Stalking Wild Truffles in Oregon
Squirrels or Bourbon?
If you're an Oregon white spring truffle, your lifecycle is fairly dramatic. In one scenario, you're dug up and nibbled by a flying squirrel, which in turn is dismembered and digested by a northern spotted owl, who extrudes the squirrel in a piece of poop. You're inside the poop, and if you're lucky, you wind up at the base of a Douglas fir. And there you sit, while the turd decomposes but you thrive, because you and the tree have a cozy thing going, you boosting its root system and it feeding you carbohydrates. So you hang out, in the dark, kept warm by ground cover, and grow; really, it's not a bad way to spend the winter. But then spring comes, and with it one of several fates: another squirrel unearths and eats you; you remain buried and decay; or Jack Czarnecki, with a few scrapes of his rake, brings you into the light and takes you to his restaurant where, if you're prime, he saut√©s you with bacon and heavy cream, or, if you're very young or very old, tosses you into a bottle of bourbon.
"We think they're the happiest truffles, actually," says Czarnecki, with whom, as a truffle, you've developed such a close relationship, you may soon share a name: Tuber Czarneckii.
To become bedazzled by truffles requires patience and faith. They don't present seductively, as do other wild fungi in Oregon, in the golden fluting of the chanterelle and the moist crenulations of the morel, conspicuous varieties that push up every year after the Oregon rains.
Truffles, on the other hand, look like chicken knuckles or knobby potatoes, coated with dirt. They also grow underground, most famously in France and Italy, where for centuries they've been sniffed out by specially trained female pigs who root for the truffle because it emits an odor similar to the male pig's sex pheromone. That the pigs like to also eat the truffles brought the advent of trained dogs, which, because their snack bribery threshold is fairly low, can be made to bark at but not bite the truffles, which you really do want keep intact: French whites and Italian blacks can fetch $2000 a pound, and more: in 2005, a 2.4 pound truffle sold at auction in Italy for $52,000.
Until recently there was essentially no market for North American truffles, which grow from Northern California to Vancouver Island, BC. This is partly because their existence was off the radar, despite the late James Beard, a native Oregonian, coming out in 1983 with the opinion that the white Oregon truffle, Tuber gibbosum, was "at least as good as French black and Italian white"; there also was (and still is) incredulity within the food world about quality truffles existing in any sort of commercial quantity on American soil, much in the way France once claimed America would never produce outstanding wine.
There's also the fact that for thirty years there's been a thriving mycological market in America, in wild mushrooms of the sort that cannot be cultivated but only found in woodlands and fields. A multi-billion-dollar a year business, foraging for wild mushrooms is often referred to as "cash in the woods," and an industrious independent picker can earn as much as $100,000 a year. Why leave that to look for something that grows underground and which much of the country still confuses with chocolate?
"I followed the siren song of the mushroom," says Czarnecki, who migrated from Pennsylvania to Oregon in 1997. Known as "the uncontested czar of mushrooms in America," Czarnecki's authored several books on mushrooms, and is also chef and owner of the Joel Palmer House. Three or four times a week, Czarnecki, 59, heads into the forest in search of the wild fungi that the base of his cuisine: cepes and boletes, black trumpet and yellowfoot, hedgehog and matsutake. Certainly, it's an obsession. It's also therapeutic.
"The ability to go out and just be by yourself and clear your head and think about things while you're out in the woods with no disturbances, I've come to appreciate that over the years," he says, walking toward a battered Suburu wagon. "I tell people it's a great way to enjoy Oregon without having to kill something."
Because it's April, one might assume that Czarnecki will hunt for the current cash crop, morels. But he's not, because like anyone with a passion, the original lures fomented to desire for more hidden and arcane treasures, including truffles. Not any truffle, but a specific truffle that, so far as he knows, only three or four other people have come into contact with at all.
A rotund man in rubberized overalls, Czarnecki climbs into the driver's seat. "You're one the few people who has ever hunted Oregon spring white truffles," he says, and puts the car in gear. "You may be the first writer who's ever found them."
Into the Forest Armed with a Rake
Jack Czarnecki drives a Suburu Outback he alternately refers to as "the trufflemobile" and "my bitchy Japanese mistress," too fast over a goat trail lined with blackberry brambles that snap through the open windows. After parking the car at a 45-degree angle, he pops the back, to reveal several three-tined rakes and a jumble of muddy plastic milk gallons with the tops cut off.
