You may already be familiar with truffles. . . not the chocolates, but the celebrated and somewhat mysterious fungi found in Europe. Here in the US, restaurants often trumpet the "arrival" of the Italian or French truffle harvest by designing (pricey) menus around its appearance. When available, the highly prized European truffles can fetch upwards of $1000-1500/lb. An expensive indulgence, no doubt. Lesser known is the fact that both black and white truffles are also found (and grown) in the Pacific Northwest, and are available for a fraction of the price of imported varieties. In this article by Leslie Cole of The Oregonian, Oregon chefs who compared domestic and imported truffles side by side found that our home-grown truffles compare favorably to their more esteemed cousins.
So why don't we hear more about local truffles? Although you can find them on menus in Seattle and Portland, they fly under the radar in comparison to other more well known local products like Oregon Hazelnuts or Washington Apples. You might say that they lack a good marketing plan. . . but help is on the way in the form of the Oregon Truffle Festival, an annual event held this year at the end of January (truffle season) in Eugene, Oregon. The three day event featured educational seminars covering mycological, culinary and cultivation-oriented topics, as well as a truffle dinner event sponsored by Eugene's Marche restaurant and optional vineyard tours and associated events. In short, the festival features everything you ever wanted to know about local truffles all in one place.
I attended the Truffle Marketplace portion of the festivities on Sunday. There, a veritable cornucopia of truffle themed treats were available for tasting including pasta with truffle sauce, chocolates infused with truffles (I loved these sweet, earthy chocolates), as well as a variety of local wines and other gourmet products. In addition to all of the goodies available for tasting and purchase, cooking demonstrations involving truffles took place periodically throughout the day.
I was surprised to find (but probably should have known) that Oregon artisan cheesemakers were well represented at the event. Rivers Edge Chevre, Ancient Heritage Dairy, Tumalo Farms, Oregon Gourmet Cheeses and Rogue Creamery all had booths at the festival. Unable to resist, of course, I bought samples of Rivers Edge Illahee, Ancient Heritage Hannah Bridge and Tumalo Farms Oregon Truffleur (all pictured above) for tasting.
Ancient Heritage Dairy, located in Scio, Oregon, just started selling cheese commercially in 2006 and can claim the distinction of being Oregon's first sheep's milk dairy. Their products are just starting to become available around the Portland area (look for them at New Seasons and Steve's Cheese, among other outlets). The Hannah Bridge cheese is a combination sheep/cow's milk washed rind cheese with the characteristic pungent aroma of a well cared for washed rind cheese. I really enjoyed the slightly salty, almost fruity, complex taste of this cheese.
Tumalo Farms took the theme of the festival, truffles, and incorporated it (or them) right into their Oregon Truffleur, an aged goat's milk cheese. Available for sale at the festival was a younger version, aged about three months, and an older variety aged five to six months. I chose the older version, which had subtle and pleasant truffle notes that mingled with the slight goat's milk tartness of the cheese.
The Rivers Edge Chevre's Illahee is an absolutely gorgeous cheese, emerging as it does from a wrapping of smoked maple leaves from trees at Pat Morford's farm. This goat's milk tomme is also washed with truffle oil prior to its wrapping, and the combination of surface treatments lends a surprisingly subtle smoky nuttiness to this cheese which I found really enjoyable, leading into just a hint of tartness on the finish. This was my favorite of the three, an outstanding example of what an aged goat's milk cheese can be.