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Trifling With the Truffles Market

The 'Made in the USA' label might move T-shirts and cars, but not this delicacy.

February 04, 2001|LISA RICHARDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Is nothing sacred? First, champagne. For hundreds of years the elixir was produced only in the French region of Champagne and preferably by a monk. Then, along came the interlopers, and high-quality "sparkling wine" elbowed its way next to the Dom Perignon.

Now the sanctity of truffles--those black diamonds, white gold, heaven's gift to dank and mossy spots only in France and Italy--is being challenged by, yes . . . American truffles.

European truffles, costing as much as $150 an ounce, have long been the purview of the vastly rich or the fungally addicted. Today 30 measly bucks will get you enough domestic truffles at the Santa Monica Farmers Market to load up a creditable risotto.

"I come here every week," says Santa Monica construction worker Chris Standerwick, picking through David West's mushroom-and-truffle stand. West's truffles come from Northern California and Oregon. "Back in 1973, I used to live in Italy and France, and these truffles are just as good as the ones in Europe. First time I saw those truffles here, I went, 'Oh, my God!' And I've been a stone truffle junkie ever since."

In truth, competition from American varieties is not causing Europeans the slightest frisson of anxiety. But American truffles are gaining a niche: Call them truffles for the people--fungi for all.

"American truffles?" trills Julia Child, who taught Americans the difference between tarte tatin and apple pie, beurre blanc and melted butter. "Is there really such a thing?" But Child recovers quickly and vouches for them on principle. Any truffle harvested locally is darn well going to be just as good as a European one.

"They might be better; why not?" she says by telephone from her Santa Barbara home. "I'm very chauvinistic about California," she announces. "It's wonderful what we've done with our food and our wine and our produce. Of course, I still think French cooking is the best because it's careful cooking by people who know what they're doing. But you can't beat great fresh produce, and I'd be happy to eat domestic truffles!"

She adds: "But then, I don't use that many truffles, do you?"

Contrary to conventional wisdom, American truffles have been harvested for more than 100 years. Creating a market for them, however, has been another matter.

"You have no idea how difficult it is to sell truffles," says Dan Wheeler, chief executive of Oregon White Truffles in Portland, with a sigh. Along with Garland Gourmet Mushrooms & Truffles of North Carolina, he is one of a handful of domestic distributors. But he might as well try to sell grits in Maine or tofu in Texas.

"I'm here, finding literally hundreds of pounds in an acre, but while there are maybe 3 million people in Oregon, hardly any know what truffles are."

"At first, I would go around to stores and I would present truffles," Wheeler says. "They would pick them up and sniff them and say, 'Interesting, but I'm not interested.' "

Wheeler turned to the Internet and now sells the truffles at http://www.oregonwhitetruffles.com. With prices cheaper by $100 per pound than European rivals, business is finally burgeoning. Now French mycologists (fungi botanists) come to Oregon to visit Wheeler's cultivations. In California, truffles can be found in Mendocino.

Wheeler does not depend on nature's whim for his truffles; he "inoculates" Douglas fir trees to "grow" his own. The details are top secret, but basically he plants a piece of truffle near the root of a tree, marks the spot and lets it mature. No pigs or trained dogs are necessary to sniff out the spores at foraging time. His method has yielded bumper crops, and Wheeler has unearthed up to 5 pounds of truffles months after inoculation. A former president of the National Truffling Assn., Wheeler says it's nearly impossible to gauge the total U.S. truffle harvest.

Among the myths Wheeler battles is that good truffles are rare, and if they are found in abundance, they must be inferior.

Enunciating with care, the former elementary music teacher says patiently: "Truffles are found on six of seven continents in the world. There are truffles in China and truffles in Australia. The Pacific Northwest has more truffle species already identified than all of Europe and Asia together.

"Your various snobs have probably been exposed to only one or two types of truffles in their lives," he says, "while really there are hundreds."

Truffles are roundish and bumpy, and range from the size of a walnut to a fist. American truffles tend to be smaller than European ones. White Italian truffles are the most pungent and powerful, emitting a musky, nutty, garlicky odor. Wheeler's truffles smell like a mix of butter, fresh roasted hazelnuts, cheddar cheese and dried morel mushrooms. "Of course, a lot of people also tell me they smell like dirty socks," he says.

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