BY SUSAN G. HAUSER
Above: Eric Lyon of Portland and Leroy, a black lab trained to sniff out underground truffles, make up one of just three commercial truffle hunting teams in Oregon.
Below: Lyon holds the day's find: Oregon black truffles that he'll sell for hundreds of dollars.
// Photos by Leah Nash
They look unappetizing. Truffles, the underground cousins to mushrooms, are knobby and lumpish, looking like a cross between a small potato and a battered old golf ball.
But the funky, earthy odor emanating from a culinary truffle goes straight to the brain, then to the stomach, leaving both organs in a state of bliss. Is it any wonder that these fungi have been praised through the ages and modern gourmands have paid upwards of $1,000 a pound for them? Usually shaved in thin wafers over eggs or pasta or used to impart flavor to butter, cheese or meat, truffles release a heady chorus of volatile oils that elevate food from good to gourmet.
Oregon’s Willamette Valley has the good fortune to be one of the few places in the world where native truffles grow in abundance. On top of that, a new industry of cultivated truffles, grown from trees whose roots have been inoculated with the spores of the highly valued Perigord truffles, is taking off in Oregon as well as in several other states.
And according to a 2009 feasibility study by Dr. Charles Lefevre, Oregon Culinary Truffles: An Emergent Industry for Forestry, Agriculture and Culinary Tourism, a local industry based on native and cultivated truffles could exceed $200 million a year in direct sales. That figure jumps to more than $1.5 billion by including secondary economic benefits. The study goes on to say that “if Oregon pursues truffle production with similar passion and focus” as for Oregon wines, the value of the truffle industry could very well exceed that of the lucrative wine industry, currently valued at $2.7 billion.