February 05

Oregon has more than white truffles. The Portland Times has a very interesting piece on Oregon Black truffles, praising them highly:

"It’s like a treasure hunt,” says Jim Wells, a director at MycoLogical Natural Products in Eugene. Mycology is the study of fungi, and this company specializes in wild mushrooms, including truffles, picked from the surrounding forests.

Wells is a proponent of Oregon black truffles, which he calls “the premier truffle on the planet.” They’re fruity and versatile, he says, with a subtle flavor that changes from day to day.

Like many fans, Wells thinks that Oregon truffles are under-appreciated. He says people often don’t realize how good the local product is because they taste truffles that have been mishandled. Both black and white varieties are extremely fragile, and a few days can make the difference between superb and dud. European truffles have the advantage of a longer shelf life."

I suspect that describing the Oregon black as the "premier truffle on the planet" is either good salesmanship or betrays a sad lack of knowledge of other black truffles, but the Oregon white is certainly worth attention. Charles Lefevre, in a recent email (where he thanks me for the "tongue in cheek" comment below), tells me of a trial he recently conducted between tuber magnatum and good specimens of tuber gibbosum:

The season for the Oregon truffles has been outstanding this year. The truffles have been large, plentiful and very aromatic. I think the power of the Oregon truffles is among the many well-kept secrets in the truffle world. I did an informal taste test comparing the Oregon white truffle with the Italian white truffle at a holiday party in December. I had a local chef prepare gnocchi in a cream sauce and shaved Oregon white over one half and Italian white over the other. [...] And the results...every single person there who I got around to interviewing felt that the Oregon white was both stronger and better. What condition, you correctly ask, were the different truffles in? The Oregon whites where at their best, selected from among several hundred at the local truffle purveyor's shop. The Italian whites were at least a week old and fading. It wasn't a fair comparison. However, I paid $1800.00 per pound for the Italian whites (the lowest price I could find) compared with about $100.00 per pound for the Oregon whites. The result of this experiment in my mind is not that the Oregon whites are better truffles than the Italian whites, but they are perhaps substantially better than their price and reputation would suggest.

Given that Italian whites are my favourite truffles, and I've never tasted the Oregon kind, whether black or white, I think that's a very fair conclusion. On the other hand, I may need to stump up for an airfare to Oregon in the truffle season.

PS: There's more about both Oregon truffles (and Charles) in a recent issue of the Audubon Society's magazine. [Link]

Chinese truffles look a lot like Perigord Black truffles, cost a lot less, but have less flavour and aroma. They've been a major source of fraud over the last ten years. Time Asia digs into the issue this week, and provides plenty of colourful info:

From the French perspective, the bad news in this piece is the discovery that Tuber indicum out-competes melanosporum. There are fears that indicum may find its way into French truffieres, even unconfirmed reports that it's already happened.

"We saw in experiments that Tuber indicum is very dominant, competitive and aggressive," frets Gerard Chevalier, a researcher at INRA. He paints a scenario in which errant spores from imported Chinese truffles disperse into the air, contaminate the French countryside and do ecological battle with their more fragile cousin."

It might be better for the rest of the world if the Chinese discovered a taste for their own truffles, but that doesn't seem likely:

"None of that, though, changes one irksome fact that has limited Wu's business. For all their gastronomic enthusiasm for endangered sea animals or all matter of rare mammalian life, the Chinese so far appear immune to the pleasures of a black truffle. Mushroom gatherer Li Kun shakes his head when asked whether he enjoys the flavor of the black nuggets he's scooping up from the loamy soil near Hama. "When we're really hungry, we eat them covered with soy sauce, coriander, chili paste and MSG," he says. "That way you don't have to taste the truffle too much, only the sauce."

Truffle poaching is becoming a real problem in France, according to Newsweek. As much as 10 percent of this season's crop may have been stolen, truffle growers are up in arms, and the gendarmes are out in force with night vision goggles. But is there a high-tec answer?

In December, Cholin proposed embedding a microchip in truffles to track stolen ones using Global Positioning System satellites. The idea was discussed at a meeting of the French Federation of Truffle Growers, but didn't go far. One drawback: police would have no way of distinguishing fleeing thieves from roaming boars, who also fancy truffles. Another: the tracking technology is similar to the radio transmitters naturalists use to follow birds, but it won't be small enough to go unnoticed in truffles for another decade, according to Franck Pantaleo, head radio-communications researcher at Saphelec, a firm in Marseilles.

The technology is, however, compact enough to hide in cigarette-size beacons at the bottom of truffle crates, for a cost of less than 500 euros. "The truffle market is taking off right now," says Marc Le Floch, head of sales at Cadden, a Nantes-based seller of the beacons. Ludovic Blanc is one broker who probably wishes he had a tracker: after he left a truffle market in Aups two weeks ago, bandits brandishing firearms sideswiped Blanc's car and forced him to stop, then relieved him of some 40 kilos of truffles.

Jean-Marie Rocchia, a producer from Beaureceuil, thinks he has a better idea. Rocchia drills holes in selected tubers still in the ground and inserts tiny rolled notes in each. Truffles harvested by hands other than his hold a warning for chefs: their black diamond is stolen, and the seller should be reported to the police.

