Winter is black truffle season, and there are a few local restaurants where you can get a taste.
Every January, hundreds of people from around the country brave the cold, wet days of a pacific northwest winter and flock to Eugene, Ore. to dig around in the dirt until they unearth the object of their search: a small off-white, rough-skinned mushroom.
At a glance it might look like a misshapen potato, but it’s the wild Oregon truffle—a relative of the better-known truffles from Europe. These truffle hunters are attendees of the annual Oregon Truffle Festival, an event created by mycologist Dr. Charles Lefevre to celebrate and educate people on Oregon’s native truffles. All together, the festival, which also includes a farming forum, cooking classes and a truffle dinner, attracts up to 800 people each year.
While Oregon’s truffles are enough to draw a crowd, it’s their European counterparts that are the most renowned—and among the most expensive foods in the world. There are hundreds of different types of this subterranean fungus. The most widely revered include the Perigord black truffle from France, the Alba white truffle from the Piedmont region of Italy, and the coffee-colored Burgundy truffle that is found throughout Europe.
As truffle experts Ian R. Hall, Gordon T. Brown and Alessandra Zambonelli explain in Taming the Truffle: The History, Lore and Science of the Ultimate Mushroom, truffles were popular as far back as ancient Greek and Roman civilizations. Although they were not always viewed with the esteem that they are today—in the Dark Ages, for example, they were thought to be a creation of the devil and viewed as only suitable for the lower class—they later became highly prized among elite circles in Italy and France.
These days, truffles commonly run from about $1,000 $2,000 a pound, and some can even be as high as $4,000 per pound.
Lefevre postulates that there are a myriad of reasons that truffles are so highly sought after. “It is a lovely aroma and flavor,” says Lefevre, who also runs the Oregon-based New World Truffleres, which cultivates French and Italian truffle trees for sale to farmers. “And there is a prestige associated with them that also is a drive in their popularity—and in their price.”
After a beat, he adds: “Then there is the possibility that they really do something to us.”
Various cultures have long thought that truffles held medicinal value, or even magical powers. As Taming the Truffle details, a Catholic Pope in the 9th century ate truffles to increase his strength in preparation for battle; Persian doctors in the twelfth century used truffles to treat weakness, vomiting and wounds; and 16th century journals have even claimed that truffles have brought people back from the brink of death.
Throughout Europe, many have surmised that truffles are an aphrodisiac. While heightened arousal may just be fanciful speculation, truffles do contain a pheromone called androstenol, which also is produced by humans and animals. Some studies, for example, have shown that test subjects exposed to androstenol tend to rate photographs of others more favorably, finding them more attractive or friendlier, than those who were not exposed.
Whether this translates into any kind of connection between truffles and sex, Lefevre isn’t sure. But he does know that people have a great time at the Oregon Truffle Festival dinner. “It’s not uncommon for people to tell us afterward that, ‘we had the best table, we met all these great people!'”
These mysterious properties may be some of the attraction to truffles, perhaps a contributing factor to its high prices and prestige. Another factor may be the unpredictable and often fleeting nature of this finicky fungus. Chef George Mavrothalassitis of South King Street eatery Chef Mavro explains that the truffles depend heavily on climate conditions that can change year to year.
“It has to be very wet—a lot of rain in autumn,” he says. “And then in the first cold, you will have a beautiful truffle. If it is not that cold, they come later … And when there is no more, there is no more. You have no warning. You could receive a beautiful truffle, and then the week after it is gone.”
Now is the time to get a taste of truffles. Here are a few suggestions on where to go.
CafÃ© Miro, a quaint French restaurant tucked away in Kaimuki, is known for its Truffle Soup ($22). As flavorful as it is aromatic, the soup features a light broth of chicken stock, Maui onion, truffle paste, and white truffle oil— topped with slices of truffles and complemented with gnocchi.
“It is mostly natural flavors,” explains chef Shigeru Kobayashi, the owner and executive chef. “But it is a very exciting soup.”
