Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hunting for White Truffles in Oregon

As soon as I decided to head to Willamette Valley to go wine tasting, I contacted Jack Czarnecki, famed Oregon mushroom expert, cookbook author and former chef and owner of The Joel Palmer House. I contacted him to see if The Joel Palmer House might be able to accommodate a vegan diner. Well, not only did he tell me they would, but he said he'd also like to personally take me and my friend truffle hunting. Now this was something I'd never done!

I'm not talking about chocolate truffles. I'm talking about the amazing fungus that grows underground and costs a fortune to buy. Truffles are a rare delicacy in this world. There are black ones and white ones and in Oregon, you can find the white truffles.

So we met Jack on a Thursday afternoon in Dayton, Ohio. As my friend, Corey, and I changed into our truffle hunting gear, Jack immediately asked me if I was wearing a belt. Before we came out, he told me to wear boots, pants, and a belt. Corey and I kind of chuckled at the requirement for a belt as we had no idea why he specified that. As I don't even own a belt and am pretty certain my pants would stay up, I opted not to bring one. Then when Jack asked me about it, I had to ask him why it was necessary. He uses his belt to hang an empty milk carton that he uses to collect the truffles. He said it is easier than trying to hold it. Oh well - I'll just have to make due without one.

So we got into the truffle mobile and headed out. After driving for about 10 minutes, we arrived at this lady's house. Jack knew her very well so we chatted for a bit, then headed into the woods. Our mission was to find truffles in these woods, but I had no idea how we were going to do that.

We each had a rake and a milk carton. Jack started telling us about how you can often find truffles growing at the base of the Douglas Firs, but that they can also be found by other trees. Perhaps the most interesting tidbit he shared with us is that truffles give off a strong aroma (gases) to attract animals to eat them as they can not reproduce without being consumed by animals. Small animals consume the truffles and the spores of the truffle remain intact in the intestinal system of the animals. Then, when they defecate, the spores are released onto the soil where they have the opportunity to grow in another part of the forest. And that is how they reproduce.

So we began raking and almost immediately, Jack found a truffle. He showed us what it looked like -- it was a round, white truffle, covered in dirt and was quite firm. So we started raking. It was a while before we found any, but eventually we got the hang of it. We found them in mossy areas the most and every once in a while hit the jackpot and found a bunch in one area. It was so much fun -- like looking for gold.

Many people asked me if we'd be using pigs or dogs to hunt the truffles. Apparently, the Italian white truffle emits a gas which has an aroma similar to that of a pheromone found in the mouth of a boar. Sows are used to hunt truffles because they are very sensitive to that odor so that when the sow sniffs it she thinks she'll soon be on a "date".  The bad thing about using boars is that they try to eat the truffle as soon as they find it. Dogs are considered to be at least as good as sows for hunting truffles, but, unlike the sows, they must be trained. Once trained to find them, however, they are usually indifferent to the truffle's allure.  So the dogs will find them, but not eat them. But, Jack is so good that he doesn't need either.

 As we were raking, we realized how much we were digging up the soil and asked Jack if we were doing any harm. It is his theory that raking is actually beneficial for the health of the trees in the same way that other more traditional methods of aeration are beneficial. Provided the roots are not torn or otherwise damaged, aeration of the soil by raking allows more oxygen to reach the termini of the roots thereby allowing the root system to penetrate deeper into the soil and produce a longer living and healthier tree.

After a full two hours of raking, we realized just how much work this really was and were ready to head back. All in all, we found tons of truffles that we took back to the restaurant and were pleasantly surprised when he told us we could keep our truffles.

This was an amazing experience that I will never forget and am truly thankful for Jack for allowing us to experience the joy of truffle hunting with him. Now, I'm going to go cook with some of his famous truffle oil. :-)

1 comment:

  1. That was so cool and informative. Thank you!