I have spent whole afternoons, alone with my brain, trying to find a good alternative to the French word: “terroir” (pronounced: ter-wahr). This word is so accurate and so clarifying in French, but falls flat on its face in English. Not only is it awkward to pronounce, visually, it is one letter away from ‘terror.’ It desperately needs re-branding. Mostly because the concept behind it is a direct path to delicious.
Terroir: the conditions in which a food is grown or produced and that
give the food its unique characteristics.
This concept which is rooted in local pride, morphed into trade protection measures in Europe during the 1980s. The happy consequence either way is the protection of authentic flavor (and tradition). In Italy, you can get tossed in jail for trying to pass off your cheese as Parmigiano-Reggiano if the milk you used came from cows that chewed their cud on the other side of the fence of two designated provinces. These borders are not arbitrary; they account for both minute and significant shifts in climate and soil from one farm parcel to the next. And ensures that the quality of cheese labeled “Parmigiano-Reggiano” blows your mind every time.
This idea, which flies in the face of our current ‘food industrial complex’ in the U.S., was more easily adopted in the wine industry here. The effect of terroir is directly expressed in wine, making it easier to understand. In 2004 the ‘Columbia Gorge AVA’ became an official designation for wine, a coup for this region’s status on the wine market. It got me thinking: what else could we protect and label or at least cherish under the terroir concept? What else could we own with pride? What tastes uniquely Oregonian?
In our corner of Oregon, we get a lot of rain. And while we are all fortifying ourselves a bit at this time of year for the dreary reality of constant drizzle for months on end, consider that rain also brings…mushrooms! Mushrooms may seem insignificant to weathered northwesterners but for most of the rest of the world, it’s not a given that you can walk through the forest a few minutes from your back door on a sunny day after a few days of rain and spot chanterelles poking out amongst the forest ground litter in quantities that could fill up a grocery bag before your kids can even start whining. My chef friend next door even found morel mushrooms in his city back yard last spring. This truth lightens my dread at the site of anothercloudy sky this time of year.
In what now seems like a past life, I had the fortune to enjoy an extended stay in a famous mushroom capital of the western world. A colleague convinced me to accompany her to Italy for a trip to unveil the mysteries and culture surrounding the most noble of mushrooms—the white truffle. We were in the Piedmont region: perhaps Italy’s least known region to Americans, but most revered by chefs and vintners world-round. With a climate similar to our own, even located in the northwest corner of the country, the hunting of truffles in the fall creates a veritable frenzy. Steep market prices reflect their fickleness, scarcity and entirely unique contribution to the palate. There are families with children who are not permitted to speak due to a past transgression on someone else’s proclaimed hunting grounds.
We had a loosely-held idea of writing a book about this famed subterranean gem. So as far as the IRS was concerned, our apartment perched on a hilltop with a breathtaking view of rolling hills lined with grapevines was a base for “research.” Two young American women showing up in a village of fewer than a hundred people led to the non-coincidental meeting of a whole cast of local characters. One day, a local dandy showed up on our doorstep with an invitation, offered solely through hand gestures, to come on a truffle hunt with some friends. He was wearing a cravat tucked into his crisp button-down, an oil skin jacket and rubber boots, and was holding a bottle of local Moscato d’Asti (a lovely local sparkling wine). How do you say no to that? With camera and naivete in hand, into the woods with complete strangers we went, blindfolded for theirprotection. (How, just how did I...?).
Once we had arrived at their top-secret spot, we were unblinded, and the dogs were let loose. With a half an hour there was a high-pitched bark of delight and urgency, a huntsman knelt down at the base of a tree and gently scratched out a mud-caked orb the size of a farmer’s fist. In spite of its grubby appearance, this homely fungus was likely worth 500 hundred dollars. This set off a series of back-slapping, cork-popping, and feasting that lasted the remainder of the day—though not a truffle was touched. They were just too valuable.
To find a meal with white truffles, we had to hit the city it seemed. Alba is the main regional city of Peidmont and along with an impressive collection of ancient towers, it has sophisticated restaurants and shops. My travel partner went on a quest for the perfect Italian leather shoes and I followed my grumbling tummy to a cobbled street with a row of little eateries. I was beckoned into one by a charming maître d’ and with a pitiful look, given the preferential table next to the open fireplace. While marveling at the possibility there could be such a thing in a restaurant, the waiter took it upon himself to dazzle me with his service. Avoiding the awkward swirl of hand gestures and a staccato of monosyllabic words, he threw up his hand, bowed, and said: “I give you dee best, ok madam?” In my experience, a grateful and enthusiastic ‘yes’ to this kind of offer will always land you a terrific meal, so with relief I replied: “Grazie, fantastico!”
Little did I suspect that this theatrical invitation would deliver the most deeply satisfying and memorable lunch of my life, a truth to this day. Yes, there were truffles—shaved fresh at the table over a creamy risotto—and they were extraordinary. But the unexpected highlight was the first plate brought to my table and one with ingredients I could count on one hand with a finger to spare. The waiter had a look of both nonchalance and pride in his eye as he lowered before me a plate piled high with fresh, delicately-shaved, fresh porcini mushrooms that had been lightly drizzled in the finest extra-virgin olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt and parsley.
The Piedmont is equally blessed with superb growing conditions for porcini mushrooms (also known as ceps). A staple in Italian cuisine in every strata of society, porcini are exceptional in their rich, umami flavor which is maintained after dehydrating and even pickling. They are also delicious, like most mushrooms, sautéed in butter and garlic. This is how I had always enjoyed them, in risotto or pasta mostly.
I came home with a suitcase full of truffle this and truffle that. And while the flavor of white truffles is distinct and the culture surrounding them fascinating, the most indelible flavor and experience for me was the pure, unadulterated flavor of that mound of fresh porcinis. It was a direct expression of terroir if ever there was one: a clear sunny day with crisp air after a downpour that had soaked the forest floor. The taste of new and urgent growth, of earthly essence, and of the renewal that emerges from darkness—it was the flavor of rain.
I have never tried to recreate that dish at home; the feeling perhaps too precious to be potentially bastardized by replication. And, even if I could find a giant fresh American boletus, our closest version of a porcini, in a market here, I would not eat it raw, and nor should you. (Experts here advise never to eat wild mushrooms raw as they have toxic elements that are only neutralized by cooking.)
Compelled by fall closing in on what felt like a short summer, I threw my romantic fantasies to the wind recently when I threw together this ode to my ultimate “gout de terroir” mushroom salad in Alba. While I do not always eat organic, the sponge-like nature of mushrooms makes them an obvious candidate for organic in my view. For a quality, versatile mushroom with a nice earthy flavor, my go-to are cremini mushrooms from Hood River Organic. Since they are grown locally, you can get them super fresh too.
To deliver both an earthy and ethereal quality to your next dinner, dig out your mandolin and slice a bowlful of creminis from top to toe, no larger than 1/8” thick. (Keeping your focus, will keep your fingers!)
If you find they have a bit of dirt on them, simply brush it off gently with a damp towel (do not wash them). Then just before serving, toss them with a handful of Italian parsley leaves, then dress them generously in mix of cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil* and lemon juice (about 1 part juice to 3 parts oil). Add sea salt, freshly-ground pepper and finely-grated lemon zest to taste. Fresh chopped tarragon provides a bit of mystique.
* Fresh, cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil is available at ‘Arome’ in downtown Hood River.