Evans dogs squirrels to dig up gourmet fungi
In Italy and France, specially trained dogs and pigs are used to sniff out truffles growing beneath the ground.
The small potato-shaped fungi are sold to restaurants, where they are consumed by gourmets, who happily pay as much as $1,000 a pound for the prized morsels.
Mushroom guru Larry Evans of Missoula may have been the first to discover that truffles also can be found right here in the forests of western Montana. Having no trained truffle pig to guide him, he's learned to rely on Montana's natural truffle detector the pine squirrel to help him locate the hidden delicacies.
Evans is founder and president of the Western Montana Mycological Association, which is dedicated to the study and appreciation of mushrooms. He first found truffles in Montana in 1992, after taking a class from a fungi expert in Oregon, where a fledgling truffle industry has developed in recent years.
"Once I got tuned in to them," he said, "I sure went after them."
And since 1992 he has identified 16 to 20 different varieties of "hypogeous" or underground mushrooms in western Montana, including five or six that are true truffles or "truffle-like." Two of those are choice edible types.
From what he learned in the class, Evans knew basically where the most likely truffle locations were around western Montana.
But, he said, "squirrels are definitely the key indicator, squirrels, voles, and other rodents like that."
"Truffles produce a sex pheromone," explained Evans, "that squirrels are attracted to by smell, like pigs, and like people, and like all mammals."
When Evans searches for truffles, the first thing he looks for is "squirrel activity," meaning places squirrels have been digging. The activity typically is identified by nothing more than a tiny shallow hole, or series of holes in a row. But it can be rather extensive excavations.
"Last year on Thanksgiving, down the Bitterroot, we found so many truffles," he said. "Three different species. And the squirrel activity was incredible. It looked like somebody had been in there with a rototiller."
So far, Evans has had his best luck finding truffles in stands of old growth, or mature Douglas fir. And he particularly likes to look for truffles where a cluster of small, young trees have sprouted up amid the old growth.
"Habitat is the key," he said. "They tend to be in places where there's a full canopy of trees. Usually, they're inside the drip line of the tree, where the water and snow drip off the branches, and within the sheltered ground where snow doesn't accumulate."
Evans said he finds most truffles in the thin layer of loamy soil just beneath the duff, or decaying vegetation, under the trees.
The squirrels, truffles and trees are all inextricably linked in the ecology of the forest, according to Evans.
"Squirrels help propagate the truffles as well as eat them," he said. "It's a trade-off for the truffle. Instead of raising a structure like a stalk up into the air so their seed is wind-borne, all they have to do is develop a fancy smell, and the spore-dispersal unit comes to them. So truffles germinate in squirrel runways.
"The trees and the truffles have their own bargain worked out. The truffles supply the tree with nitrogen and other nutrients, and water, especially in summer. In places where there's a lot of duff, it acts like a sponge, soaking up all the water under a tree. A truffle's mycelia (fine rootlike network) sucks the water out and supplies it to the tree."
In turn, he said, trees supply the truffles with carbohydrates and cellulose.
"It's a heck of a deal," said Evans. "It's actually cheaper, in energy expended, for the tree to feed the truffle than to put out roots. There are literally miles of fungal mycelia, much more extensive than tree roots."
Evans said he often finds a portion of partially eaten truffle in a squirrel "divot." If he does, he carefully searches in the immediate vicinity for more.
"Truffles tend to come in nests," he said.
But Evans said would-be truffle seekers shouldn't expect all squirrel activ
ity to be a sure sign of the presence of truffles.
"Not every rodent hole is a truffle," he said. "They bury pine cones and dig for other food."
An intriguing relationship between squirrels and truffles was discovered by pine cone gatherers in Oregon, Evans added.
"The first time 'pogies (Risopogon truffles) turned up in the Northwest, they were found by people collecting cones from squirrel caches," he said. "The squirrels put a truffle in with their cones so the smell could guide them to their cone stash after the snow fell."
The two choice edible truffles Evans has found locally are the barssia, a yellow-brown truffle ranging from thumb-nail to walnut size, with a distinctive hole in the middle; and the similar-size melanogaster, a black false truffle that Evans said is particularly tasty.
Among other truffles he's identified in western Montana are ones he calls the deer truffle and the skunk truffle.
University of Montana bear biologist Charles Jonkel once brought him a couple of pounds of truffles, Evans said.
