Hunting Oregon Truffles

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an Oregon black truffle
Photo by Chris Baron

The spot near the Douglas fir clearly had drawn the attention of some digging animal in the recent past. Hmmmm… Good place to seek our quarry. I gently raked the duff away from the base of the tree and a lump fell out. I gasped involuntarily and dropped to my knees.

black truffle in the duff
Photo by Chris Baron

There it was, for all the world looking like a lump of coal. But this was no clod of earth or chip of anthracite. It was an Oregon black truffle the size of a small egg. No, definitely not coal. More like a diamond.

Finally, after hours of fruitless digging, I had found what we were looking for, leucangia carthusiana, the Oregon black truffle. At more than $300 a pound, the allusion to a diamond is not that far off. Even though that’s five times cheaper than European black truffles, it’s still enough to make this delicacy beyond my reach.

That is, until Jack Czarnecki invited me up to Oregon to chase the elusive truffle. Czarnecki may be the world’s leading expert on the culinary aspects of Oregon truffles, and he is the maker of what I consider the finest truffle oil anywhere.

Truffles, both black and white, are among the world’s great ingredients, and are a food that evokes the carnal more than anything except, perhaps, chocolate. A truffle’s secret isn’t its good looks, which range from a turd in the case of black truffles to a dirty snowball in the case of whites.

Nope, the secret to the truffle’s vaunted sex appeal is its aroma. Every variety of truffle wears a different cologne, and arguments rage over whether the white or black truffle possesses the most captivating scent — and while some say the European truffles are vastly superior to our Oregon truffles, I would politely disagree. I’ve had the pleasure of them all, and put the Oregon white truffle at the top of the list; this is the truffle Czarnecki uses to make his oil.

Jack and I would hunt for both kinds this weekend, and I was getting more and more excited as I drove north past the Cascades and up through the Willamette Valley to Czarnecki’s home in Dundee. Every time I get the chance to search for, learn about and play with a new ingredient — especially a wild ingredient — I dance a little dance inside my head. North America is home to so many world-class native foods, and these truffles are among the finest.

We woke early that first morning to head out to Jack’s black truffle spot. Apparently all truffles live under fir trees, but black truffles like older firs while white truffles prefer younger ones. When we arrived, the forest was breathtaking, ancient-looking even though it was a stand of second-growth trees. It looked like something a velociraptor might live in. Or a truffle.

the truffle woods
Photo by Chris Baron

You hunt truffles by looking around the bases of the trees for signs that a squirrel or other critter has dug there recently. Squirrels love truffles even more than they do nuts, and will often chew up the ground where truffles grow to the point where you can see it.

You then take a garden rake and gently scrape at the duff to reveal the chocolate-colored soil beneath. Most times you are greeted by nothing, or maybe a curled-up centipede. But every so often, you spot a darker dark in the duff, a glint, or a sheen of something different. No matter how many truffles I found, this moment never got old: Every time, I literally fell to my knees to get close to the truffle, which would be embedded in the soil. Every time, I’d carefully, carefully remove the soil around the truffle — the same way a paleontologist removes the rock from the fossil of a velociraptor — hoping, praying that the truffle would be large.

Some black truffles are mere peanuts. Most are the size of a jawbreaker candy. A few are the size of golf balls, eggs or, once in Jack’s experience, a softball. Truffle hunting is a tantalizing combination of archaeology, panning for gold, raking a garden bed — and shopping at the finest gourmet market in the world. It is a rush of the highest order.

Black Truffle
Photo by Tyler Swank

Jack and I wound up with maybe 20 or so black truffles apiece, and Jack’s friend Dick turned out to be high digger with at least 40 of the black diamonds. He’s been wanting to slice some black truffles thinly, then slip them under the skin of a chicken headed to the oven. It’s a classic truffle dish, and I plan to do it with a pheasant, or, better yet, a ruffed grouse — the king of forest game birds marries the king of forest mushrooms.

Wet, a little cold, and a lot happy, Jack and I headed from the woods to his restaurant, the Joel Palmer House, where his son Chris served us a fine mushroom-based meal that ranged from a candy cap martini to a rich mushroom tart to a shockingly good matsutake chowder; I say shockingly because it was a cream-based chowder, and I’d never liked matsutake mushrooms with cream before that night.

