Tag Archive for: Oregon

One of my early lockdown treats, my alternative to baking banana bread and sourdough (or hoarding more loo rolls than my neighbours) was to order a small sample of English truffle from The Wiltshire Truffle Company, shaving the precious tuber into scrambled eggs, its heady aroma permeating the kitchen.

Since when I’ve moved onto more and more arcane foodie explorations – bottarga, colatura d’alici, mostarda di cremona, cottechino. There’s an Italian theme developing here, so if I want to resume my truffle fixation I should really hang on until next autumn when the white truffles of Alba in Piedmont make their seasonal bow. 

Not that seasons are crucial in our global society. The Wiltshire suppliers don’t just confine themselves to Italy, France and the ‘full English’ they’ve done so much to promote. Their latest mail-out trumpets the arrival of Australian winter truffle, akin to Périgord truffles from South West France – “widely considered by leading chefs to be the best black truffles on the planet”. Big claims and you could compare these Aussie beauts with the company’s regular shipments of Italian summer truffles from hunters in the Tuscan and Umbrian hills. If your funds run to it. Truffles are wallet-busters. At auction the most prized varieties could cost you over £5,000 per kilo.

A local truffle trader on the streets of Alba

The most exciting and affordable way to encounter them is to visit Alba at peak Truffle Festival Time. OK, it hosts auctions flogging the most perfect specimens to connoisseurs and entrepreneurs across the world, but even the smallest cafes offer affordable menus showing their pride in the product. I know I’ve been there. And also, cutting out the middle men, I’ve trekked with hunters in the ancient forests as they unearth secret truffle patches with their specially trained dogs. Ditto in Oregon, USA, where I was invited to an altogether more academic Truffle Festival…

• There’s a documentary in cinemas, The Truffle Hunters, which is set around Alba and another UK online truffle merchant called TruffleHunter, which has a fine reputation. They’ll also sell you a professional standard truffle shaver. I’m wary of much that passes as truffle oil; truffle butter can be a better bet for a cheaper option to the real tuber.

But first, what exactly makes the white truffle so special?

Truffles are the fruiting body of a subterranean fungus usually found in close association with the roots of trees, their spores dispersed through fungivores (animals that eat fungi). Hence it was traditionally pigs that were trained to hunt these coveted delicacies. These days it’s more likely to be dogs. White truffles are more highly prized than the black. Growing symbiotically with oak, hazel, poplar and beech and fruiting in autumn, they can reach 12 cm diameter and 500g, though they are usually much smaller, between 30g and 110g. The flesh is pale cream or brown with white marbling which releases their powerful scents, not appreciated by everyone (let’s call it olefactory Marmite). There are an estimated 200,000 regular truffle gatherers in Italy, with the sector worth around €400 million a year.

Fresh truffles should be consumed more or less immediately although they will last for up to seven days in a domestic fridge.

Once upon a time in Alba 

I’d never associated hedonism with tramping through thick forest undergrowth in the dusk. Peering to see if a lean setter-cross has found the ideal tree root to dig frantically under. I am not alone here in the heart of Alba truffle country in an October unseasonally warm. Around me 15 other paid-up ‘Hedonistic Hikers’, cameras at the ready, also await a tuber epiphany. 

Our guides, trading under the name Hedonistic Hiking, are proud to include an authentic white truffle hunt in season as part of their ‘Jewels of Piedmont’ (Piemonte) walking tour. It’s not everyone’s idea of holiday heaven but it sets serious foodies salivating. Those who know what the fuss is all about when the autumn mists that give their name to the famous local grape variety, Nebbiolo vines coat the valleys of North West Italy’s Langhe region and the autumn wine harvest is nearly over. It’s now Truffle Time, all the way to Christmas.

The following day we’ll indulge in an early evening aperitivo and do the ‘passeggiata’, strolling around the truffle-scented squares and alleys of regional capital Alba, where the annual Truffle Fair is on to celebrate – and auction off – this lucrative delicacy. 

Still for the moment, at the gourmet equivalent of the coalface, there’s work to be done. 

Truffle accessories aren’t strictly necessary

Our truffle hunter, Marco Varaldo, expresses faith in his rookie hound, Laika, so new she doesn’t feature in his publicity material. Marco has a day job, but hunting for the lucrative truffles, with their intoxicating, almost aphrodisiac scent, is his passion. 

The white variety, the ‘tartufo bianco’, rarer and more expensive than the black and found mostly famously in this corner of Italy, is revered the world over by gastronomes (and expensive restaurants). Admiration isn’t universal – their earthy assertiveness nauseates some sensitive palates. I’m not in that camp.

