Truffles and Pinot and Rabbits, Oh My!
I learned a secret trick to seeking truffles last week at the 4th Annual Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene. Five words: Abandoned Oregon Christmas tree farms. You need to check beneath Douglas Fir trees—about 15-30 years old is just the right age. Sometimes the truffles can be 10 inches deep. Of course you’ll need a trained dog (and apparently any dog can be truffle trained). These tidbits were revealed to me by Jack Czarnecki of the Joel Palmer House in Dayton. Jack is a state, if not a national treasure–a chef and truffle seeker extraordinaire, who’s helped, along with a group of visionary vintners, put Oregon on the map as the “Burgundy of the U.S.” This part of Oregon—the Willamette Valley—is indeed often compared to Burgundy, France for its cool growing climate and wet winters—making it the perfect terroir for pinot noir and truffles. There is such an abundance of succulent produce from this valley at hundreds of farmers markets from April through October—it’s like being in Paris at an open air market—a pure, foodie sensory overload.
Anyway, I digress, because the point is that I had one of the best meals of my life at the Oregon Truffle Festival Grand Truffle Dinner in Eugene. Four years ago a group of passionate truffle cultivators, chefs and vintners set out to create this culinary delight—where for a weekend in January (peak white truffle season) you forage with truffle dogs and guides, learn about the science of truffles, visit vineyards, view chef demos—and by night the best chefs in Oregon (who are arguably some of the best chefs in the country) create phenomenal feasts. The white truffle oil (produced by Jack Czarnecki) was so deliciously pungent I could smell it from across the table. We ate rabbit spanakopita (rabbit braised then stuffed in philo pastry with black truffles and topped with slightly sweet chutney–WOW!!!) — created by Gabriel Rucker of Portland’s Le Pigeon restaurant. Rocky Maselli’s (of Marche restaurant in Eugene) truffle-spiked sushi appetizer was a piece of art—inspired by the miso-cured sashimi dishes of Japan, but with his own curing paste of red beans and other mysterious ingredients. The fish simply dissolved on the tongue and the white truffle taste lingered with the celery root slaw. I won’t go into each of the 5 courses (you can see the full menu here) but I can’t finish without saying that Cheryl Wakerhauser of Pix Patisserie is a master—and probably a little insane, as she admitted herself at the dinner: she created not one but four truffle-spiked desserts, including one where she filled cleaned out eggshells with a truffle and vanilla saboyan crème, then topped the pudding with a mango fruit gelee, so it looked like a little a cracked open egg, and tasted like heaven.