Those lumpish little white things are Tuber gibbosum, the Oregon White Truffle. Subterranean and very special, truffles have a long history in fine cookery, medicine, and — ahem — sexual enticement. And these truffles, these particular truffles which are said to rival in flavor the costly and desirable White Italian truffles, grow here in Western Oregon, in the duff beneath fir trees. In the duff, I should expand, beneath fir trees such as grow in our own woods. The mycelia of truffles form symbiotic relationships with the roots of Douglas Firs, among other tree species. The short form of the relationship is this: the fungus, living in contact with the tree roots, creates an underground structure called a mycorrhiza. The fungus takes up certain minerals from the soil that the tree would not be able to on its own, and permits transfer of the nutrients into the tree. Good for everyone.
I confess here, I’ve been looking for these little fungi for 3 winters now, and they had me beat. I took a class called Truffles in Your Forest. I went out and scraped around under trees with a gardening fork thing. I pushed my nose into the dirt and inhaled, hoping for that distinctive whiff of bleach and fungus that is said to betray the presence of truffles in the ground. I wondered what it would take to train a pig to find them for me. (First off, I imagined you’d have to have found some to show to the pig. But today I learned that it is the distinct smell of the truffle that attracts the pig all on its own: it reminds the sow of her beau… boar… it smells like his saliva to her. How romantic. I can see why truffles would be thought an aphrodisiac.*)
I went out today under the kind tutelage of a neighbor, to find truffles. Deborah lives a short way up the road. We met today for the first time, and only because she came across this blog one web-surfing day, and then invited me to come learn from her about truffles in the forest. While we were rummaging around the tree roots, we chatted about sheep and poultry and common acquaintances, fleeces and eggs, heritage livestock breeds and rescue flocks. It was a charming way to spend part of an afternoon before haring off to town after a pair of insulated overalls.
Here is Deborah demonstrating truffling technique:
She generously showed me how and kept handing me pale nodules to put in my bag.
Along the way we saw indications that others have been working the truffle grounds, too. Truffles are clearly a favorite all around the forest. The ground beneath the trees is pocked with little excavations like this one:
The white flecks inside the hole are bits of truffle left behind by the eat-and-run lifestyle of small rodents. Careless rodents! I left no pieces of truffle behind.
So, I drove off toward town with woodland treasure on the car seat beside me. I acquired the insulated overalls and came on home to hand over my bag of booty. “You got some? You got some. I can tell, you got some!”
I presented a handful of dirty little marbles.
What did we do with them?
We sniffed around. We grated some and tasted. Grated, it was slightly damp in feel, smelled of fungus, and was not profoundly strong. But they were tiny little nibbles. We were tentative. We sliced some, and marveled at the inner pattern of shapes and color:
Then we cooked. That is, Richard cooked.
First course: we tried some in a cup of tomato soup. Good, but very subtle.
Then we had small omelets
stuffed with truffles and shallots. That was pretty good. We felt less tentative.
Third course: Grated truffles blended into butter, over simple pasta. All the rest of them.
And that was really good. The aroma of the truffles traveled upstream from the tongue into the nose and hung around in the sinuses for a while. The taste on the tongue lingered, sent little sensory delights all down the throat. The next forkful awaited, fragrant, nutty, fungal, slightly musky, slightly… bleachy. This was the flavor we had read of. This, not subtle at all, was the gold ring of mushroom collecting.
We ate them all. They’re gone. We carefully set aside the remains of the truffled butter and will have it at breakfast with scrambled eggs.
What a day! What a treat! One more thing off the Bucket List!
*About the aphrodisiac: Look up the aphrodisiacal properties of truffles and you will find results like, “The evidence is unclear…” and, “There is no scientific verification of this.” But, every wonderful, mysterious and rare ingredient has its secrets. If we knew for sure, wouldn’t it lose some of its attraction?
Here is the science, as taken from Wikipedia:
Androstenol is a sex pheromone, possessing a musk-like odor. It is found in large quantities in boar saliva, but also in smaller quantities in human sweat glands. It is analogous to sex hormones yet has minimal or no androgenic activity. Androstenol is secreted by the adrenal gland into systemic circulation in humans: Systemic effects have not been well studied.
Androstenol, or a chemical derivative, is found in truffles, and is offered as an explanation for how pigs locate them deep in the ground.
Both isomers have a weak, characteristic odor; however alpha-androstenol is often associated with a sandalwood-like aroma due to residual solvents (alkyl acetates).
So, go have fun.