There are times when living a French idyll is not all that appealing. But I do like M Rocchia's witty solution. He's the author of Des Truffes en général et de la Rabasse en particulier, a wonderful tome that takes a knowledgeable and irreverent look at the world of truffles. Recommended if you can read French.

By some very roundabout web wandering, involving Arts & Letters Daily, I came across a piece in the London Review Of Books by Harvard academic Steven Shapin. Ostensibly reviewing three diet books, two Atkins and one South Beach, Shapin either manages to fit the LRB editorial brief, or overwrite considerably:

Most fundamentally, eating is a moment of ontological transformation: it is when what is not-you - not rational and not animate, at the time you consume it - starts to become you, the rational being which ultimately decides what stuff to consume. Flesh becomes reason at one remove, and every supper is, in that sense, eucharistic. We are, literally and fundamentally, what we eat. The material transformation is simultaneous with the possibility of social and moral transformation or the advertisement of the social and moral states to which you are laying claim. (The Great Neurotic Art)

I'm not very big on ontological transformations. I thought Atkins was about weight loss. Worked for me, anyway.

Getting through Shapiro's piece is a bit of a struggle - I dislike overtly academic writing, writing that has to wear its learning on its sleeve - but he does make some interesting points about changes in attitudes to self as evidenced in diets. But when I have to rush to the dictionary to check a meaning (soteriological, in this case), I think the writing's getting in the way of the message.

If our British friend has some optimistic views on truffle yields, so does Charles Lefevre of New World Truffieres, in Eugene, Oregon. According to Forbes, he's dreaming of a white (Italian white) Christmas:

His other goal is to cultivate Italian white truffles--a feat he says no one in the world has yet accomplished. He has inoculated seedlings with Italian white truffle and kept the resulting mycorrhizae alive for three years, so far. "If you could cultivate Italian whites," he says, "and if your trees managed to produce a hundred pounds per acre--which is common with French blacks--then at $2,000 a pound you'd make $200,000 per acre per year."

Lefevre dreams on: "If you had 10 acres, you could work leisurely for maybe five weeks each winter and have a $2 million annual income."

When truffle pigs fly.

Having met Charles, I think I can say that his tongue must have been firmly in his cheek. The Forbes article is worth a read, though.

The truffle business in Britain is hotting up. First there was Truffles UK, set up by Nigel Haddon-Paton and Adrian Cole to produce truffle-infected trees using technology licensed from New Zealand. Now there's a young bloke called Paul Thomas who has been trying to raise money to set up truffieres using trees infected using technology he's developed. He even took his quest to the BBC, who featured his business on Dragon's Den a week or two ago.

The latest news is, apparently, that his deal has fallen through. His website suggests that:

Using 2,500 of our trees on a 5 hectare site, we should achieve a production in excess of 1000 kg per year. That represents an annual turnover in excess of £1Million.

In other words, 200kg of truffle per hectare. On every hectare. Optimistic would be a mild word to use to describe that yield. Perhaps that's why the deal didn't work out. In my experience of seeking funding for start-ups, you don't dazzle your backers with promises of huge returns: nobody will believe you.

What do I think a reasonable yield might be? 20 to 40kg/hectare. That's achievable, in our experience in NZ, and still gives you a good return. Good enough for me, anyway.

I've been working on my chapter about dogs. In browsing the web for pictures of truffle dogs, and especially the Italian breed called lagotto romagnolo, I came across this site. Grist to the mill: they look like a sort of poodle crossed with terrier. Not as charming as the incredibly charming Peg, but they won't chase rabbits. An advantage when rabbits are everywhere.

Peg's two next month, and I know that some time in the next few years we'll have to start training her successor. Would a lagotto be good? I had dismissed the idea as being too convoluted and expensive when I clicked on this:

I daren't let my daughter see this, or expensive dogs will be flying round the world.

The wordcount of The Truffle Book (see column on the right) has just ratcheted up a few hundred words. I'm a little over a third of the way to my target word-count of 40,000 carefully chosen and finely honed words. Words that can then go to a suitable editor for a second opinion.

I have a target in mind. I've been involved in a small way with Savour New Zealand, a gourmet masterclass weekend held every two years in Christchurch. I've been a panellist and hosted some of the celebrity presenters up at Limestone Hills (including Antonio Carluccio). This year, Anthony Bourdain of Kitchen Confidential fame is lined up as the headline guest. If I can get the bloody thing written and published by the second weekend in May, perhaps I can launch it there. Even if I can't do anything official, perhaps I can stuff fliers into people's hands, sign copies, go down on bended knees and plead for sales, all the usual marketing things.

So I have a goal, and that forces me to commit to a schedule. Finish the text by the end of February, design and edit the book during March, and print it during April. The printing part is the only real difficulty - it forces me to use a local printer, which may not be as cost effective as using a Singaporean or other SE Asian press, but that may be no bad thing. I support my local winemakers, so I should be prepared to support my local printer.

The Truffle Book (or whatever it will be called): due in May 2005 from Limestone Hills Ltd. Downloads of the first couple of sections free of charge, the full book for about US$10. Printed copies available on bookstalls in NZ, by mail order around the rest of the world. Bookstall publication rights available in all other territories. Translation rights available.

Form an orderly queue, please.

And if I haven't finished writing it by the time my wife gets home from her current overseas trip, I face unspecified sanctions. So I'm working for a quiet life. I hope.