table. European, like puffs with truffle cream, truffle ice cream, truffle pizza and truffle cocktails. There is a legitimate wild truffle hunt and a visit to a local truffle farm (land used to grow truffles). And then the whole thing culminates with the Great Truffle Dinner: 300 people, six fun, unpretentious dishes.
What I notice after a few days at OTF is the pioneering spirit, the sense of discovery and egalitarianism. Without the weight of tradition, anything goes and everyone can be a part of it. It’s popular, it’s wacky, and nobody really does it for the money. They do it for dogs.
This canine body transformed the reputation of Northwestern truffles, and chefs have noticed. The prices of truffles harvested by dogs have soared to several hundred dollars a pound, and Oregon truffles are becoming a staple of the land.
A victory for the local gastronomy, says Charles, and for the forest economy. One acre of Douglas fir can produce thousands of dollars worth of truffles each year, meaning the trees are worth more alive than cut. Leaving trees standing is extremely beneficial for wildlife, for sequestering carbon, and for protecting the banks of streams where salmon spawn, many of which have been degraded by livestock. “These trees end up producing more value than cows! Charles said. There are even guesthouses starting to sell, along with their wooded backyards, like truffle-filled destinations. It is all part of a remarkable awakening, of a discovery of the goodness that was hiding in plain sight.
Extracted with permission from Bloomsbury Publishing from Truffle dog by Rowan Jacobsen, copyright Rowan Jacobsen 2021