The white truffle can’t be artificially cultivated. This is part of its unique appeal. They are sought for in certain jealously guarded locations, hidden at the base of oak, beech and hazel trees. You train your dog to recognise the pungent aroma and then snuffle them out of the soil and leaf mould. It all seems a mite random as Laika zips and zig-zags around, scattering leaf mould, but then…

The novice truffle hound comes up trumps

I don’t know what the Piemontese for Eureka is, but it is time to yell it. The pooch apprentice has struck gold – ‘white gold’. Marco quickly straddles Laika, snatching a knobbly clay-covered lump from her jaws, pocketing it and rewarding the dog with a far less expensive treat. We clamber to see what the fuss is about. Marco delicately brushes the muck off the white truffle and we all commune with its pervasive perfume.

Over the next couple of hours we collect further specimens and, later, part of the haul, assiduously shaved over the local tajarin pasta, will be the centrepiece of our supper at a little local restaurant called Mange. When truffles are abundant, near the source, they can be a surprisingly democratic treat. Just a few slices elevate a local beef dish, below.

Truffle heaven on a plate. It doesn’t get much better

We were staying in La Morra, which follows the pattern of all the settlements in the Langhe, which recently attained World Heritage Status. They sit on a hilltop above the vines, dominated by a castle, a church, usually both, and offer ample opportunity to taste the wines that have made this corner of Piemonte famous – Dolcetto, Barbera, Barbaresco (in one small enclave) and, above all, Barolo. 

One of of our walks, from our hotel, the Corte Gondina, to Barolo village itself, took in the family-run winery of GD Vajra at Vergne. I’ve been there before in the early summer to taste their excellent wines and, now the harvest complete, was welcomed back like an old family friend. Piemonte’s like this. It doesn’t feel like some calculating tourist honeypot. You meet it on its own terms. Just like the truffle.

The Ponzi vineyards at the heart of Oregon’s wine country

Oregon’s wine country is also home to truffles (and another festival)

The Willamette Valley, just south of Portland, is the epicentre of Oregon wine, notable for Pinot Noir that can arguably rival Burgundy’s silkiest reds. And where there’s great wine there’s usually a thriving food culture. Yet until I was invited to join the The Oregon Truffle Festival I had no idea the rolling hills around McMinnville are also home to both black and white varieties plus four Oregon natives. 2021 pandemic strictures meant it has gone virtual (you can pick up goodies via an online marketplace – truffle stout anyone?).

Truffle hunting Oregon style and there’s a reward here

All this is obviously off a normal tourist’s radar, but rolling Willamette Country’s wineries and fine restaurants aren’t. McMinnville makes a fine base for exploring. Stay in its red brick historic district, perhaps at the oddball Hotel Oregon, which has a rooftop bar and is decorated with relics of the building’s 115-year history and the town’s famous 1950 UFO sighting. You might also run into the ghost of a former resident, nicknamed John.

As in all the towns along the route, I grabbed a craft beer, this time at the convivial Golden Valley Brewery and Tap before sampling a festival special truffle vodka and local wine at the Elizabeth Chambers Cellars, one of many tasting rooms in the town. 

You’ll probably find it more fun to drive out to one of the country wineries to do your sampling. It sounds boringly generic but Willamette Valley Vineyards offers exceptional quality. Wine and truffles – the perfect marriage either side of the pond.

Truffle carpaccio – our festival reward

Was there ever a hotel as ace as the Ace? In my first visit to Portland, Oregon I revelled in its grungy quirks (even the vintage shower that didn’t work). With master mixologist Jeffrey Morgenthaler and definitive Stumptown Coffee on the premises and the legendary Powell’s City of Books two blocks away who could ask for a better base in this playful, radical city George Bush dubbed ‘Little Beirut’?

Ace Hotel – could a Portland rival oust it from my affections?

I swore this would always be my Portland lodging of choice. And the vow stuck – until six months later, stopping off on a San Francisco-Seattle road trip, I discovered Jupiter. Not via any space shuttle, simply by crossing the Burnside Bridge into a post-industrial quarter that’s on the up from a long way down. In this process the Jupiter Hotel and its in-house  live music venue, the Doug Fir Lounge, have been a major catalyst, along with Portland’s top restaurant Le Pigeon next door and Burnside Brewing Co across the road. Good things come in clusters.

The Jupiter was out of this world, especially the Doug Fir Lounge

We had been asked when booking the Jupiter, a converted motel, whether we preferred a room on the Bar Side or the Chill Side; the former giving you an up-close share of party central until dawn, the latter offering a chance of some shut-eye. We chose Chill, taking advantage of an extremely comfortable bed in a compact but murally soothing environment.

