Napa Truffle Festival (and my fantasy farming life)

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Napa hosted the third annual truffle festival this past weekend–a gathering of truffle cultivation experts and scientists, renowned Michelin Star chefs, and other folks from the food and wine world to discuss, examine, probe, pair and prepare truffles.

Have you ever had the fresh black winter Périgord truffle? I remember the very first time: we were in Paris and we somehow stumbled upon a restaurant that only featured truffles (simple things, like scrambled eggs with truffle). It smelled the same as the truffle oil I’d come to love on pizzas or the truffle infused cheeses I’d munch on with baguette, but there was something heady and intoxicating like never before. I kept thinking back to an interview I’d seen once with Robert Downey Jr., where he talked about being an addict and chasing an initial high. I feel like I’ve been chasing that initial truffle high ever since.

It’s come down to this: if we ever find ourselves with a few extra acres of land in a proper climate (Sonoma, Napa: I’m looking at you), we’re going to think about contracting with the American Truffle Company to plant some inoculated seedlings and cultivate our own little orchard of truffle-bearing Oak Trees. Sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

In any case, to further the fantasy, I jumped at the chance to visit the Robert Sinskey Vineyards truffle orchard this past Saturday to see how its done.

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Robert Sinskey and his family had land they’d left fallow for their sheep and decided to plant those acres with inoculated oak and hazel seedlings. They’re about two years into the project, which is being analyzed by the American Truffle Company along the way with root samples and DNA tests, and expect to harvest truffles in 3-4 more years. Apparently, one acre can yield 35-80 lbs of truffle per year!

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They need one dog, specially trained for truffle hunting, to find ripe truffles. This one’s named Rico; he’s being playing with chew toys infused with truffle oil and playing catch with a bagged truffle all his life and he aims to please. He can find many, many truffles in a few hours and then he can take a nice, long break: the truffle season is a long one. Apparently the Lagotto Romagnolo breed is especially good at finding the prized fungi (the winter truffle sells for up to $1,000/lb.; the summer for $400-600/lb.). The dogs were all pretty cute–and not at all concerned with spraying mounds of dirt at us as they went about their business.

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We had tickets for one of the truffle dinners at La Toque and, sadly, Aron’s back means no long sit-down tasting menus in his immediate future. But I brought him home some truffle cheeses from Napa’s Oxbow market, and I’m hoping we might be able to go to more of the events when the festival returns next year!

Napa Truffle Festival

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