Hank Shaw and Jack Czarnecki hunting truffles
Photo by Chris Baron

One of the topics of the dinner’s conversation was the next day’s hunt, which would be for white truffles. “Oh, you’re going to love white truffle hunting,” Jack said. He said finding whites was far easier, and the rush was less of pure discovery than it was of something else. Exactly what he did not say.

Morning came and we headed back out into the woods, this time a far younger and less wild stand of fir trees. Jack handed me a rake and we walked into the gloom of the understory. Day turned to twilight as we began moving duff around. White truffles are very close to the surface, Jack said, so be even more careful when raking.

He was right. He was also right about white truffles being easier to find than black ones. Where it took me nearly two hours to find my first black truffle, it took me less than two minutes to find my first white one.

oregon white truffle
Photo by Chris Baron

Thank heaven white truffles are white. I have no idea how many black truffles I unearthed but never saw — spotting black truffle on dark chocolate earth is no easy feat. But I did not miss many white ones, which shone like an apparition in the gloom.

Soon I began to accumulate truffles, one after another.

jug of white truffles
Photo by Chris Baron

Then I realized what Jack had meant by saying that white truffles provide a different rush. Discovery was easy. This high was all about greed. Several times Jack stood up with a half dollar-sized truffle and said, “More! I want more!” He was only half-joking. I soon surpassed my total haul of black truffles from the previous day. But I wanted more. I wanted to fill the milk jugs we used to hold the bounty.

I found myself locked in the grips of a full-on greed high. “How many pounds would it take to fill this jug?” I asked Jack. He said about four. Four pounds. More than $1,200 worth of truffles. Now I know the pull this feeling has on gold miners, crab fishermen, Gollum. It becomes all-encompassing, filling your mind. We raked and raked for what seemed like — and was, in fact — hours.

Somehow I finally came to my senses. Maybe it was the croak of the raven sitting bemused in the tree above me. Ravens are most sensible birds, after all. Maybe through all those croaks I finally heard it saying, “enough.” I looked at my jug. Almost exactly half-full. Enough.

Time to cook. Fresh truffles, it seems, rarely possess the aroma we all lust after. They must be washed, then carefully dried and stored in the fridge to cure. Only after several days, sometimes weeks even, will they reach their full bloom. Thankfully, Jack had some already ready at his restaurant.

I told him I wanted to recreate one of the great eating experiences of my life, a white truffle risotto I’d eaten at a little restaurant on Long Island, many years ago. That dish had been covered in slivers of Alba white truffles. The aroma of that rice still haunts me.

So I made a very basic risotto, with butter and white wine and a little Parmigiano cheese. Right at the end I stirred in Jack’s truffle oil, then shaved white truffles all over the rice.

I took a bite. Creamy, rice firm yet yielding, rich with butter and oil and cheese tempered ever so slightly by the acidity of an Oregon Pinot Blanc, the truffle slices dancing feathers on my tongue. I inhaled. God, the aroma! Funky, garlicky, floral. It reminded me of the sweat of a woman. So good, so simple, so worth every effort to make. I ate the rest of the plate eyes shut, without speaking.

Oregon white truffle risotto
Photo by Chris Baron

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About Hank Shaw

Hey there. Welcome to Hunter Angler Gardener Cook, the internet’s largest source of recipes and know-how for wild foods. I am a chef, author, and yes, hunter, angler, gardener, forager and cook. Follow me on Instagram and on Facebook.

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37 Comments

  1. Funny, I’m on a study abroad program in Italy from my culinary school, and we just went Truffle hunting this weekend. I found a big burgundy truffle almost the size of my palm.

  2. Beautiful. You’ve lived my dream. I’ve been wanting to come up to Oregon and dig truffles with Jack for a few years now. Thanks for the vicarious pleasure.

