A talk with Tobiah about the treasures under Oregon’s trees
BY DAVID OZAB ON DECEMBER 7, 2011
Eugene man transforms love of outdoors into handcrafted gourmet truffle oil
Tobiah Orin Moshier, self-sustaining 21st century hunter-gatherer, is at one with the woods.
Until he smacks the back of his neck: “Damn bugs. Glad it wasn’t a spider. I hate spiders.”
Even so, Tobiah, a man of many passions, is only too happy to amble about the arbores, claw through groundcover, and dig in the dirt in search of his greatest love (not counting his wife and kids, of course)—the Oregon truffle.
Tobiah – native Eugenian, professional photographer, contributing editor at Fungi Magazine, freelance writer, amateur mycologist, avid gardener, and forest forager – is the Pacific Northwest’s version of a Renaissance Man.
And he makes amazing truffle oil.
So, what exactly is a truffle?
“Well they’re not mushrooms,” Tobiah explains. “A mushroom has a stipe, and a cap, and the spores are kept in the gills while a truffle is completely enclosed. For a truffle to reproduce—since it can’t drop its own spores—it has to be dug up and eaten by a mammal. But how do you get something to dig you up and eat you? Well, you smell like the most delicious wonderful thing you can.”
In the case of truffles, that thing would be pheromones, also known as sexual attractants.
“That’s why they use pigs in Europe. Truffles smell like sex, so the pigs go crazy and they dig them up and eat them,” says Tobiah.
“The fungus contains steroids identical to the sex pheromone found in boar’s saliva (which is why pigs are also used to find them) and which, no less unnerving, also matches a steroid secreted in the human male’s underarm,” Bloomberg explained in a story about this year’s famed Oregon Truffle Festival.
So what works on pigs also works on people, which is why truffles have been considered a treasured delicacy throughout recorded history. The secret is the aroma.
And how that aroma is combined with liquid is the secret to making fine truffle oil. That’s because truffle oil isn’t made out of truffles, in the way that olive oil is made from olives. Instead it’s made from the aroma of truffles in a process called “aromatic infusion.”
“Have you ever had something really stinky in your fridge?” Tobiah asks. “And the butter you’ve left open tastes like that thing? That’s aromatic infusion.”
“Truffle aroma bonds with fat so if you seal a truffle in a container, any fat you leave in there, be it milk of oil or butter, is going to take on that aroma. Even uncut, oh man, a ripe truffle will really knock you back. It will knock your socks off.”
The other key ingredient is the oil. Most truffle oil is made with olive oil, which contributes its own flavor to the mix. But Tobiah uses organic grape seed oil, which he believes is better suited for infusion due to its more neutral character. He exposes the truffle to the oil in such a way that every fat molecule becomes infused with the aroma. The process is secret, and the result is spectacular.
“It lies on your palate and coats your whole mouth and you start to breathe it in and it’s unbelievable,” Tobiah explains. “It is truly a divine experience.” After sampling his truffle oil and experiencing a heady feeling, this was confirmed. Words alone cannot describe the effect.
“Everyone that has tried my truffle oil has been blown away,” says Tobiah, also noting that different truffles have different aromas for different culinary uses: “White truffles are kind of garlicky and sharp or cheesy, something people would use in savory foods, while black truffles smell chocolaty, more like banana, and almost like a red wine.”
A close cousin to the black truffle is the less common Oregon brown truffle, which, according to Tobiah, smells like “a broccoli cheese soup with extra sharp cheddar.” But as different as they are, they all have one thing in common:
“When you have a ripe truffle within a hundred feet of you it’s like nothing you’ve ever smelled. It does something to your brain. It’s a pheromone and that’s why people go crazy for truffles.”
In Oregon, dogs are used to sniff out truffles for a number of reasons. For one thing it’s not practical to own a 500-pound pig or to haul it around in the back of a car. It’s also easier to train a dog—through rewards and positive reinforcement—to locate a truffle and sit patiently while you dig it up than it is to haul off a passionate pig trying to devour one.
“Training a dog to smell a truffle is just like training a dog to do anything else,” Tobiah explains.
Often mixed-breed and search-and-rescue dogs make great truffle hunters—like Gusto, a black lab featured in an Oregonian story last year. The perfect truffle dog could be as close as the local animal shelter, where Tobiah says local mycologist and blogger “Chicken of the Woods” found his dog Appa – “one of the most prolific dogs in the industry.”
The dog’s role in Oregon truffle hunting is the same as the pig’s role in Europe—to sniff out ripe truffles. Finding truffles isn’t difficult—anyone can go out into the woods with a rake and a rudimentary knowledge of trees and dig up truffles, but unlike truffles harvested by dogs or pigs, raked truffles aren’t always ripe and ripeness makes all the difference.
“Picking an unripe truffle is like picking an unripe tomato or an unripe banana,” Tobiah explains. “It hasn’t matured yet, and truffles—something that depends on its aroma for regeneration—has to be ripe to be of any value.”
