No, this isn't a Fear Factor stunt.
People are shelling out top dollar (really!) to indulge in
these Pacific Northwest truffles.
It's a warm morning in the rolling hills 45 minutes west of
Portland, Oregon. Our hunting party fans out into the forest, armed
with baskets and gardening rakes. The mood is as intense as if we
were on an African safari, except our goal is a wild hypogeous
fungus - better known as the coveted truffle.
Representing the height of culinary decadence, truffles are also
known as fairy apples, black diamonds, and black pearls. For
centuries, they have been said to possess mystical aphrodisiac
powers. And while truffles grow around the world - with French and
Italian varieties in particular costing around $2,000 a pound -
according to many palates (including the late James Beard), Pacific
Northwest truffles taste as good as the European ones. And at just
$300 a pound, they're proving increasingly popular with Americans
and our shrinking overseas dollars.
Even better, the truffles are free this morning, as part of the
monthly foray of the North American Truffling Society. Whatever we
find, we get to keep. Based in nearby Corvallis, the NATS group
claims a few hundred amateurs and professionals, including some of
the best-known authorities on truffles and fungi. About 10 have
shown up, mostly age 50 and over - an earthy, good-humored
Truffles grow underground, so we look for signs of animal activity,
where critters have dug holes to find and eat truffles. Voles,
mice, squirrels, bear, deer, and elk all love the fungi. "They know
right where they are, they can smell 'em," says Adrian Beyerle.
Beyerle works with the Oregon State University Mycological
Collection in Corvallis, part of an herbarium that houses the
world's most complete collection of hypogeous fungi. People mail
truffle samples to OSU, where the truffles are then identified from
the OSU database. "We find new species on a regular basis," says
Beyerle. "There's really no end to the research."