The North-West

THREE – Truffle Season

We turned back from the Salish Sea and have been hunkering down in Seattle. The terrible forest fires on the West Coast made the prospect of sailing south daunting. Those fires in California, Oregon and even in Washington State have taken nearly six million acres of trees and the tragedy of that destruction brings home the meaning and consequences of deforestation. All over the world, forests are under siege – since 1980, the Amazon has lost almost 20 million acres of forest, some 20% of the total.

A study published in Nature last year estimated that the world had a remaining stock of three trillion trees – of which fifteen billion are being burned or cut down each year. One response has been the rise of reforestation groups that employ local people to plant trees and mangrove swamps to replace what has been lost.

You may already donate to reforestation projects: if you don’t perhaps you might like to look at Eden Reforestation Projects – www.edenprojects.org – that has planted over four hundred million trees and provided four million hours of local employment. I think I mentioned that the Race Marshal has planned a couple of fundraising rides for me over the coming months.

Forests are, of course, more than trees and shrubs. Reports have come about the effect on wildlife – but I don’t know to what extent the fires on the West Coast have affected life underground. What may be the world’s largest plant lives under an Oregon forest – an Armillaria, a network of honey fungi that extends over 2,500 acres, weighs hundreds of tons and has been alive for possibly 8,000 years.

Life underground at this time of year brings one of my favorite fruits – truffles dug from the forest floor. Truffles – there are perhaps forty varieties – are extraordinary in many ways. Growing underground in symbiosis with trees, the fungus that produces the truffles has no obvious way to spread its seeds. So it creates truffles – fruits that emit a delicious pungency (if you ever go out with a truffle hunter, smell the earth near the truffle) which persuades animals to dig for it, eat, and move on.

Oregon has wonderful white truffles and there are plentiful truffles near Seattle, on the slopes of the Cascade Mountains, just to the north and on the Olympic Peninsula, the southern border of the Salish Sea. Wild truffles are found by truffle hounds: hard to believe, but apparently any species can be trained to sniff them out. Truffles used to be found by pigs but they are too keen to eat their unearthings.

Truffles are very valuable: an inaccurate but handy rule of thumb is that black truffles cost around one dollar a gram – so something the size of a golf ball will cost around $100 – and white truffles are twice that. Locally, this value has produced a problem with hunters who simply rake away the soil, sometimes from whole hillsides, to get at the truffles. This ruins the area by exposing tree roots – and their haul gathers ripe and fledgling truffles indiscriminately.

The precious aroma of the truffle lasts only a few days so distribution is at a premium. Individual truffle hunters may sell directly to restaurants or to a middleman. In the Alba region of Italy where the famous ‘white diamond’ is found, the efficiency of distribution is astounding. Truffles can go from hillside to Hong Kong in 24 hours.

Alba is set in the most beautiful countryside and worth visiting for many things – Barolo is produced down the road – and in particular for the International Alba White Truffle Fair. The Fair is running at the moment:

“The truffle is perfume, poetry, mystery, but also stellar cuisine and a status symbol with a timeless charm. The Alba Truffle Show is a large container of cultural and gastronomic events that celebrate the white gold of the Langhe in all its shades. During all the weekends of the Fair, national and international chefs, local chefs, designers, writers and artists will alternate with a passion for truffles, the culture of good food and good taste.”

Each year there is an international charity auction from Grinzane Cavour Castle broadcast by satellite. This year’s highest bid was from Hong Kong: a huge 1.25 kg Alba white truffle went for US$110,000. (The largest truffle ever found was only 60 grams heavier).

Charity auctions aside, you get what you pay for in the commercial world of truffles. An Alba white diamond will be priced according to supply – and lack of rain, for example, can depress yields while, as in 2018, good rain can depress prices. Black truffles can be bought cheaply because they can be produced commercially – while white truffles still only come from the wild. But a black truffle from the wilds of Perigord will be expensive.

Truffle oil is something to take care with. Real truffle oil should be made from good olive oil and pieces of black or white truffles. But because the principal scent is easy to replicate in the laboratory, ‘truffle oils’ are often simply oil plus chemicals. Caveat emptor – which translates these days as ‘read the label’ and beware words like “truffle flavour” or “natural truffle aroma.”

While we are on the subject of this season’s food offerings, my two other favorites are marrons glaces which began life in the sweet chestnut forests of northern Italy and southern France when the Crusaders brought back sugar to Europe for the first time. And then quinces – a very special fruit: a wonderful addition to lamb stew and the source of membrillo, a paste to be eaten with cheese, preferably manchego.

So tomorrow sees us set sail again. Social isolation on a yacht heading west along the Salish Sea and then south down to the Columbia River and to Portland. The weather promises to be light cloud and a 6 mph wind from the southwest. Perhaps I can get away without seasick tablets.

two quinces
quinces of autumn (c)meirion harries

SUGGESTED LINKS

Eden Reforestation Projects – www.edenprojects.org

Tree Sisters – www.treesisters.org

Hunting for truffles in Washington State – https://youtu.be/gzmn-I5lDjg

Why truffles are so expensive – https://youtu.be/RQ1nY51txoA

An endearing film about distributing Alba’s white truffles – https://youtu.be/dmN2MkH-1qI

Enrico Crippa, three-star Michelin chef at the Piazza Duomo restaurant in Alba, demonstrates how to cook tagiolini with white truffle – https://youtu.be/1Sb2haFKWSo

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