  3. Loved the story. I’ve been hunting the elusive truffle in the central California woods for sometime with little to no success. Dang! I found this sometime ago and am currently attempting to train my Catahoula Leopard Dog to find them. Again, not much success. She’s more interested in bear than truffles…

    A method for training truffle dogs was set down in print as far back as 1883. The publication Der Hund offered the following guidelines: Begin training in the summer. Start by sewing a truffle into a leather pouch and hiding it from the dog. As his skill progresses, hide the pouch under moss or leaves. After every successful retrieval, reward the dog with a treat and choose a more difficult hiding place. Talk to the dog as little as possible, and use only commands specific to a truffle hunt, such as “find” or “search.”

    This article ran in “Der Hund” sometime in the late 19th century:

    Begin training in the summer. Start by sewing a truffle into a leather pouch and hiding it from the dog. As his skill progresses, hide the pouch under moss or leaves. After every successful retrieval, reward the dog with a treat and choose a more difficult hiding place. Talk to the dog as little as possible, and use only commands specific to a truffle hunt, such as “find” or “search.”

    After an autumn rain, take the dog to a truffle field. The dog should be off-leash and quartered upwind to make scenting easier. Hide a truffle a few inches below ground. When the dog scents it, immediately take the truffle, praise the dog and reward him with a treat. During and after the training stage, if the dog does not find a truffle, no treat should be given. After a hunt (never before), the dog should be fed its normal food.

    Good luck all.

  4. Vegetable Garden Cook: Can’t say what elevation we were at, but it did not seem too high up…

    Tamar: No one hunts truffle with pigs in Oregon, so far as I know. Lots of people hunt them with dogs, though.

    Scott: Either is fine… 😉

    Paula: I doubt that wooded parks would have them, but you could try I guess.

    Andy: You bet there are truffles in California. Look for forest stands of fir trees and chocolate-colored earth. There are other truffles here, too, but I’ve not yet found them.

    Cork: No, Jack says they don’t freeze well at all. But they will last a while in the fridge, if you keep them in a dry paper towel sealed in a plastic bag. Chances are they will take several days to develop their aroma, anyway, and once they do you have a few days to use them.

  5. “It reminded me of the sweat of a woman.” Firs off, thats classic. Second, so true.

    That was a great read – and totally reminded me of summer nights in Sacramento.

  6. Great: now I really want to get Ziggy doing what his relatives do back in France, sniffing up black gold! …sad thing is that I’ve often seen those truffles on a ranch I used to hunt wild pigs and blacktails in Mendocino and didn’t even realize what I was looking at… 🙁

    ….What’s the story on how long they last, Hank? I was told that truffles by friends in Oregon that they don’t freeze well and that they shrivel or get mushy if not used within a week…longevity suggestions?

    ….BTW looks like great elk country!

  7. Any chance there are truffles in the wilds of California? I have a German Shepherd Dog that I think would make a good tracker if he had a bit of training.

  8. Dundee is not too terribly far from where I live. Now all I need to do is learn what a fir looks like, which shouldn’t be too hard, and then convince my self-professed indoor cat of a husband to go tromping in a woods with me. Maybe the wooded park in our neighborhood has some?

    Thanks for this post- now I want to try!!!

  9. Not sure if I want to hug you for doing something so cool, or kick you in the nads out of envy. Lucky sonovagun!

  10. Awesome! My wife won’t be happy with me going to forage for something else. Maybe when the results are on the plate she’ll change her tune.

    Great stuff Hank.

    Alan

  11. My husband and I are just starting to forage. We’re meeting all sorts of new people out there to help us along in this journey and your site is nothing short of inspirational. Just wanted to say “Thank You.”

  12. I’ve got bubonic coast envy, here on the truffleless East coast. OK, lobsters are nice, but truffles! Does anyone use a pig to hunt them?

  13. Did you mention what elevation you are at? I live in the Willamette valley. Thanks for the tips on looking for truffles. I shall go out into my property soon to see what I can find!

  14. Sometime I hope to have a similar experience while foraging. This was a fascinating post. It made me drool a little, too.

  15. Fantastic post. I totally know the “greed high,” though not from truffle digging. I know it from the “big bloom” years while Chanterelle hunting. You just want MORE, MORE — it’s like following will-o-wisps deeper into the woods. You stay too late, work too hard, and don’t care a whit in the end. Great stuff.

    Bp

  16. And here you go. A post to make me even more jealous than your wild foie gras post. Wild truffles look awesome.