Sniffing out the diamonds of the kitchen
STORY BY PAOLA THOMAS
It’s a chilly February morning, and we are out walking through the woods near Issaquah. A gauzy veil of wintry sunshine hangs like gossamer around the treetops, the forest smells damp and inviting, and Stella and Lidia, two adorably moptopped dogs, scamper through the undergrowth at breakneck speed, so excited and joyful that you can practically see the smiles on their faces. I’m somewhat worried about breaking my neck as well, as two neon-bright leashes, which the dogs trail behind them so they can be instantly spotted, hiss and flash across my path. But we’re out on a treasure hunt, and I’m almost as excited as the dogs.
Suddenly, Stella barks and starts to scrabble in the dirt. Owner Sunny Diaz and Lidia’s owner, Dawn Meiklejohn, rush to her side and start carefully digging with long-handled spoons. The treasures we seek look like little nuggets of dark-grey or black dirt and are difficult to spot, but soon Sunny raises a victorious hand, and we have our first find of the day.
Yes, the damp, temperate woods west of the Cascades are full of buried treasure — buried treasure that we are only now learning to appreciate. That stand of Douglas fir trees around the corner from your house could well be harboring truffles, those exquisitely addictive superstars of the culinary world.
Our native truffles are fungi that grow underground in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of the Douglas fir tree in forested areas stretching from northern California to southern British Columbia. Truffles rely on truffle-eating animals to propagate their spores, and to attract them, truffles give off volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that, when the fungi are ripe, give truffles their enticing aroma and bewitching flavor. Truffles occur rarely in the wild because they need a very particular confluence of climate and soil conditions: damp soil, no temperature extremes, and forested areas. Aside from the pecan truffles that grow in Georgia and Tennessee, the Pacific Northwest is home to the only wild truffles found on the North American mainland.
Very few people are even aware that truffles grow here, instead buying costly white truffles from Alba in Italy or black truffles from the Périgord region of France. But both white and black truffles – the Oregon White and Oregon Black – grow in Washington, and at their best have been deemed the equals of their imported cousins. Until recently though, Pacific Northwest truffles have had a bad rap because they were mostly harvested by “rakers,” who would scoop up both ripe and unripe truffles. Unripe truffles do not give off those captivating VOCs, have very little flavor, and cannot be ripened above the ground, making them worthless from a culinary perspective.
Enter Lidia and Stella, two energetic, curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo dogs, who, together with owners Dawn and Sunny, harvest truffles the traditional way: sniffing out the VOCs emanating from beneath the ground and digging for the ripe truffles individually. Sunny and Dawn are members of a burgeoning network of Washington truffle hunters who forage regularly for these tantalizing culinary gems and are starting to bring these treasures both to our farmers markets and local restaurant chefs.
Sunny, an unapologetic foodie who is creating a retreat for food-related events on Tiger Mountain, first got involved in truffle foraging at the Oregon Truffle Festival, a celebration of the esteemed tuber held every January in Eugene, Oregon. After three days of education, camaraderie, seriously great food, and a meeting with Tom, America’s first truffle dog, Sunny was hooked and began her search for a Lagotto Romagnolo puppy.
The Lagotto Romagnolo is an ancient Italian breed (the name means “lake dog of Romagna”) with a history dating back to the Etruscans. The dogs were originally bred to hunt waterfowl, but after the vast marshlands of Romagna were drained in the 19th century, Italian breeders realized that this breed’s keen intelligence, sensitive noses, and retrieving instincts made them perfect truffle dogs. They are still rare on the U.S. mainland, but their popularity is greatly increasing, especially in truffle-foraging circles.
When Sunny learned that a litter of Lagotto Romagnolos — grandchildren of Tom — had become available in Napa, she rushed down the coast and chose Stella, the smallest of the litter, and started training her for the Joriad, the annual truffle hunt that accompanies the Oregon Truffle Festival. Stella, only 10 months old, placed second in the 2015 Joriad — and then found a further 2.5 pounds of truffles during the festival’s regular dog-training seminar. Sunny realized she had a superstar truffle dog on her hands. Stella has since cemented her reputation by also placing second in the 2016 Joriad.
