Truffles indeed remind us to stop and appreciate the finer things in life, to seek great food experiences and to continue to explore what the dynamic California culinary scene has in store. Because life is too short for anything less.



by: Carla Sia

In life, there are good food and good culinary experiences. They make eating a pleasure, fill you up and give you the sustenance you need to get going. Food is a necessity, a fuel, an energy source, a means to an end.


But once in a blue moon, if you are lucky enough, there are great culinary experiences. Experiences that leave a lasting memory that stand out amidst the mundane lunches and dinners. Experiences that make you stop and think about the depths and lengths the chefs have gone to create that masterpiece in front of you. In an instant, they turn eating into an experience, and suddenly food becomes an art, a science, an end in itself.


The 5th Napa Truffle Festival was nothing short of a truly great culinary experience.


Last January 16-19 2015, food enthusiasts, scientists, vineyard owners and members of the press all met to celebrate the magic of growing, foraging and enjoying truffles. The event was held in the gorgeous and modern Westin Verasa Napa. With its effortless wood and glass aesthetic, the hotel is easily one of the most luxurious resorts in California Wine Country.

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The amazing poolside view from my suite

The guests were treated to demonstrations and seminars with partner vineyards Peju Winery and Robert Sinskey Vineyards.


But amidst the extravagance and luxury, what I loved about this event was its ability to decrypt an age-old mysterious ingredient, explaining both the culinary and business side of the truffle. It was truly a holistic discovery of one of gastronomy’s finest treasures.


So let’s get down to it. What makes truffles so magical?


Truffles play hide and seek. Truffles are one of the most rare breeds of underground mushrooms, which grow only when all factors align – spring weather, perfect alkalinity and the presence of an ecosystem with trees. Hailed as a ‘buried treasure’ or ‘testicles of the earth’, with fans including Napoleon and Jean Savarin, truffles are hard to grow and even harder to find. According to world-renowned scientist Dr. Paul Thomas, ‘truffle growth is very deliberate, involving years of land and soil preparations’ What makes it even harder is that they don’t manifest above the ground, leaving only the best trained ‘truffle dogs’ to find them. These dogs have the uncanny sense of smell to detect the sulfur compounds truffles release above the ground.

5thNapaTruffleFest Truffle Dogs
Truffle dogs Lolo and Mila foraging the Robert Sinskey Vineyards with Truffle Dog Trainer Alana McGee

And training these dogs is not an easy game. According to trainer Alana McGee, ‘Any dog can be a truffle dog but it involves deep commitment from the owner to ‘respond to the dog’s subtle signals’. The secret to training is one of the main proponents of psychology – classical conditioning. The key is creating a robust set of reward system to make the scent of truffles something the dog easily associates with positive rewards. As Robert Chang of the American Truffle Company has put, ‘Producing truffles is often like raising children’. Indeed, years of cultivation, plus years of dog training and foraging have made the ‘hide and seek’ we play with truffles add to their elusiveness and rarity.


Truffles allow you to eat not just with your sense of taste. As we understand the deeper science of food appreciation, we see that taste is just one component. True gastronomic ingredients evoke all senses – sight, taste, touch and smell. Truffles are famous for their hypnotic smell that linger and permeate different foods. Just one touch of a truffle already leaves the glorious smell of a sulfuric bomb in your hands. According to Chef Ken Frank of La Toque, ‘truffle scent does wonders of poultry, pasta and seafood’. But the caveat is that this culinary perfume doesn’t last very long, joking ‘When you get truffles, don’t invite friends over next week. Invite them tonight.’

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Chef Ken Frank of La Toque sharing his passion for truffles and advocacy against truffle oils

They have no duplicates. With the surge of truffle oil substitutes in the market, it is pretty tempting to just buy a bottle of the readily packaged truffle oil in order to enjoy and put on food. Chef Ken Frank is vehemently against this mentality, as he as continuously been fighting for ‘Truth in Truffles’. According to him artificial oils have unhealthy additives that overpower the scent of all food and leave your palette with the same taste for the entire day. Instead of wasting $30 dollars on a bottle of one, go for the real thing because the truffle aphrodisiac has no substitutes. I guess it makes sense to go all out and splurge on a real truffle experience.

5thNapaTruffleFest Holding truffle and wine glass
Holding a truffle in my hand while foraging the Robert Sinskey Vineyards

Truffles are a great business. Truffles not only make great culinary sense, but also business sense. Robert Chang made the argument for truffle cultivation, explaining how it has the potential to be ‘10x more profitable versus grapes’. Today it is one of the biggest booming food industries in Northern California. While setting up a truffle vineyard may involve higher fixed costs, the income slope steadily rises faster than Cabernet Sauvignon production. With the dynamics of supply and demand, compounded with the bustling culinary scene in California, truffle cultivation has been on the radar for top wine vineyard owners.


All the events went by so fast and everyone was heartbroken to leave the four-day magical Napa Festival. In those four days, we set aside everything and took a journey to understand one of the finest culinary treasures.


Truffles indeed remind us to stop and appreciate the finer things in life, to seek great food experiences and to continue to explore what the dynamic California culinary scene has in store. Because life is too short for anything less.

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