— If you enjoy traveling with your dog and also enjoy sampling gourmet food and fine wines, then take note of the upcoming Oregon Truffle Festival, Jan. 29 to Feb. 1 in Eugene.
The festival, now in its fourth year, draws gourmands and dog lovers from around the country to partake in a variety of activities that focus on this prized edible treasure.
“The reason why dogs are invited to attend is that they play a huge role in the truffle industry worldwide,” says Steve Remington, one of the event's organizers. “People tend to associate pigs with snuffling out truffles. But in fact truffieres started using dogs back in the 1800s because pigs tend to gobble up truffles as quickly as they find them. Dogs seem to enjoy them, too, but they understand commands like ‘No!’ ”
One of the highlights on the festival calendar is a workshop teaching dog owners to train their dogs to hunt for truffles. An actual truffle hunt also is included on the list of events over the weekend.
“I’ve seen everything from dachshunds to Labrador retrievers out hunting truffles, which, incidentally, can sell for as much as $800 a pound,” says mycologist Charles Lefevre of Eugene, Ore., who has been involved in the festival since its inception.
In search of truffles
It is people like Lefevre and fellow mycologist Tom Michaels of Tennessee who have managed to perfect the delicate symbiosis between this fungus and the roots of certain trees that has resulted in truffle farming becoming a viable commercial enterprise in Oregon, Tennessee, Washington and North Carolina as well as parts of Canada.
Apart from actually planting trees that have been specially treated to grow truffles for harvesting, Lefevre says that there are lots of natural truffles to be found. While black truffles usually are associated with Perigord region of France and white truffles with the Piedmont region of Italy, Lefevre points out that if you hunt for truffles, you will find various kinds all over the world — including many parts of America.
“Truffle season lasts approximately from November to February in North America and Canada. Mature white truffles are about the size of a walnut; black truffles can be the sizes of eggs,” he says.
For centuries, truffle hunting in Europe in particular has been cloaked in a veil of secrecy. Those who hunt for them, as well as those who savor their culinary delights, tell legendary tales of clandestine trips under the cover of darkness to scour muddy forests and of competitive rivalry to keep secret those special patches of earth that hide this delicacy beneath the soil. However, foodies and dog lovers attending the festival will literally have everything put on a plate for them.
A variety of packages are available for purchase online and include everything from cooking classes to gala dinners to a truffle hunt. The festival also features workshops, gastronomic events and a marketplace where vendors will be selling a variety of food and dog-orientated wares. Prices start around $475 per person.
Bred for the task
While the experts claim that any dog can be trained to hunt for truffles and will enjoy the adventure, those who are now starting to farm truffles commercially are importing an Italian dog breed called the Lagotto Romagnolo, which is actually bred to be a professional truffle hunter. This ancient breed of water dog looks similar to a scruffy poodle and has webbed feet.
The first trained working Lagotti in the United States were actually imported from Italy by Sam Beall, owner of the Blackberry Farm in Walland, Tenn. This luxury country hotel is in a farm setting where guests get to spend their time with the resort’s cheese maker, master gardeners and world-class chefs experiencing how the food served to them is cultivated and prepared from start to finish.
If you enjoy truffles and can’t make it to Oregon in January, consider Tennessee for your future travels. Unfortunately, pets are not allowed at Blackberry Farm because it is a working farm, said a hotel employee.
“We have planted our own truffle orchard, but we don’t expect to see the fruits of our labors for a few years,” says Beall. “In the meantime, our dogs are working with mycologist Tom Michael in a nearby cultivated orchard hunting truffles that we are serving to our guests.”
Packages to the Truffle Festival can be booked online at Oregontrufflefestival.org. The hotel hosting many of the festival events, the Valley River Inn on the banks of the Willamette River, is pet-friendly.