I swear that the strongest drug I have ever taken — legal or otherwise — is NyQuil.
But I do have to own up to a psychedelic experience caused by an overdose of Oregon truffles. I ate them noon and night for three straight days a couple of years ago, courtesy of the Oregon Truffle Festival, and my daydreams and nightmares were heavy, man.
One involved a drawn-out, nonverbal conversation with Alice, the chick from Wonderland, as she sat in a throne made of gold threads with her feet propped on an ottoman constructed of mushrooms. Whenever she blinked, I freaked.
Culinary truffles aren't suppose to cause Haight-Ashbury-level trips, but in my case they do. That doesn't mean that I don't want them. Or that I won't hunt for free ones on public lands while flipping through my "Field Guide to North American Truffles" as I tag behind a fungi Jedi who guides me to the edible ones instead of the ones that will alter my state of mind even more.
Truthfully, I'm not the most cheerful of truffle hounds. Searching for wild ones is best done on wet, cruel mornings. I prefer jammies at that time of day, rather than the camo clothes serious truffle hunters wear as they circle their secret patches like paranoid survivalists. Toting nondescript bags and walking as if on a stroll, they harvest by stealth to avoid being spotted by man or beast competing for these rare nuggets.
I also stink at truffle hunting because I'm not the world's best sniffer. When immature, truffles give off no scent and have the flavor of a rock. When mature, they send out a perfumed request to be eaten. Ripe Oregon white truffles have a nutty, earthy taste. An Oregon brown truffle is garlicky, and the rare Oregon black truffle can release a mixed aroma of pineapple, port, chocolate and dirt.
People who are nose-challenged will find that a scent-imprintable dog, rather than the fabled, snorting pig, comes in handy. Dogs root out mature truffles but don't want to eat them, whereas 300-pound female pigs, drawn to a smell that mirrors a male pig's sex hormone, will wrestle you for them and win.
Even though I'm not good at finding Oregon truffles, I'm great at consuming them fresh, raw, slightly cooked or immersed in olive oil, butter or other fats.
Truffles and wine are sublime. They are like putting gold and silver into a chalice and guzzling it. Once, at the truffle festival's grand dinner, I savored creme-fraiche tarts sprinkled with shaved white truffles and paired with riesling; Pacific lingcod, foie gras and black truffle with chardonnay; Oregon rabbit and white truffles with roussanne; and a duck-leg confit and black-truffle pommes sarladaises with pinot noir.
No wonder my head was spinning and I nodded in agreement as truffle addicts whispered about finding their treasures underneath fairy rings circling Christmas trees. Did someone just say truffles are "the diamonds of the kitchen" or "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds?" Alice, do you know?
To shake the webs of mycelium out of my head, I drove to The Jacksonville Inn to talk with chefs Dana Keller and Platon Mantheakis, two respected fans of fungi. I asked them to speak slowly and clearly. Dana likes to serve Oregon black-truffle flan as an appetizer (sometimes she adds lobster or crab) with a dry riesling or albarino. Platon likes lemon-and-truffle-oil risotto with a sparkling wine. If he adds salmon, he pairs it with pinot noir. Normally, salmon with pinot noir would shock me, but not in my betruffled state.
EVENT: Hundreds of people will gather Jan. 25-27 in the hippy outpost of Eugene to attend the eighth annual Oregon Truffle Festival, three days of seminars, farm tours, feasting and dog training.
The fungi fest is put on by Leslie Scott and Charles LeFevre, a mycologist and researcher who owns New World Truffieres, which sells oak and hazelnut seedlings inoculated with black- and white-truffle spores to farmers, winery owners and would-be truffieres. "Truffles are emblems of good food and wine in Oregon," says LeFevre, talking about what has become his life's work. "When ripe, they can change your life."
Seminars and dinners are fabulous and pricey (www.oregontrufflefestival.com). But for $15 on Sunday, Jan. 27, you can enter the doors of the Hilton Eugene to see cooking and truffle-dog training demonstrations and buy truffle-related goods. For $5 more, you can taste wine from eight Oregon wineries.
TASTED: I met Carole Stevens, marketing director for Folin Cellars in Gold Hill, when she was scanning for truffle clues under Douglas fir trees. I believe I saw her scratching the forest duff with her fingers and sniffing for a ripe, white truffle. My kind of gal!
She later told me she loves the way truffles taste on brie, beef and even ice cream. She even remembered her first truffle, served in a wild-mushroom risotto. She savored it with 2009 Folin Estate Tempranillo ($30). "An absolute ahhh! moment," she recalls.
Did she then add, or did I just hear the voice of Lewis Carroll ask: "Do you think I've gone round the bend?"
And someone, maybe it was Alice, answered: "I'm afraid so. You're mad, bonkers, completely off your head. But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are."
Reach columnist Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or firstname.lastname@example.org