Host to many top acts, the Doug Fir Lounge has regularly been named one of America’s premium gig venues – and there’s strong competition in Portland itself from the likes of Mississippi Studios and the Crystal Ballroom. Indeed the Jupiter’s leaflets claim 12 music venues within a mile radius (along with five distilleries within two miles and award-winning breweries four blocks) We just loved the timber-clad Doug Fir’s happy hour bar vibe, the raucous stand-up getting the party under way and then the fire pit bonhomie of the joint.

Le Pigeon – I’d cooked the recipes, would the real thing live up?

The beer was better, though, at Burnside Brewing and we couldn’t resist taking in Le Pigeon, 30 seconds round the corner. I’ve been cooking from restless pioneer Gabe Rucker’s cookbook for several years and the bistro didn’t disappoint with dishes such as caraway crusted sweetbreads; foie gras thom kha; and truffled chicken, shrimp and grits, corn succotash, prawn-tarragon aioli. Top end prices, especially for wine, belie the casualness of the setting and make it a special occasion place.

Legendary street food from Mong’s Khao Man Gai

A more accessible and affordable bet for a Jupiter guest is three minutes’ walk away on S.E. Alkeny Street – a cafe outlet from street food champion Nong’s Khao Man Gai, whose original food cart is still serving its trademark poached chicken with rice downtown on the corner of SW 10th Avenue and SW Alder Street. Sunday Times restaurant critic Marina O’Loughlin is a big fan.

Street food ‘pods’ are scattered around a city devised on a grid system (hence NE, NW etc attached to some impossibly long streets to signify which district you are in). The corner of 28 South East Place and Division Street hosts the Tidbit Food Farm and Garden, a lovely place to refuel, global food carts circling the Scout Beer shack like covered wagons. 

Bibimbap, sushi, roasted pepper tri-tip, Fillipino pork stew – it’s a dazzling Asian road trip. Alternatively, there’s Texas brisket or candied bacon burgers, waffle sandwiches and wood-fired pizza. I grabbed a picnic table, a Fresh Hop Simcoe brewed by the hyperactive beardies at Breakside and slurped the best bone stock rich ramen I’ve ever eaten from a truck called Hapa. The name describes the fusion of Japanese cooking techniques and Hawaiian recipes. For a full of Portland’s food cart locations visit this link.

Extracto is in the forefront of the city’s vibrant coffee culture

Though Seattle would claim the honour, sometimes you feel Portland invented coffee, too, it’s home to so many acclaimed roasteries. Stumptown is the place to start. It took on the city’s nickname (from its logging past) and for nearly two decades this roastery has set the standard by which rivals are judged. These are many to pick from nowadays. Take Extracto , a decade-old chain of two with its roastery at the original N.E. Killingsworth Street cafe/shop. From the Eleven of Spades house-blend through rare single-origin roasts to the elevation of latte decoration to an art form it hits all the right coffee buttons.

The Simpsons doughnut homage at Voodoo

With all this coffee, well, you’ve got to have a doughnut. Jupiter does a ‘The Magic is in the Hole’ certificate for guests, providing a ‘Voodoo Dozen’, a pink box of 13 from the city’s most hyped provider. Voodoo even run to a Homer Simpson tribute doughnut (creator Matt Groening is a Portlander and several of the cartoon’s characters are named after its streets – Ned Flanders, Milhouse and the like). 

But Blue Star has the edge in the Portland Doughnut Wars

Locals insist  Blue Star is the hipster doughnut of choice. I understand why when I scoff one of their lauded creations – a riot of intense chocolate, cream and brioche. The wonder of it is captured fully in a local website’s Deconstructing Blue Star’s Valrhona Donut. I’d checked out their Mississippi Avenue outlet en route for a Brewvana craft beer walking tour. 

April is our guide to the city’s amazing beer varieties

This vibrant corner of town, once a no-go area now on the cusp of gentrification, has lots to offer – the aforementioned Mississippi Studios, a street food pod (naturally), a cannabis store and the amazing Paxton Gate offering stuffed animal collectibles – but its breweries are worth the trip alone. Our Brewvana Mississippin’ tour guide April took us around three, Ecliptic, Stormbreaker and Hopworks Bike Bar and what our small party tasted along the way, especially at the latter, revealed why Portland contends with Denver for the title of US Capital of Beer. The three hour tour costs $69 and you do get to eat the pretzel necklace that brands you as an ale geek.

Snack on this choc chip treat and get high

Of course, the intoxicant of choice is not always malt and hop-driven. ‘Keep Portland Weird’ says the parking lot sign opposite Voodoo Doughnuts. Personal consumption of cannabis is legal in Oregon; still I resisted the temptation in its largest city to get high on a brownie infused with the stuff. They even sell ready-rolled joints in specialist dispensaries such as Nectar.