Yet inpatient, inexperienced and undiscerning truffle hunters sent rake-harvested truffles to chefs around the world and proceeded to do as much damage to the Oregon truffle’s reputation as they did to the soil they raked and left in large heaps. Charles Lefevre (former president of the North American Truffling Society and founder of New World Truffieres) has written about this issue in Fungi Magazine, arguably the world’s leading mycology journal, and on the Society’s website.
Truffles have a symbiotic relationship with trees and grow near the roots of certain types like fir, hazel, oak, and pine. Raking for truffles can expose and damage tree roots and wreak havoc on the forest floor. Tobiah has seen some of this damage first hand in the woods around Eugene:
“When I walk in the woods and I see the devastation—it looks like the moon [full of craters] after someone has raked up all the loose soil—I kind of cringe.” It’s hard to tell which riles Tobiah more, the diminished reputation of the truffles he loves, or the devastation wrought upon the forests he grew up in and around.
“My parents raised me in a school bus and a yurt and I can remember being on my mother’s back as she picked morels.” —Tobiah Orin Moshier
Tobiah’s parents were Hodedads (a worker-owned forestry cooperative that was active from 1971 to 1994). Both were hippies who passed on their passion for Oregon’s trees to their son. They named him Tobiah Orin—Hebrew for “The Lord is my good” and “pine tree,” respectively. Tobiah translates the combination loosely as “big tall tree from God.”
The story of his childhood is written on his left forearm—a beautiful tattoo of a Douglas fir in the moonlight—and in his memories:
“I can still remember the smell of fresh morel mushrooms when I was a kid. My parents raised me in a school bus and a yurt and I can remember being on my mother’s back as she picked morels. You can imagine the first time I smelled morels in twenty years it instantly brought it back. It was really a comforting smell, a comforting feeling.”
From his parents, he gained an appreciation of Oregon’s forests and sustainable living, threading together everything he loves outdoors: fishing, hunting, gardening, and especially mushrooming.
So one day Tobiah ultimately decided: “It felt right. I should be harvesting my own wild mushrooms. Why pay $60 in a store when I have the knowledge and experience to do it myself and I can have a great time?”
His unlikely path to mushrooming began when he was about eight years old and wrote his first “cookbook,” which contained only one recipe: Tobiah’s Surprise. Tobiah smiles as he recalls his first culinary masterpiece: “a slice of bread, some mayonnaise, and grated cheddar cheese on top.”
It was inevitable that Tobiah’s love of food would lead him on a journey through the local restaurant industry, where he quickly worked his way up in the ranks—despite never having enrolled in culinary school—from dishwasher, to cook, to sous chef, to head chef. He also managed two local restaurants. But the outdoor classroom beckoned. It was time to bond even closer to the foods he reveled.
As a photographer, Tobiah could get up close and personal with his subjects in the natural world. He also found freedom: “I was kind of dabbling a little bit—this was about four or five years ago—and I realized that I can photograph whatever I want. I photograph mushrooms, food, and fishing and hunting and all these things. I don’t have to pick and choose. I always struggled finding my road in life because I felt I had to choose but now I don’t.”
He pauses to photograph a beautiful orange chanterelle nestled in a patch of sword fern. He lies on the ground—the mushroom just a few inches from his lens—and snaps several pictures. Then he pulls out a small knife, slices the mushroom at the base of the stem, and cleans off the dirt with a few quick flicks of the blade.
He shows off the chanterelle. It looks like a large, blossoming flower…a perfect subject for a photograph.
It was a photo of a similarly stunning yellow morel that landed Tobiah a job as a contributing editor for Fungi Magazine.
“I wrote to Britt Bunyard (the publisher and editor-in-chief of Fungi) and said ‘this is my story: I’ve been a chef, I love food, I love mushrooms, I’m a little bit of a writer, but mainly I’m a photographer,’ and he decided to give me a chance.”
That was two years ago, and since then he’s written numerous articles, including culinary stories, “The Wild Epicure” pieces, and Northwest tales.
“The next Fungi issue that’s coming out this winter is all about Oregon truffles,” Tobiah beams.
Soon a new crop of truffles will start to ripen and Tobiah will be back out in the woods harvesting them. He feels lucky to have this local treasure under the trees often referred to as “white diamonds.” The state of Oregon, with its wet, moderate climate and geography located between the 42nd and 47th parallels (the same band of land that wraps around to Europe’s famed truffle regions), is perfect for growing the fabulous fungus.
“I will say this: Oregon truffles are on par with their European counterparts, if not better!” Tobiah exclaims.
Currently, Oregon truffles sell for about $20 per ounce. According to Tobiah, the price is a bargain: “Oregon truffles are such an underutilized and sensational crop. I’d be willing to bet that within 10 years Oregon truffles will at least triple in price.”
UPDATE: MyEugene.org ceased operations in May, 2012. The site is down and currently for sale. I have reposted my complete articles on this site. (11/6/2012)