By Nicole Montesano / photography by Andrea Johnson
Meanwhile, noted chef and cookbook author Jack Czarnecki, owner of the Joel Palmer House Restaurant in Dayton, is producing a unique truffle-scented oil, using Oregon white truffles, that is gaining widespread notice among gourmet chefs.
The oil industry in Oregon is young, its outcome still uncertain, partly because it takes several years for the trees to reach their full potential. It shows enough promise, however, that a few farms have made significant investments, and their colleagues are keeping a close eye on the outcome.
Victory Estates in Keizer planted what may have been the state’s first commercial olive orchard — though not technically its first olive trees — in 2002, and added a mill to produce the oil.
The Durant family followed suit, planting its first small orchard in 2005. Five years later, the farm has 15 acres in olives, a state-of-the-art mill, and 11,000 trees.
In 2008, Hoyal Farms Inc. in the Rogue Valley also decided to invest in olives, as a possible successor to pears, and planted nearly 124 acres. Like grapevines, the first harvest is expected about three or four years after planting.
The Durant family has begun producing small amounts of oil from their orchards, available at the family’s specialty plant and herb nursery, Red Ridge Farms, as well as at some area wineries.
Ken and Penny Durant, pioneer winegrape growers who have farmed their Red Hills property for 40 years, believe that olives make the perfect complement to their vineyards; two ancient crops that share a long history of side-by-side production.
Today, while Penny concentrates on running Red Ridge Farms, Ken and the couple’s son, Paul, manage the olive orchard.
They are not growing olives in the traditional orchard manner, Paul Durant said. Instead, the trees are espaliered like wine grapes, a technique developed in Spain that “lends itself to mechanical harvesting,” he said. “The biggest expense in producing olive oil is harvesting.”
Currently, yields remain small enough that the olives are being hand harvested, he said, but the farm is planning for the future.
Two consecutive hard winters have set back the trees’ growth and raised questions about this year’s harvest. Olive trees, evergreens adapted to dry, hot climates, are most prevalent in the Mediterranean. They thrive in the heat. They don’t care for cold weather, clay soil or waterlogged roots — all typical of western Oregon winters. However, Paul Durant said, after considerable research and consultation with olive farmers in California and the Mediterranean, the family believes some cool season varieties can thrive here, although it may be the northern limit of their range.
“The jury’s still out a little bit, whether this will be commercially viable,” Durant said. “I’m trying to be as realistic as possible.”
Heavy snowfall in 2008, and an extreme cold snap in December 2009 left the trees showing cold damage, Durant said.
“It’s ironic; we just had the most mild January,” he said. “It was just that week that was bitterly cold.”
Particularly in the smallest trees, those less than two feet high, tips are showing dieback and the trees are losing leaves, he said. The damage varies by tree height and placement in the fields, with the worst damage toward the bottom of the gully that runs through one of the fields, where the cold air pooled.
It was clear, he said, that different varieties fared differently. The Durants planted three cloned varieties; arbequina and arbosana, both from Spain, and koroneiki, from Greece. Olives are self-pollinating, Paul Durant said, but planting multiple varieties appears to produce a better yield. In addition, the different varieties produce very distinct flavors of oil, which can then be combined to produce various blends.
The Spanish varieties seem to have weathered December’s intense cold spell better than the heat-loving koroneiki, he said. The largest trees also fared better than the smallest.
Durant said the extent of the damage won’t be clear until sometime in March.
However, he is already making plans to let the next batch of seedlings spend an extra year or two in pots, to give them the advantage of larger size when they are planted in the fields.
The age of the olives at harvesting also affects the flavor. Olives ripen in the fall, however, so the colder climate here leaves Oregon farmers at a disadvantage. They must harvest before the first frost, unlike farmers in California, who can leave the fruit on the trees for weeks longer.
“We probably won’t have especially ripe olives, so we’ll probably have more pungent oils,” Durant said.
It’s a flavor, however, that he has come to love, and he isn’t alone in that taste.
“My kids hardly use butter at all,” he said. “They just haven’t acquired a taste for it. We use olive oil for almost everything.”
The Fungus Amongus
Oregon wine country chef Jack Czarnecki had acquired a taste for truffles long before he created his Oregon white truffle oil. Customers used to ask him to make a truffle oil, he said, and he always laughed off the idea.
“My background is in bacteriology, so I knew all the reasons it couldn’t be done,” he said.
Mushrooms and edible fungi such as truffles are low in acid. Put them in oil, which is anaerobic, and you risk creating growing conditions for the bacteria responsible for causing botulism poisoning. The truffle oils imported from Europe are not produced from actual truffles; their flavors come from a laboratory.
But people kept asking why Czarnecki couldn’t make an Oregon product, with native truffles. And he found himself thinking about how it might be done safely. Finally, a talk with another bacteriologist gave him the answers he needed.
Czarnecki won’t reveal the method he uses; that’s proprietary information, he said. But he was able to develop a process that was approved by Oregon State University’s Department of Food, Science & Technology.
Putting the flavor of truffles into oil isn’t just a fancy touch.
“You can actually taste the character more strongly in the oil than in the truffle,” Czarnecki said.
“The gases (produced by truffles) are really key. A raw truffle tastes disappointing; it’s not that much different from a mushroom.”
Truffles’ flavor lies primarily in their scent, which Czarnecki describes as “a 2,000-year-old Darwinian cocktail of gases,” which the truffle uses to attract small mammals. The animals smell the truffles, dig them up and thus help spread them throughout the forest.
That complex mixture of volatile gases is both what makes truffles attractive to people, along with small forest mammals, and makes them difficult to work with. The components and aromas change constantly as the truffle ripens and then grows overripe.
“Truffles are little biochemical factories; they change all the time,” Czarnecki said.
Use them at the wrong time, and the results may not be pleasant. Use them at their peak, and aficionados swoon over the flavor.
Human beings, Czarnecki said, can — and do — experience the flavor of truffles by using them in foods rich in fats — shaving thin slivers over a pasta cream sauce, for example.
Czarnecki enjoys creating a unique regional product that captures the complex aromas of the mysterious truffle. He enjoys it in part because it is extremely difficult to do.
“No one else makes it the way I do,” he said. “It was a challenge. It continues to be a challenge.”
It took him about a year to develop a process he was happy with, he said, and he continues to tinker with it since beginning production in 2008.
“Truffles act differently at different times of the year and different ages,” he said. “It keeps me up at night, thinking up solutions. I have the same problem the following year and I apply the same solution, and it’s not quite as good as I thought it was. So I have to come up with a different one. I’ve got a lot of experimenting going on. I’ve thrown away a lot of oil in the process.”
Czarnecki’s Oregon White Truffle Oil may be purchased online through his website, www.oregontruffleoil.com, at the Red Ridge Farms nursery, and at several local wineries.
Nicole Montesano is a reporter for the News-Register in McMinnville