Tracking the taste of truffles

Marek Belka // The Torch
4th Annual Joriad Truffle Dog Champion Champion Gustave, a Chihuahua mix from Springfield, alerts his owner to the presence of truffle oil at the Lane Events Center. Gustave beat out 23 other competitors for the $500 grand-prize.

The 14th annual Oregon Truffle Festival, held from Jan. 25 to 28, brought visitors to Eugene to sample the rare and aromatic cousin of the mushroom. The festival is curated to highlight Oregon’s budding culinary reputation and raise awareness of the quality of Oregon truffles.

The festival kicked off with the Joriad Truffle Dog Championship on Jan. 25, the only truffle dog trials in North America. Held at the Lane Events Center, the first round challenged dogs and their handlers to find bottles of buried truffle-infused olive oil. After the finalists were announced, the contestants traveled to a secret location in the forest outside of Eugene to hunt for real truffles.

Though many of the canine competitors were breeds already well-known for their hunting skills – German Shepherds, Border Collies, and Labradors of all colors – the winner was a Chihuahua mix from Springfield named Gustave. His owner, Marcy Tippmann, took home a $500 prize, and Gustave went home with a belly full of treats.

The weekend-long festival held events for all. Elite chefs from all over the Pacific Northwest held cooking classes and demonstrations using Oregon-grown black and white truffles. Package ticket deals for the festival included winery luncheons, truffle foraging classes, a lecture series and a decadent six-course dinner featuring dishes built around freshly harvested truffles. Sunday’s Fresh Truffle Market featured local and regional vendors selling everything from artisanal cupcakes to Oregon’s famous pinot noir wines.

One of the featured chefs was Lane Community College culinary instructor Chris Crosthwaite, author of the book “Capturing the Essence,” which details methods for using Oregon truffles. Chef Crosthwaite explained why truffles have long been regarded as an elite food item.

“Truffles have been sought after by humans for thousands of years. They are seasonal, difficult to find, and perish quite quickly,” Chef Crosthwaite said. “These factors, along with their alluring aromatics, give them a mystique of being rare and special, like diamonds, hence, they attract wealthy persons.”

This connection to high cuisine is well-known, but part of the Oregon Truffle Festival’s mission is to bring the truffle and its complex flavors into everyday life. Nancy Lowell, a recent retiree from California attending the festival for the first time, was filled with inspiration after a cooking demonstration.

“I’ve been cooking at home for almost 40 years,” Lowell said, clutching a box of black Oregon truffles, “and I’ve never been more excited to go home and cook dinner.”

The festival will host a second weekend of events in Newberg, the heart of Oregon wine country, from Feb. 16 to 18.