"Do you want to go to a Truffle Festival in Napa?" When an e-mail starts with a question like that, I really don't need to read any further. Lucky for me the person asking was Girls' Guide to Paris founder Doni Belau, and she wanted to know if I wanted to write about this annual event in California's most prominent wine area. Bien sûr!
It wasn't until I was on the plane heading north when I thought, do we actually have our own truffles in the US? I would soon learn more than I ever thought possible about the wonderful world of truffles.
There is a group called the American Truffle Company (ATC) whose sole ambition is to grow European black truffles anywhere and everywhere they can. They've hit 23 countries in the past 2 years and through the process they're receiving much beneficial data to utilize in all of their growing efforts worldwide.
The short of it is, you need a specific balance of ingredients in your soil to make terrific truffle things happen. If you hire ATC, they test the soil and give it what it needs to be truffle ready. Oak trees are inoculated with truflle spores and then into the perfect ground they go...for 5 years. Yeah, don't plant that tree thinking you're having your first truffle dinner that week-end. There's a lot of patience and blind faith working here.
We're only a few years into the truffle test in the US so we don't technically know if it works. OK, I don't technically know, but ATC is very confident that some of the first truffle trees planted at Robert Sinskey Vineyard 3 years ago, will be having a knock down, drag out truffle-pa-looza in 2 years. Sinskey seemed pretty chill about the whole thing. He had some extra land where sheep were grazing and he thought, truffles? Sure, go ahead, try.
What's interesting is that there are vines that stare directly opposite the truffle trees as if gearing up for battle, which in a sense they are because when it's a good year for the vines, it's a bad year for truffles, and vice versa. Hmmm, who do you think is going to win this battle long term? It's technically too soon to tell, but let's hope we all end up being winners in the end.
So jobs are being created from this new endeavor, and not just for the people at American Truffle Company. There's a herd of dogs who are being trained to be truffle hunters. I met a woman who was teaching her four legged friend to snuff out the good stuff. Asked how one comes to this decision, she replied that she was an urban planner who hit tough times, read an article on the large financial benefits of employing a truffle hunting dog, and off to the kennel she went.
She said it was an expensive investment as she was having to buy truffles to hide around the house for the dog to find. Hopefully she learned later in the week-end that you can actually just hide truffle scented items to put the dog "on the trail." I do suppose you could say that these dogs' jobs are coming at the expense of pig employment since pigs used to be the main truffle hunters, but given the pig's propensity to eat the truffles when found, they simply found a better, more trainable subject.
Luckily we didn't need to wait another 2 years for the dogs to find us some truffles. We were treated to some decadent meals that featured the French truffle. Silver Oak started us off by making truffle pizza to graze on with their light, but flavorful Twomey Pinot Noir while we toured their elegant facilities.
We then sat down to a multi course truffle meal with truffles shaved on top of a colorful chicory and mushroom salad to start. Next up was truffles on iberico pork and polenta with a side of brussels sprouts, and to top it all off, we finished with truffle infused cheese. A nap soon followed.
Beringer had a tough act to follow the next day, but charismatic chef Nico Chessa from Santa Monica's Valentino was up for the challenge. He did an easy to follow cooking demonstration of a few of the items we'd soon be consuming over lunch. Now if it were only as easy to grow those delectable truffles!
There was truffles on citrus marinated arctic char with pesto, which I found left some tastes competing for attention, but the next course of a chick pea crêpe with woodsy mushrooms and truffles brought things into perfect symmetry. Nearing my truffle limit, I dug into the uber rich, but equally decadent truffle polenta with pork sausage and poached egg on top. Delicious.
We needed periodic truffle breaks to cleanse the palate, and luckily downtown Napa is bustling with activity and many restaurants to indulge your every whim - truffle infused or not.
And one night, we just needed a taste of Americana and Bounty Hunter delivered that in the form of barbecue. and much pulled meat.
Luckily there was also time to walk some of this off and one morning we did just that with some mushroom foraging.
If you're going to go in search of fungi, I highly recommend grabbing a Mycologist to join you, which sadly means you won't be eating most of your finds, but you also won't be dying from anything you've consumed on the trail.
The fresh air revived us for our final tastes of truffle at the Oxbow Public Market where most vendors had a unique truffle offering to sell, including the real deal from Italy.
My favorite final taste of truffle was a pizza that I can honestly say has quenched my truffle desire for the forseable future, or perhaps until the first truffle harvest arrives in the US - fingers crossed!