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Originally published Thursday, January 4, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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In the throes of truffle fever

The moment I heard chef and truffle-worshipper Kevin Blaylock yell, "Holy crap, I found a really big one! " as he scanned the fluffy, upturned...

Seattle Times staff reporter

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The moment I heard chef and truffle-worshipper Kevin Blaylock yell, "Holy crap, I found a really big one!" as he scanned the fluffy, upturned soil in a patch of Douglas firs south of Olympia, I knew he'd hit pay dirt.

He knelt and picked up a dingy white orb about the size of a gumball, brought it to his nose and took a whiff so deep and passionate I thought he was falling in love with it.

From an aesthetic point of view, the ugly little truffle seemed hardly worth all the excitement.

But truffles are surely the only fungus that can make a foodie drop to his knees in such pure joy.

In this case, it was an Oregon white truffle, the lesser-known cousin of the famous and obscenely expensive Italian variety that many people encounter as aromatic shavings atop a serving of risotto or the mysterious musk in a gourmet omelet.

Western Washington, and to a larger extent Western Oregon, are known as prime habitat for both whites and blacks. If you buy local varieties at a farmers market, for instance, they are likely to be labeled "Oregon truffles."

In the Northwest, they typically mature between November and February, though the Oregon "spring" white matures a bit later.

If you go


Truffle hunting

Where

People who gather truffles, a type of fungi that grows underground, often have their own secret spots to search for them, and that usually requires getting permission from a private landowner. You don't need a big forest to hunt for mushrooms. State forests and other public lands have designated mushroom-harvesting seasons, limits on how much a person can pick and other restrictions. In general, rakes and other garden tools that could disturb the soil are prohibited on these lands, although small hand-made divots are OK as long as the hole is covered after you've finished digging.

Visit the Puget Sound Mycological Society's Web site, which has a link to state mushrooming rules and contact information for different state land agencies, as well as other useful tips: www.psms.org/rules.

In this state and in Oregon, truffles grow west of the Cascades, a few inches underground around the roots of younger Douglas firs, hazelnut trees and oaks. Look for spots where the groundcover is sparse — truffles don't like a lot of competitive vegetation — and where the topsoil is soft and fluffy.

More information

Visit the North American Truffling Society's Web site for truffle foray reports, event listings, recipes, truffle identification information and more: www.natruffling.org.

Truffle expert Charles Lefevre of Eugene sells trees inoculated with truffle spores though his business, New World Truffieres, www.truffletree.com, 541-513-4176. Planting truffle trees on your property is one way to ensure a good supply.

To taste what you're missing without enduring a slog though the woods, you can order fresh Oregon truffles from Oregon Wild Edibles, www.oregonwildedibles.com, or 541-484-0793. Premium grade black truffles cost $15 an ounce; premium white truffles are $8 an ounce.

Kevin Blaylock can be reached at kevin@pnwcuisine.com.

IF YOU GO

truffle tips

Don't eat any mushroom you aren't sure about, as many types are poisonous. The Puget Sound Mycological Society's Web site has informatin on eating wild mushrooms in its "Education" section. There are no known side effects associated with eating Oregon white and black truffles.

Truffle season lasts from November to March with the best times coming in the middle of this period. Mature white truffles can be the size of a walnut — black truffles can be even larger. They look like potatoes with a beige or black surface and marbling on the inside. They should be fairly hard.

If the truffles you find have no smell, they are probably not ripe and it may be best to come back later. You can ripen some truffles in a thick layer of brown-paper bags stored in a cool, dry place, or in sealable plastic bags with paper towels.

The Oregon Truffle Festival takes place Jan. 26-28 in Eugene and will include truffle seminars, dog-training demonstrations, tastings, dinners, fine food vendors and truffle excursions, depending on the admission package you buy. Packages range from $425 to $1,025 but tickets for individual events, such as the food marketplace ($15-$20), are available. Visit www.oregontrufflefestival.com or call 503-296-5929 for details.

A dog trained to sniff out truffles is the best and most environmentally friendly way to hunt for them. Many trainers use truffle-scented cotton balls and actual pieces of truffle to condition dogs to the smell.

That means high season for truffles is right about now.

Elusive to the point of absurdity, harvested with spy-novel secrecy, imbued with an otherworldly mix of vulgar and sublime fragrances and often confused with the fine chocolate of the same name, the truffle has been prized by peasants and nobles alike for centuries.

This doozy of a quote from the French writer Alexandre Dumas sums up the infatuation:

"The most learned men have been questioned as to the nature of this tuber, and after two thousand years of argument and discussion their answer is the same as it was on the first day: We do not know. The truffles themselves have been interrogated, and have answered simply: Eat us and praise the Lord."

I asked Charles Lefevre of Eugene, Ore., a Ph.D. in mycology and owner of New World Truffieres, which sells oak and hazelnut trees inoculated with truffle spores, to tell me how he's heard Italian white truffles described.

