We had gotten a whiff of the lore about Oregon white truffles more than 10 years ago, before my partner, Charles Price, and I moved to Oregon from Baltimore.
But it wasn’t until a few years after we got here that we truly were infected with the truffle bug. At first, the idea of Oregon white truffles laid dormant in our minds, like a spore. But then it began to take hold, grew and mushroomed into an obsession. We had visions of going truffle hunting in the forest and returning with a bounty of the aromatic orbed wonders. At prices that can reach more than a hundred dollars for a few ounces, truffles are the culinary gold chalice. Their paper-thin shavings are used to flavor eggs, pasta, risotto, and creamy sauces, or with poultry or other meats such as rabbit and veal to impart an indescribable earthy-musky aroma and flavor.
Thankfully, the height of our truffle obsession peaked a couple of summers ago when we were attending the International Food Bloggers Conference in Seattle, where, to our delight, one of the food experts giving a presentation was none other than Jack Czarnecki, the czar of Oregon truffles and founder of the Joel Palmer House, a restaurant in Dayton that specializes in mushrooms and all things truffle-licious.
After his presentation about how he developed a method for making oil infused with Oregon white truffles for commercial sale, we hurried to the stage from our seats to introduce ourselves. To say that the man is enthusiastic about wild mushrooms and truffles is an understatement. This guy lives for truffles. The truffles served at his restaurant are the result of his forest exploits. Before he left the stage to make room for the next presenter, we were brave enough to ask him if we could go truffle hunting with him sometime. He winked, tossed us a bottle of his Oregon White Truffle Oil, and said, “Call me.”
It was fall the same year before we finally connected with Czarnecki and made a date for our truffle hunt. Our instructions were simple: Bring four-tined garden rakes if we had them, two emptied and cleaned milk jugs, and dress appropriately, then meet him at the Joel Palmer House at the appointed time. We figured dressing appropriately meant rain gear, pants that could withstand the onslaught of a couple of grown (if slightly overweight) adults wallowing in dirt and mud and God knows what else, and boots.
When we showed up at the appointed morning and met Czarnecki, my first thought was — what, no truffle-tracking dogs? No trained pink truffle-hunting pigs? Nope, we were to learn that Czarnecki takes a cue from the wild critters that make meals out of these tasty morsels. But I’m jumping the gun.
Czarnecki took us into the restaurant kitchen, reached into a refrigerator and pulled out a plastic container of truffles to show us what we would be hunting. The truffles varied from marble-sized to golf-ball-sized to a select few that were sort of fingerling-potato-sized. There were white truffles, and then there were the more prized black truffles in the refrigerator. Czarnecki said that truffles go through a ripening process, and the unripened ones don’t necessarily give off that telltale truffle-licious aroma. It’s not until they ripen that they start emitting that cocktail of complex chemical compounds that get you salivating. And those aromas are best released when truffles are used in foods that are heavy in fat and added at the last minute, hence those saucy applications of these delectable morsels. Oregon truffles aren’t the same as European varieties, but they are close cousins, according to Czarnecki.
We then piled our gear and ourselves into his Subaru station wagon, and off we went. When asked where we were going, he wasn’t too specific but said “not far” (good mushroomers and truffle hunters guard the locations of their favorite sites more closely than avid anglers guard their fishing holes). And he seemed to be making lots of turns, possibly to disorient us, but we finally arrived at our destination, a forested patch of Douglas firs on a remote property a short drive from the restaurant.
During the drive, Czarnecki explained why we were headed for a patch of Douglas fir: “Truffles aren’t exactly mushrooms but it’s easiest to think of them as mushrooms that grow underground,” Czarnecki said. “The reason is that they form a mycorrhizal relationship with the roots of the trees. “This means that it’s mutually beneficial for the trees and the truffles,” he explained further, probably after noticing the totally quizzical look on my face and knotted brow when I heard the word “mycorrhizal.” My brain was searching desperately back to my diminishing memory of freshman college microbiology class for the meaning. I thought to myself, this is what happens when you kill off too many brain cells by drinking too much pinot noir. But I digress. So our targeted prey of Oregon white truffles would be lurking just beneath the “duff” (a layer of organic decaying leaves and other forest matter) on the forest floor along the root systems of young Douglas firs, between 15 and 30 years old. The best time to look for truffles is from November to December, Czarnecki said, and there’s another crop between January and February.
