Charles Lefevre is traipsing through a thicket of Douglas firs in Oregon’s Willamette Valley in search of buried treasure. Beneath these forests, he explains, lies his quarry: the wild Oregon truffle. Four species of the fungus, cousins to the celebrated black truffles of Périgord and white truffles of Alba, occur in the Oregon woods, and Lefevre reveres them all. Three years ago, he cofounded the Oregon Truffle Festival to proclaim the native truffle’s place, as he puts it, “among the pantheon of culinary delicacies.”
Because truffles thrive in habitats where some action, such as farming, has disturbed the ecology, Lefevre, who has a Ph.D. in mycology, or the study of fungi, has chosen for today’s hunt a former pasture that is reverting to forest. Though expectations are low—signs of raking suggest others have beaten him to the punch—he soon spots a small burrow in the ground. “Mice and squirrels eat truffles, so you dig where you see them dig,” he says. And indeed, when Lefevre pulls back a mat of needles, he reveals a handful of truffles (without the help of Stella, a friend’s trained truffle-hunting Lab). The largest is walnut-size and the color of buried ivory. Giving it a sniff, he declares the truffle immature but adds that a week of ripening at home might release its full essence.
As pleased as he is with today’s find, Lefevre, 42, is the first to admit that wild truffles are just his sideline. Not content to merely forage for nature’s bounty, he’s on a quest for the holy grail of horticulture—the propagation of truffle orchards. And he believes he’s already mastered the alchemy of converting dirt into black diamonds, as Périgord truffles, costing as much as $2,600 a pound, are sometimes called.
Truffles exist in a symbiotic relationship with certain species of trees, growing around the roots when the soil quality, temperature and moisture are just right. The first recorded attempt to domesticate the fungus dates back 200 years, when Frenchman Joseph Talon discovered that if he planted an acorn beneath a truffle-producing tree, the sapling could be transplanted with a fair chance that it, too, would eventually produce truffles. In the 19th century vast areas of France were sown using Talon’s not entirely reliable technique. The next great leap forward occurred in the Sixties, when another Frenchman, Gérard Chevalier, inoculated saplings with microscopic truffles in a lab. The technique yielded viable orchards in Europe, and in 2000, when Lefevre met Chevalier at a mycology conference, Chevalier revealed the secret behind his breakthrough.
“He let it slip,” says Lefevre, who returned home and promptly set up a business, New World Truffieres. Since 2003 he has sold some 100,000 saplings inoculated with Périgord black truffles or Italian white bianchetto truffles. None has yet reached bearing age—five to 10 years, depending on tree species—but Lefevre is convinced that when they do, they’ll produce up to 50 pounds of truffles per acre annually. If that happens, American truffle growers can lay claim to a market once monopolized by Europeans, just as earlier pioneers did with wine, cheese and caviar.