I was first introduced to the elusive truffle in the early 1990s. It was a winemaker dinner featuring chef David Machado, who now oversees the Portland culinary triumvirate of Lauro Kitchen, Vindalho and Nel Centro. He started the meal with a simple creamy risotto with truffle oil. Simple, stark, decadent. The type of lick-the-plate clean dish that leaves you wanting more and becomes permanently etched in your culinary brain. I was in love.

So, when Travel Lane County invited me to be their guest at the Fifth Annual Oregon Truffle Festival this past weekend in Eugene, it took about five seconds to say “yes.”

I learned lots, including the fact that while three types of truffles (white, black and brown) are currently harvested in the Pacific Northwest, there are over 350 species living in these same forests. White truffles are found from northern California to southern British Columbia and are called Oregon White Truffles. That’s what we were after. They fruit twice a year: the “spring” bloom from January through June, and the “autumn” from October to January.

My truffle adventure started with a trip to a former Christmas tree farm outside of Cottage Grove, south of Eugene. Douglas Firs, it seems, are the perfect breeding ground for the Oregon truffle. Zoe the truffle dog wasted little time proving we were in the right spot.

I was joined by a few dozen other truffle hunters — young and old. We learned to be nimble in moving the mulch of fir needles, in hopes of finding treasure just below the surface.

Dogs help maintain sustainable truffle patches…they only signal where the mature fruit is hiding, protecting young tubers from indiscriminate raking.

When washed, a white truffle looks like a small heirloom potato, with skin similar in appearance to a crimini mushroom. Although the hard freeze last December appears to have stunted the bloom, I was able to dig up a handful of small morsels and take them home.

After the truffle hunt, we headed to Sweet Cheeks Winery for an all-truffle lunch prepared by John Newman of Newman’s at 988 in Cannon Beach.

General Manager Lorrie Normann and winemaker Mark Nicholl poured their 2007 Pinot noir, 2008 Chardonnay and Pinot gris, and non vintage sparkling wine… all great matches with the menu.

The crab ravioli with shaved white truffle was to die for.

Poached pear with black truffle mascarpone cheese topped off the meal. Yum.

After lunch, we headed back to the Valley River Inn for a much needed rest before the next event: the grand dinner prepared by several of the state’s top chefs: Philippe Boulot of the Heathman Hotel and Bar, Naomi Pomeroy of Beast, Gabriel Rucker of Le Pigeon, and Pascal Sauton of Carafe, all hosted Rocky Maselli of Eugene’s Marche. The menu was seven courses of truffle heaven, prepared and served beautifully with Willamette Valley wines.

If you’re serious about food, and want to learn just about everything there is to know about truffles, start making plans now for the 2011 Oregon Truffle Festival, which happens at the end of January.

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