The Latest From the Oregon Truffle Festival
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THEIR scent is “musky, fiery, savoury, mysterious—a hot drowsy smell, that lulls the senses, and yet enflames them,” wrote William Makepeace Thackeray. Alexandre Dumas thought that truffles “make women more tender and men more lovable”. That is an exaggeration, but visitors to the Oregon Truffle Festival, which starts on January 24th, are happy to pay lavishly for the experience. Tickets for packages such as “The Epicurious Gourmand” ($695 per person, including truffle-tasting and truffle-hunting with dogs) sold out in November, far ahead of previous years.
Snobs insist that Italian white and French black truffles are superior. But many foodies have noticed that the mild climate of Oregon’s Willamette Valley produces a wide variety of delectable fungi: Jim Trappe of Oregon State University estimates that the state has 500 species. Since 2006 the price of some Oregonian truffles has quadrupled; white varieties, for example, are fetching $400 a pound this season. That is still less than half the cost of their European cousins, yet optimism abounds. Beaver State truffle-growers sold only about $300,000-worth in 2009 but could shift as much as $200m-worth by 2030, estimates Charles Lefevre, a mycologist and one founder of the festival.
In the past two years five new orchards growing European varieties have sprung up in the region. Eight years ago there were few truffling hounds “west of the Mississippi”, says Mr Lefevre, but now more than 100 snuffle for truffles in Oregon. Dogs are better truffle-hunters than pigs because they are easier to train not to eat what they unearth, says Marilyn Hinds, an ex-president of the North American Truffling Society.
American technology can help truffle-producers. Symbios, a company in nearby Washington state, is developing a mapping app that will find the best sites for growing European varieties or finding wild native ones. It uses data patterns from successful truffières in Europe and Australia to spot areas with the perfect combination of weather, geology and altitude. The firm is also exploring the idea of a mobile “electronic nose” which uses radar technology to sniff out truffles.
Over the past century truffle production in France has dropped by 90%, as two world wars, pollution and climate change have ravaged the best growing areas. Small wonder foodies are turning to the New World.