The best adventures are the ones that entice and intrigue you down the trail – the ones that promise yet unseen rewards, perhaps a treasure for your efforts.
It’s a different sort of field hunting that relies on a keen canine sense of smell – come along as we join man’s best friend and go digging in the duff for valuable “Oregon Truffles”
Kris Jacobsen is a professional dog trainer who operates a business called “Umami.” Her partner is a five year old Belgian Malinois breed of dog named “Ilsa.”
We joined the team near Eugene in a Lane County forest. They prefer hunting together in dark stands of 30-year old doug fir and their hunting success depends on Ilsa’s famous nose.
The prize they seek are gorgeous walnut-sized fungi that are more famous than you’d think – you see, Oregon truffles are blessed with aromatic – almost pungent scents that are culinary treasures. In fact, the truffle’s strong aroma makes the finding easy for a trained dog like Ilsa.
“I give her a search command and she ventures out ahead of me,” noted Jacobsen. “I pretty much stay put and keep an eye on her as she wanders about me trying to pick up the scent of the truffle.”
It doesn’t take Ilsa long to find a truffle treasure. She dips her head, sniffs the ground, scratches the surface twice and shakes her head to signal a find.
“Ilsa tends to stop right on top of them,” said Jacobsen. “She might nick it a little bit with her paw but by and large she’ll stop at the top of it.”
Kris’ said that her job is keep watch and follow Ilsa’s signs.
“There’s one right close to the surface – right there – and it’s a big one.”
Ten years ago, Jacobsen knew virtually nothing about truffles – what she calls a “mushroom that grows underground.”
That changed when she tasted her first wild Oregon white truffle.
“A nice ripe truffle should have a distinct vein running through it – almost like marbling thru a high quality steak. It’s got this amazing aroma coming out of it; a strong garlic-cheese like aroma – it’s very savory and it makes you hungry.”
Between two and ten tons of Oregon truffles are harvested from doug fir forests each year. The harvest varies each year depending upon climate and weather patterns during a season that stretches between November and February.
Oregon chef, Karl Zenk, of the Marche’ Restaurant in Eugene said truffles have a remarkable ability to transform meals from delicious to out of this world.
“You’ve got the earthiness of the meat and the vegetables and the truffle kind of accentuates that and gives it a nice roundness of flavor and aroma that’s just special. Truffles are something we can really celebrate that we have in Oregon. We are proud of them – such a great thing.”
Back in the forest, Oregon truffle expert and mycologist, Dr Charles Lefevre, said Oregon truffles are world class delicacies but not known widely.
The so called ‘underground mushroom’ ranges in size from a pea to a grapefruit and it is unrivaled in the kitchen. They grow throughout western Oregon.
“Habitat is typically farmland that has been converted to douglas fir,” said Lefevre. “It’s often a crop found right in people‘s backyards; orchards or forest stands.”
Jacobsen added that truffle hunting is a lot of fun because she can spend a day in the field with her best friend and come home with a delicious reward.
“Just being outdoors with Ilsa and watching her work is fun - both of us enjoy each other’s company and accomplishing a task together.”
You can learn more about truffles at the annual “Oregon Truffle Festival” and a visit to the Sunday Marketplace that is held on January 26. You can pick up tips, techniques and sample recipes at a fabulous affair that’s held in Eugene.
If you want to learn more about Oregon truffles, visit natruffling.org (North American Truffling Society, based in Corvallis.)