Another dish that CafÃ© Miro currently is running as a special is the Maui Onion Truffle Flan with SautÃ©ed Foie Gras with Perigueux Sauce ($24), which features a delicate flan with chopped truffles underneath a tender slice of foie gras—all topped with a savory sauce comprised of port wine reduction, beef sauce and truffles.
The dishes as pictured feature the Burgundy truffle that is in season during autumn, but the restaurant rotates its use of truffles based on what is in season.
Kobayashi, who worked in French restaurants in Australia and France before opening CafÃ© Miro, seems to subscribe to the idea that truffles have some other-worldly powers.
“The smell of the truffle is very special,” Kobayashi says. “Some people say that they can get an orgasm from it—it is a very sexy smell.” www.cafemirohawaii.com
ORCHIDS AT HALEKULANI
Once a year executive chef Vikram Garg, who runs the restaurants at Halekulani, heads to Europe to go truffle hunting with friends. Within a couple of hours, Garg can have up to two pounds of truffles, which he enjoys at home with scrambled eggs or pasta.
Wanting to share his love of the mushroom with his guests, Garg has added some truffle dishes to the restaurants at Halekulani. A new appetizer at Orchids is the Smoked Duck Carpaccio ($16), which features slices of smoked duck, shaved Parmesan, oranges and shaved truffles over a baby watercress salad. Th e dish is drizzled with a truffle vinaigrette. Garg created this dish from two separate combinations—truffles and eggs and truffles with oranges—that he enjoys.
“Everybody is talking about truﬄes, and we wanted to put something on the menu with fresh truﬄes,” Garg says.
Orchids—as well as the other restaurants in Halekulani—use fresh truﬄes, imported primarily from France and Italy. As pictured here, the dish featured Burgundy truﬄes from France, but Halekulani also utilizes white truﬄes from Alba, as well as black truﬄes from France, depending on the time of year.
As far as truffle dishes go, this salad is a bargain.
“We wanted to put truﬄes in a dish where it is a good value, and people can still enjoy the real truﬄe,” says Garg, who worked at restaurants in Washington D.C., the Caribbean and India before coming to Halekulani in 2008.
Constantly creating new dishes, Garg says that he will continue to concoct other truﬄe-infused items as the products come in this winter. www.halekulani.com
“People have called me already! Guests have already called wanting to know when I will start serving the truﬄe,” Chef George Mavrothalassitis says in the dining room of Chef Mavro one afternoon in mid-October.
While his guests may be getting anxious, Mavro is patient. He waits until he can get the best possible product— which in his opinion is the black Perigord truﬄe from France. Depending on the year, he also may source white truﬄes from Alba or the Burgundy truﬄe.
“For me, the Perigord truﬄe is the crÃ©me de la crÃ©me,” says Mavro, who originally is from Marseilles, a region in France noted for its truﬄes.
Th is year, he was expecting that the Perigord truﬄe would be available as of mid-December. When this happens, he will roll out a number of truﬄe dishes, which, as per his trademark, he will create based on what ingredients are available at the time.
One dish that he does feature annually is the Egg Truﬄe Osmose, which features a poached egg from Wahiawa-based Peterson’s Upland Farm surrounded by potato mousseline, chervil and Serrano ham—all topped with slices of the Perigord truﬄe. To prepare the dish, Mavro places the egg inside of a jar with the fresh truﬄes for a few days. Th rough osmosis, the egg absorbs the scent and flavor of the truﬄe.
“It is a simple and beautiful combination,” he says. “People love it. Even if I didn’t want to do it, people would ask for it.”
In addition to this item, Mavro also plans to build the rest of his winter menu around the truﬄe. A number of the courses on the winter menu will be designed as “truﬄe-friendly;” diners can choose to have fresh truﬄes sliced onto their dishes.
“When I open the box, all of the kitchen smells like truﬄes, all day,” he says. “And when I open the box to present them to the guests, the whole dining room smells like truﬄes. It is totally amazing. We don’t even have to advertise them. We open the box, and everyone buys it.” www.chefmavro.com