Himalayan salt is the tangy new kid on the block at Mark Bitterman’s saline mecca

Oh and salt is more than a footnote if you visit Mark Bitterman’s two sodium chloride-centred delis called The Meadow. Conveniently, one of them is up on resurgent North Mississippi Avenue next door to a Blue Star cafe. It was here I bought kala namak (Himalayan black salt) and a couple of Bitterman’s books – one on salt naturally, the other on cocktail bitters.

In it he name-checks another Portland legend, Jeffrey Morgenthaler, mixologist at Ace Hotel’s Clyde Common bistro and Pépé le Moko speakeasy. I couldn’t resist begging this  cocktail high priest for one of his celebrated barrel-aged Negronis.

Freaky fish in the brickwork – who said Portland was weird?

Post Negroni (or three) for further weirdness walk up to 901 Salmon Street and gaze up at a whole salmon swimming through the corner of a brick building. It’s an 11ft long bronze sculpture called Transcendence, high above a seafood restaurant.

I lived with this cat in my quirky Ace lodging

The city hosts some of the most inventive street art around. Some of it had rubbed off in my room at the Ace, adorned by a giant cat image guarding my personal vinyl deck. Retro touches extended to a Heath Robinson-like steel shower in my standalone tub that I gave up on and recycled fabrics and furnishings I found charming if hardly luxurious. Downstairs, though, oozes sociable cool. Check in and you may never leave. Unless Jupiter is in your orbit, dude.

For something different to enliven your stay in this most civilised of American cities in bewildering times check out these five fun options:

1 Small is beautiful at Leprechaun Park

Mill Ends Park – total area 452.16 sq in – holds the Guinness World Record for the world’s smallest park. Known as Leprechaun Park, it fills a circular concrete hole, once meant to be the base for a lamp-post on Naito Parkway. Back in the 1940s a local journalist, whose office overlooked it, decided to plant flowers there and it was officially recognised as a city park on St Patrick’s Day 1976. PS Don’t aim to spend a whole day there. 

2 Or if you fancy a more expansive green escape

The formal Japanese Garden has now added an extra 3.4 acres to its original 5.5, featuring ornamental cherry trees, ponds and tea house. The revamped Cultural Village has an authentic style medieval castle wall, which was built with traditional hand tools under the watchful eye of a 15th-generation Japanese master stone mason. It’s a place of tranquil contemplation all year round but must be spectacular in blossom season.

3 Portland’s Chinatown

Once dubbed ‘The Forbidden City of the West, it is now much diminished. The opium dens, brothels and kidnappings via the ‘Shanghai tunnels’ to the riverside are now gone, but the area retains a certain seediness. All the more surprising to stumble upon the gorgeous Su Lan Chinese Garden, which occupies a whole city block on NW Everett Street. Modelled after Ming Dynasty gardens and built by Chinese artisans from twin city Suzhou, it offers a microcosm of Chinese culture. Taste the tea, feel the harmony. A Portland must.

4 A good bookshop? 

Look no further than one of America’s largest, offering used and new – Powell’s City of Books. On West Burnside Street around the corner from the Ace and boasting a spectacular wine and cookery section, I couldn’t resists its allure. After three Powell’s trips my Delta baggage allowance was in serious danger.

5 Wine? Head south to the Willamette Valley

Portland has its own urban wine scene, but the real deal is less than an hour away. Willamette is famous worldwide not for being Portland’s river but for being focus of the Oregon wine industry. Roam the hills around Newberg, Dundee and McMinnville 30 miles or so south of Portland. You’ll receive a warm welcome at any number of folksy family wineries. To plan an itinerary visit this link. We went upmarket to Ponzi, one of the pioneering wineries created by ‘escapees’ priced out of California and seeking a fresh terroir for the Holy Grail grape, Pinot Noir. That was 45 years ago and nowadays the luxurious tasting room and terrace overlooking the Chehalem Hills vineyards feels not a million miles from Napa. Accordingly, a single flight featuring a selection of current vintages costs $20 with cheese and charcuterie plates from $12. Worth splashing out for wine and setting. The winery has recently been bought by Bollinger.

Fact file


Neil Sowerby stayed at The Jupiter Hotel, 800 East Burnside Street, Portland, OR 97214 and at the Ace Hotel, 1022 S.W. Stark Street, Portland, Oregon 97205.

The Covid pandemic has grounded most of the transatlantic air services, but as lockdown ends expect a resumption from the like of British Airways and Delta.

An essential guide to the area is Travel Portland. For further afield in the state go to Visit Oregon. To plan your American trip of a lifetime go to Visit USA.