"One description was goat piss, which I think is pretty close," he said. "Another was dead mouse trapped in a wall. The kinder description is garlicky.

"The typical response when people smell Italian white truffles is, 'Get that thing away from me,' " Lefevre said.

"It's a foul aroma, a nasty aroma — and some people just absolutely love it. And I'm one of them."

Blaylock is one of those people, too. The 27-year-old swears he's so attuned to truffle scent, he can smell it in the forest air during peak season. When he handed me a couple of young white truffles to sniff during our Saturday morning foray, their funky, beguiling odor overwhelmed my senses for a second. The smell was both alluring and repulsive.

European truffles can sell for a staggering $1,000-$2,000 a pound, which is part of the reason food lovers experience the fungus so fleetingly in grated sprinkles and paper-thin slices. A Hong Kong businessman paid more than $160,000 two months ago at auction for a 1.5-kilogram white truffle from Alba, Italy. I recently found a quarter-size Alba white truffle at DeLaurenti specialty market in Seattle that was $88.

Equally good Oregon varieties sell for a fraction of the European kind, sometimes just $100 a pound — still steep, for sure.

But for a small contingent of Northwest truffle fans who know what to look for and where, excellent specimens come for free right in our own backyard.

Truffles grow just below ground in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of trees. So you have to rut around in the cold, wet dirt for them, often with the help of a garden tool — or, as the Europeans have been doing for eons, truffle-sniffing pigs or dogs.

Blaylock, who teaches culinary arts at Sea-Tac Occupational Skills Center in Burien, goes on weekend truffle outings with friends and associates and celebrates a day's harvest by cooking up the freshly gathered ingredients in a "forage porridge" on his portable stove.

Just don't ask him or any other truffle gatherer to share their favorite locations. "Truffle hunters are kind of protective."

Lefevre said that in many cases, mushroom hunters wind up knocking on doors to ask property owners for permission to hunt truffles on their land. Some public lands in Washington allow berry and mushroom picking for personal use but may discourage or forbid disturbing the soil.

When I joined Blaylock and his friend, Ryan Harris, of Olympia, for the truffling demonstration, he peppered me with truffle anecdotes, truffle trivia and truffle recipes, the kind of small talk essential to passing the time on an outing.

"I've heard them [truffles] described as something that God threw away," Blaylock told me with a grin. "That's why they're buried."

Finding truffles in the wild is notoriously hit-and-miss.

When luck turns sour for Blaylock, he orders truffles from Jim Wells, an effusive, lanky guy with a long beard who sells them by mail order through his business, Oregon Wild Edibles, in Eugene.

"Truffles are kind of a mystery," Blaylock said. "I've gone out sometimes for six or seven hours and not found a thing, and I've gone out for 20 minutes and found all kinds of 'em."

During Blaylock's demo, we uncovered a handful of white truffles, most of which were small and odorless. Blaylock brought several nickel-size truffles to his nose to check for aroma, which helps determine maturity. Size is less important.

"It's all about marbling on the inside, and smell," he said. "An immature truffle tastes like dirt, or a dull mushroom."

Blaylock pointed out that using a rake to remove the top couple of inches of soil in search of truffles is not the most environmentally friendly way of doing things, because it disturbs the soil. Lefevre said European trufflers have sneered at him when he described how truffles are usually harvested here.

Blaylock's teaching his dog Bear, a shepherd-heeler mix, to hunt for truffles. As a truffle dog, Bear is still "a work in progress." So for now, Blaylock narrows the search by looking for signs, like tell-tale evidence of rodents and deer, which eat truffles.

But both Blaylock and Lefevre see great potential in the use of trained dogs because they are less intrusive. And unlike pigs, which traditionally were used in Italy, dogs won't eat the truffles they sniff out.

One person who's ahead of the curve is Lynne Elwell of Port Orchard, a retired animal trainer for TV and film and a pet groomer. She's teaching her two mini Australian shepherds, Hula and Shimmy, to hunt truffles with help from Lefevre.

She'll hide a couple of canisters containing cotton balls doused with truffle oil, then send the dogs to find them. If they succeed, they get a treat.

Elwell plans to take Hula and Shimmy on a truffle outing with Lefevre and several other foragers in Oregon this week for their first hunt, then put on a demonstration with the dogs at the second annual Oregon Truffle Festival Jan. 26-28 in Eugene.

By introducing truffle dogs, educating the public and generally lifting the veil of secrecy around this exotic fungus — just a little — truffle culture can become as developed here as it is in France and Italy. At least Lefevre hopes so.

"Our goal is to put these truffles on the map," he said. "There's very few places in the world that produce truffles, and we're one of them."

Tyrone Beason: 206-464-2251 or tbeason@seattletimes.com

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