"I said, 'Where'd you find these?' and he said, 'The deer told me where they were.' "
"They're pretty boring for people," Evans added. "But deer sure like 'em. You can find areas of obvious excavation where they dig them up. Everything is torn up. They're like a musty puffball, or like eating nuts in the shell."
Skunk truffles, he said, are easy to identify.
"They smell like a bagful of rotten onions," he said. "But I make butter out of the skunk truffle. Even though they're terrible when they're concentrated, if you dilute them 5-to-1 in butter, it's very good, like roasted garlic."
Late fall is a fine time to hunt for truffles, Evans said.
"It's best right around Thanksgiving," he said. "That's when you get the biggest ones and the most species. Like other mushrooms they come out in the fall. And that's a time when rodents are really active. Hunting season is a good time to look for truffles, before the snow."
The other time of the year truffles can be found in this area, Evans said, is in early July, after the snow melts.
Evans said he believed we were perhaps a little too late in the season when he went out last week in search of truffles with a Missoulian reporter and photographer.
A light dusting of snow covered the ground in Pattee Canyon, which turned out to be an advantage for us, because we could clearly see the areas where squirrels had dug fresh holes beneath the trees.
Evans brought along Zora, his 4-year-old, black German shepherd that he has trained to find truffles. She was bred as a drug-sniffing dog for law enforcement, Evans said.
"I hide matsutake mushrooms and encourage her to find them," he said. "I say the word, 'busque,' which means find the funny smelling mushroom. It's actually a Spanish word that means you search.
"I haven't mastered the technique of training a truffle dog. But I have got her started down the road."
If nothing else, Zora clearly was excited by the fresh scent of squirrel activity, which we found in abundance in Pattee Canyon.
"OK," exclaimed Evans. "Oh yeah. Here's a lot of squirrel activity. This, I would consider good habitat. You can't see the sky because of the Douglas fir canopy. Here are some squirrel holes in a row."
Evans turned over the duff around the squirrel holes with his bare hands, examining the soil, then carefully replacing the surface duff as it was. When he's seriously hunting truffles, he said, he uses a small garden rake for his explorations.
Three times during our search last week we found portions of munched-on mushroom in freshly dug squirrel holes. We found truffle mycelia. We found pine cones. We found two interesting types of lichens, one that can be used for a medicine, and another that is used in Scandinavia as wolf poison, according to Evans. We found some promising looking rocks. But no truffles.
Like berries, he said, truffles may be in short supply this year.
"The moisture timing was not great," he said. "It came in big blasts instead of steady amounts. In a bad year, the animals will i
mpact the truffles, like they do berries. It's a sign the squirrels are hungry."
But Evans said he has found enough truffles in western Montana to believe there is a large quantity in the area.
"I've found enough to eat, and to supply three events for a dozen or two dozen people," he said. "Considering how little time I've put into it, I think that's pretty good. When people often bring me a handful or two, I know there are plenty out there. I promise you, if we'd looked all day, we'd have found a truffle."
As more people become involved in searching for truffles in western Montana, Evans said, more and better techniques will be developed for finding them.
"We're in our infancy in learning about truffles in Montana," he said. "There may be lots of them in places we haven't thought to look yet.
"I welcome people to bring truffles, or what they think might be truffles, to me to identify," he said. "Or, give me a call. I always do free identification of fungal stuff. It keeps people from making a bad mistake."
Truffles aren't poisonous, however, Evans said.
"They all depend on being eaten to be dispersed," he said. "So you don't want to poison your hosts. The worst would be a bad taste. The few that are toxic, it would take a large quantity to make you sick."
In October, Evans and his wife, Kris Love, traveled to Italy with gourmet chef Greg Patent and his wife, Dorothy, of Missoula. Eating truffles was a high priority of the trip for them.
"The Italy trip was a revelation," Evans said. "How they deal with their truffle industry compared to how we handle ours here. We give you a garden rake and say go find a truffle. It's catch-as-catch-can."
Evans also tried to find truffles on his own in Italy.
"The only truffle I found in Italy was a false truffle," he said. "We bought others. But they don't have any squirrels in Italy. Or they are very rare animals. And they don't have any old-growth trees. That's why we don't have a truffle industry in America, because we depend on somebody like me to follow the squirrels. Nobody's dedicated to finding them."
For those who are interested in hunting truffles, he said, the prize is worth the effort.
"Ninety-nine percent of truffle hunting is just that hunting," said Evans. "One percent is truffle finding. But there are a half-dozen of us between Darby and Whitefish that eat 'em on a regular basis. Let's say there's an element of physical gratification in eating a number of truffles."