Dawn took a more convoluted route into truffle foraging. She originally acquired her dog Lidia from a breeder in Italy as a therapy dog — Lagotto Romagnolos are known for their friendly personalities and low-allergen coats — and started using Lidia’s truffle-hunting nose to perform tricks. Children were charmed when Lidia found hidden, truffle-scented boxes, and Dawn realized that Lidia was enjoying herself just as much as the kids were.
Before long, Dawn was taking Lidia out into the woods – as a native Vermonter, Dawn has foraged for foods in the forest throughout her life – and discovered that she, too, had a natural truffle dog on her hands. Dawn and Sunny met through the Lagotto Romagnolo Facebook group and now regularly forage for truffles together, going out on as many as three forays a week in the truffle season, which runs from the autumn to April or May depending on how warm the spring is.
For both Dawn and Sunny, the pleasure of being out in the forest, the joy the dogs take in scent work, and the thrill of the chase are the principal delights of foraging for truffles.
“I love being in the woods with Stella,” says Sunny. “Hiking around, breathing in that special forest air, watching her tail wag with excitement while she does what she was destined to do. It’s a special connection with the earth, my always-happy dog, and the bounty that nature provides.”
It doesn’t hurt, however, that truffles are also so utterly delectable. Both women started experimenting with infusing different ingredients – salt, butter, cream, cheese, eggs, and chocolate – with truffles, to use in cooking and give as gifts to friends. Dawn, a lifelong cook, became frustrated by truffle recipe books written with European truffles in mind, and started developing recipes specifically designed to make the most of the unique flavor profile of our native truffles. She has now self-published her own truffle cookbook, Oregon Truffle Feasts, featuring more than 70 original truffle recipes, which is available on Amazon.
Even if you’re not friends with Sunny or Dawn, it’s becoming easier to taste and acquire local truffles. As appreciation grows, the foraging network deepens, and more locations are found. However, the Washington industry is still very much in its infancy – about a decade behind its Oregon counterpart – and it is still rare to find local truffles on the menu in restaurants. Sunny believes that the key to growing the industry in Washington is educating chefs, who primarily use imported truffles or just truffle oil. Last year, she took several Seattle chefs on private truffle-foraging excursions to educate them on local truffles.
If you want to cook with truffles yourself, Foraged & Found Edibles occasionally sells them in Seattle’s major farmers markets. Or you could go on a truffle foray with Dawn and Sunny via The Field Trip Society or arrange a private excursion with them. Several companies will even help you train your dog to hunt for truffles to ensure your own private supply throughout the winter months. You don’t necessarily need a Lagotto Romagnolo; any breed or mix that is good at “nose work” and retrieval can be trained.
And should you be lucky enough to get your hands on one of these intoxicating treasures, there is so much more you can do with them than simply slicing over pasta or scrambled eggs. Says Sunny, “Truffles are the gifts that keep on giving, if you know how to treat them right.”
Dawn recommends cleaning truffles with a gentle brush, wrapping them individually in paper towels, and then storing them in a closed glass container in the refrigerator. Any ingredient containing fat will absorb the truffles’ flavor, so you can add cheese, chocolate, butter (still in its wrapper), or eggs (still in their shells), in with the truffles.
Dawn goes one step further and uses metal tea infusers containing small pieces of truffles, suspended above ingredients like cream, nuts, and oil in glass containers, to create a range of truffled ingredients. She then layers these ingredients into her recipes, to create complex and nuanced variations on traditional treats – using truffled butters and creams with fish, meat, or potatoes, stirring truffled oils and salts into vegetables, or even baking a chocolate cake with truffled chocolate, cream, and butter.
“I love to cook creatively, and discovering new ways to use truffles is a challenging game for me,” says Dawn. “My mind starts racing when I inhale the truffle aroma, considering which simple ingredients in my refrigerator I can use to make a culinary delight.”
It seems that now is a good time to learn how to incorporate more truffles into our regional cuisine. “Things are starting to get pretty fascinating,” says Sunny. “I can see so much happening in our little corner of the world over the next decade when it comes to truffles. I’m thankful and honored that I get to be a part of it now.”
Paola Thomas is a recipe developer, writer and photographer and you can follow her work at mirrormirrorblog.com