As we got out of the car and put on our boots, Czarnecki pulled out a serrated knife with a nearly foot and a half long jagged blade that looked like one of those TV commercial Ginsu knives that could cut through a soda can (for a millisecond my mind paused and wondered what the target of that knife was). He proceeded to cut a pie-shaped hole out of the top of the milk jugs opposite the jug handles and handed the jugs to us. “This is the latest in truffle high-tech gear,” he said, “your very own truffle vesicle.” We were instructed to take off our belts partway and thread them through the handles of the milk jugs. The jugs would serve as our portable truffle case during our gathering expedition.
As we headed into the Douglas fir forest, Czarnecki told us that we would be looking for clues left by small animals, mostly squirrels, who had made a meal of the truffles. This is how truffles propagate, it turns out. The animals eat the truffles and then, when they poop, they scatter the spores of the truffles elsewhere on the forest floor.
As we walked under the canopy of branches above us, it got darker, and it took a few minutes for our eyes to adjust as Czarnecki pointed to our first clue, a hole dug by some critter not far from the trunk of a Douglas fir. He gently raked the layer of loose duff from the adjoining area and, bingo, unearthed a small white orb about the size of a marble. “This is what I call a 10-minute truffle,” Czarnecki said. “The excitement shoots enough adrenalin into you to get you going for about 10 minutes.” He held up his fingers with a gap about the size of a golf ball and said that would be like a 30-minute truffle. And then he widened the gap farther still and said that would be like a one-hour truffle. He handed us the truffle to examine, and it felt firm, but light, almost like a piece of chalk, but not that dense. And it really didn’t smell anything like we thought a truffle would, more like decaying Douglas fir leaves. Czarnecki reminded us that it wouldn’t start emitting the aroma until it was ripe.
He pointed to the first few spots for us to rake over, and we started hitting the jackpot. He was right; we were finding little marble-sized truffles and some golf-ball-sized ones along the roots of the trees under the duff. It seemed like once you found one, there were truffle brothers not far away along the same root system. It wasn’t long before Charles unearthed something unexpected that looked gray, almost black, and he called out to Czarnecki, who examined it and proclaimed that Charles had hit the holy grail of truffle-dom. He had found a rare Oregon black truffle. He asked Charles where he found it, and headed in that direction and they searched for more of those rarified gems. As we made our way along the forest floor, we were finding enough truffles to keep us pumped full of truffle adrenalin. When it came time to end our expedition, we gathered back at the car and examined our truffle bounty. Price and I had each amassed what would amount to several hundred dollars’ worth of truffles, several handfuls. I peeked at Czarnecki’s milk jug and he had out-truffled us, amassing more than what Charles and I had combined. But at the end of the day, it was Charles who went home with the only rarified black truffle of the day.
We headed back to the restaurant and then loaded our equipment in our car and followed Czarnecki to his home, where he showed us how to clean the truffles under running cold water and then place them in plastic sealable bags lined with paper towels. He said to refrigerate the truffles until they ripened and started emitting aromas, which would be the sign that they were ready to eat.
In the time since that truffle outing with Czarnecki, we’ve been to some woods at a friend’s vineyard, his neighbors’ woods and some public parks, but we’ve come back empty-handed. No wonder truffle hunters keep their spots secret. Think we would have revealed ours if we found some?
About Jack Czarnecki
Education: Degree in bacteriology from the University of California at Davis.
Family: wife, Heidi; two sons, Christopher, who is a chef and now runs the Joel Palmer House Restaurant, and Stefan, who is involved in Oregon White Truffle Oil Inc. and Czar’s Fine Foods, which produces Czarnecki’s line of four sauces made with Willamette Valley pinot noir; and daughter, Sonja.
Background: Spent his adult life in the restaurant business specializing in mushrooms and truffles, and has authored three cookbooks on mushrooms, including “A Cook’s Book of Mushrooms,” which won a James Beard Award in 1996. Before opening the Joel Palmer House Restaurant in Dayton in 1997, Czarnecki ran his family business in Reading, Penn., Joe’s Restaurant, for 22 years.
Online: oregontruffleoil.com, Joelpalmerhouse.com
Where to purchase
Oregon truffles: During truffle season, call the Roth’s Fresh Markets Vista store at (503) 364-8449 for availability.
Oregon White Truffle Oil: Fitts Seafood at 1555 12th St. SE, (503) 364-6724, carries Czarnecki’s Oregon White Truffle Oil in 2-ounce and 5-ounce sizes.