Trufflefest Napa Valley

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blacktruffle.jpgBy Deirdre Bourdet

Last weekend the inaugural Napa Valley Truffle Festival brought a wave of truffle hunters to town, just in time for the start of the black truffle season.  With seminars and dégustations aimed at gourmands and geeks alike, the Festival drew a diverse crowd of truffle scientists, truffle purveyors, truffle farmers, potential truffle farmers, and truffle-obsessed foodies--united in their shared passion for mycorrhizal fungus.  
The (non-chocolate) truffle, for those unfamiliar, is the "fruit" of an underground fungus that lives symbiotically on the root tips of trees.  Though most commonly found on oaks, the truffle fungus can apparently establish a satisfactory working relationship with most trees native to temperate and Mediterranean climes.  The fungus assists the tree by extracting more nutrients from the soil, and in return the tree shares its photosynthesized energy with the fungus.  

truffle_on_grass_8cz5.jpgUnlike most other types of funghi, the truffle fungus cannot discharge its spores on its own, and has developed an alternative method of scattering its genetic material into the world: spores that are irresistibly attractive to mammals.  A visceral, suggestive aroma--said to evoke animals' mating pheromones--entices most mammals to eat the truffle, which in the normal course of things, causes the truffle to hit the ground a goodly distance from its parent fungus.

Most humans are also suckers for the truffle's unique, yet oddly familiar fragrance, and it tends to generate lifelong love at first whiff.  It is also a well-reputed aphrodisiac for reasons that should be obvious.  Unfortunately, the truffle is quite perishable and loses its seductive aroma and flavor within a few weeks of harvesting.  This ephemeral quality, coupled with the fact that truffles have for the most part resisted organized cultivation by humans, means that they command some serious prices: between $100 and $400 per pound for the summer Burgundy truffle (Tuber aestivum), between $500 and $1000 per pound for Périgord black truffles (Tuber melanosporum), and up to $4000-5000 per pound for the Italian white truffle (Tuber magnatum).

Truffle-flavored food products that are sold for more modest prices are commonly made either with imitation truffle aromas created through applied chemistry, or the much cheaper and much less pungent Chinese truffles (tuber indicum).  In California and Oregon, we also frequently see products made with Oregon black (Leucangium carthusianum) and white (Tuber gibbosum) truffles, which are indigenous to the Pacific Northwest and typically found on Douglas fir trees.

Significant recent research into the lifecycle of the truffle has created a brave new world for truffle cultivation, though.  The American Truffle Company (which co-sponsored the Festival) is now able to provide full service assistance and truffle-inoculated trees to landowners wanting to redevelop a few acres into a truffle orchard.  The company estimates that truffle orchards can be 7-10 times as profitable as growing grapes, due to the much higher revenue generated by truffles and their dramatically lower labor and maintenance costs year after year.  That estimate assumes the truffle fungus thrives in your particular terroir, fruits regularly, and that you can train somebody (traditionally a dog, though I stand ready to volunteer my services) to properly sniff out the goods when the time is right.

These are a lot of big assumptions to achieve success, but at least one prominent California winery is giving it a shot.  Robert Sinskey Vineyards just finished planting a 1.75 acre plot of its Carneros vineyard land with tiny hazelnut and oak tree saplings inoculated with Périgord black and Burgundy summer truffles.  In four to eight years, they hope to be harvesting... and hopefully incorporating their local truffles into the food pairing program at the Napa winery's visitor center.  Rumors at the Festival also suggested that several other Napa and Sonoma landowners are, or soon will be planting truffle orchards of their own.  Dare to dream!  

trufflesneggs.jpgWhile we wait for our local truffle fungus to mature, whet your appetites at the wine country restaurants serving truffled dishes this winter.  In my opinion, even the dishes made with the less prestigious varieties of truffle are well worth eating, but if you're after the real thing (meaning Perigord blacks, Italian whites, and Burgundy summer truffles), snag a table at The Carneros Inn's FARM for their white truffle dishes, modestly priced at only $30 for a dish containing three full ounces of shaved white Alba truffles.  Also consider booking a spot for New Year's Eve at FARM, because the five-course prix fixe menu contemplates truffles in three of the courses--yet another reason for a Champagne toast that night.

Truffle aficionados should also be sure to hit La Toque in the Westin Verasa for the 29th annual All Truffle Dinners, which begin Friday, January 7, 2011.  It's total truffle immersion, with superbly paired wines and the full range of premium truffle varieties.

FARM at the Carneros Inn, 4048 Sonoma Highway, Napa, 707.299.4880

La Toque, Westin Verasa,
1314 McKinstry Street, Napa, 707.257.5157

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