Oregon White Truffle Oil and balsamic vinegar bring a bit of Italy home
Oregon entrepreneurs are bringing a little bit of Italy to the Northwest, producing white truffle oil and balsamic vinegar the traditional way.
Where to go
Look for Cooper Mountain balsamic at www.coopermountainwine.com.
Find Oregon White Truffle Oil at www.oregontruffleoil.com.
photographed by Ken Lambert
OLD WORLD, new world. It's fascinating to watch Americans take inspiration from artisan products traditionally made in Europe, such as cheese, wine and chocolate, and put their own creative spins on them. Witness two producers in our neighbor state to the south who were inspired by well-known products from Italy — truffle oil and balsamic vinegar — and are pushing them to new heights.
Dr. Bob Gross began making balsamic vinegar in the Willamette Valley 10 years ago. It wasn't as if he had nothing else to do. The practicing psychiatrist was also the founder and owner of Cooper Mountain Vineyards, a biodynamic winery in Beaverton, Ore.
But many trips to Modena, Italy — the world hub of traditional balsamic-vinegar making — piqued his curiosity.
"I could tell by the grape conditions that we could really make great balsamic vinegar in the United States," Gross says. "I'm kind of a pioneer type, and it was a challenge knowing it's possible."
Making balsamic vinegar is a years-long, nail-biting process. Many vinegar-producing operations outside Italy fail simply because it's tough to turn a profit.
At Cooper Mountain, it all begins when estate-grown organic chardonnay, pinot gris and pinot noir grapes are gently pressed into juice, which is cooked over an open wood fire until it reduces by half and forms a high-sugar must. The must is mixed with Italian yeast to ferment and put through a "battery" of increasingly small barrels crafted from oak, juniper, cherry, mulberry and ash — woods chosen for the unique aromas and flavors they impart. The vinegar matures as it gradually evaporates through the wooden barrels themselves and cloth-covered holes on top.
Once a year, the remaining vinegar in each barrel is moved to the next smallest barrel, becoming more sweet, complex and concentrated until it gets to the smallest barrel. The finished vinegar is eventually drawn from that last stop. At any point along the way, if invasive molds get in a barrel, years of work can literally go down the drain.
Eight to 10 years of aging doesn't come cheap; a small bottle of Cooper Mountain Vineyards Apicio Balsamic Vinegar costs $60. So this isn't something you whisk blithely into salad dressing on a Monday night.
Instead, use it as a finishing vinegar to flavor a dish. Savor its sweet-and-sour tang, spicy top notes and syrup-like consistency drizzled over shards of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese accompanied by Northwest pears and hazelnuts. Sprinkle some over strawberries or top off scoops of rich vanilla ice cream.
Oregon's second Italian-inspired product — Oregon White Truffle Oil — is the brainchild of wild-mushroom authority and cookbook author Jack Czarnecki. Czarnecki grew up in Reading, Pa., where his grandparents, then parents, ran a famous restaurant called Joe's, whose menus revolved around mushrooms foraged in the local woods.
Jack and his wife, Heidi, ran Joe's for 22 years before moving to Dayton, Ore., in 1997 to open The Joel Palmer House Restaurant. Soon, Jack was back in the forest rooting around Douglas fir trees in search of truffles for his mushroom-themed establishment.
Ten years ago, after turning over the restaurant's reins to chef-son Chris, Jack grew antsy. He made a retirement project out of producing Oregon White Truffle Oil, his ultimate goal "to teach consumers how unique, wonderful and beguiling Oregon truffles are." He admits his favorite fungus often gets a bad rap as somewhat tasteless, a characteristic he attributes to unscrupulous foragers who sell underripe specimens. But his all-natural, chemical-free oil (the first in the U.S. to contain domestic truffles) is actually more flavorful than fresh truffles. And much better (in my opinion) than Italian truffle oils, which are made with synthetic flavors and often taste harsh. The 30 compounds found in Oregon White Truffle Oil help account for its earthy, slightly garlicky, soft floral aromas and flavors.
Just as with rare balsamic vinegar, use this $30 truffle oil judiciously.
"Vegans appreciate it drizzled over vegetable stir-fries," Jack says. "At the restaurant, Chris uses it over beef stroganoff with wild mushrooms or angel hair pasta with cream sauce and seared scallops."
Drizzle truffle oil over thinly sliced prosciutto or cold-smoked salmon, triple-cream or washed-rind cheeses, mashed potatoes, mushroom pizza, scrambled eggs or even popcorn. The most intimate way to experience Oregon White Truffle Oil? Put a few precious drops in your mouth, then exchange lip locks with your significant other to enjoy Jack's favorite — the "Oregon kiss."
Braiden Rex-Johnson is the author of "Pacific Northwest Wining & Dining." Visit her online at www.NorthwestWiningandDining.com. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.
Oregon White Truffle Dip
Makes about 1 cup
This oh-so-simple recipe is both elegant enough for company and extremely versatile. Schmear it on crostini or good-quality crackers. Or, for Jack Czarnecki's "Northwest on Northwest" take, dollop or pipe it on cold poached salmon. It's also gangbusters melted over a thick rib-eye steak, filet mignon or even vegetarian burgers, and perfectly pairs with Oregon pinot noir.
3/4 cup regular or low-fat mayonnaise
1/4 cup regular or low-fat cream cheese, room temperature
2 tablespoons Oregon White Truffle Oil
1 teaspoon snipped chives or minced green onion
1. In a small bowl, whisk the mayonnaise, cream cheese and truffle oil until blended. Gently whisk in the chives. Cover and refrigerate for at least 1 hour (and up to three days) before using.
— Courtesy of Jack Czarnecki
Sam and Sara Lucchese create handmade pasta out of their kitchen-garage adjacent to their Ballard home. Here, they illustrate the final steps in making pappardelle pasta.