"People are convinced the Oregon white truffle is found from November through March," says Czarnecki, as he tromps into dense forest on private land in the Willamette Valley, 35 miles southwest of Portland. "Almost nobody picks the springs, which taxonomically are Tuber gibbosum, which is a different truffle from the winter white, which is called Tuber oregonense. I can count on one hand the people picking Oregon white truffles in the spring, and until last year, I was the only one. In the spring, anyone who picks is looking for morels. Why spend your time schlepping around the forest looking for truffles when you can get morels and sell them?"
Oregon truffles are spendier than morels, selling for around $15 an ounce, about what you'll pay for a pound of morels. The paradox is, if no one picks spring whites, there's no market for them; Czarnecki, so far as he knows, is the only restaurateur using them. This is partly because no one believes they exist.
"I try to explain to people what these are, and they think they're tuber californicum, which are small and tasteless," he says. "They're not. These are like the Italian white, which, when it gets strong, nothing compares to its intensity."
Czarnecki stops beneath a tree, points me toward another nearby, and we commence to rake, not maniacally, but gently, through pine needles and walnut shells; animal spore and seedpods; acorns and various mushrooms Czarnecki calls, "edible but not particularly interesting." I also disinter a sheet of rolling paper, a penny, and the eyeless head of a baby bird, its bright yellow beak poking from a fluffy iron-colored clump that might or might not be snake shit.
Maybe I'm not sure what I'm looking for...
"When they're mature, they'll be tawny or gray," says Czarnecki, who already has an inch of truffles in his milk jug. "And make sure you rake softly, or you'll rake it right past yourself, or right through it, which is heartbreaking," and which, Czarnecki says, is just what a friend did last year, bisecting a truffle the size of a softball.
I rake another ten minutes, during which I find a beetle colony, an earthworm, some diaphanous silver fungus that looks like witch's hair, and somehow manage to thwack myself in the face with a thorny branch.
Maybe I'm not searching in the right spots...
"Some years, the truffles are gregarious. Others, you have to work to find them," says Czarnecki. "Look for where animals have been, for empty nutshells."
I spot some acorn shells, rake, and then I see it. It's tawny and about the size of a hazelnut, odorless, caked with dirt. It really doesn't look like much, and there's zero smell.
"When they're young, they're small and odorless," says Czarnecki. "When they're mature, they're fragrant; and then they're old, they get funky."
Sort of like a person.
"Or a wine," says Jack. "Remember, little ones are also where big ones grow."
We continue to work the woods, staying far enough apart that we can't see or hear each other. For the next 45 minutes, there is no sound but a light wind moving the pines and the shush-shush of the rake. It's meditative, and also, transfixing; everything shrinks down to this small patch of real estate, and you find it's better, sometimes, to get on your knees and rake your fingers through the dirt, and when you find a truffle, it's not so much awe-inspiring as giddy-making, because there's the anticipation that the next tree might bring a bonanza, a sensation identical to walking from slot machine to slot machine, thinking, maybe this one will pay off big.
The sun is setting. I rake up flower petals, fiddlehead ferns, centipedes, grubs, pits, mold, and then, two truffles, crown-shaped, round as quarters, and the color of sherry. And then, I find something else.
"Let me see," says Czarnecki, and compares it to the largest in his milk carton.
It's been three hours since we started our hunt. I have rocks in my sneakers and raking has worn a dime-size piece of skin off my thumb. I have a gash below my left eye, twigs in my hair, dust on my clothes and dirt up my nose. But I also have the biggest truffle of the day, a knobby, three-inch tall blob that looks sort of like one of those pre-Columbian figures of women giving birth.
On the drive to Joel Palmer House, we pass fields of grass-seed and Marion berries. Mt. Hood shines white on the horizon, and Czarnecki is doing seventy-five.
"One of my dictums is, you may not always find truffles," he says, "but you can always go wine tasting." Out the window are acre after acre of pinot noir grapes, but he does not slow, because in the back, we have truffles, four pounds of them.
The Pleasure Monger's Kitchen
Jack Czarnecki shakes a colander half-full with Oregon white spring truffles, truffles he dug up last week, truffles the color of Kraft caramels that this evening will find their way into dishes at Joel Palmer House, the historic restaurant he owns in Dayton, Oregon.
Cool, but... what's that smell?
"That's them," he says, holding the truffles up to my nose. "When they mature, they're quite fine; they've got that nice rich garlicky smell to them."
I don't exactly smell garlic; it's more... post-coital. Does he get that?
Czarnecki suppresses a grin. "I do," he says. "It's the build-up, the climax and the cigarette afterwards."
Truffles-one of the world's most expensive foods, a comestible often used in miniscule quantities, more an accent than an ingredient-have a taste that's mercurial: they can be nutty, or meaty, like oily morsels of lamb, or foie gras. As they ripen, their aroma intensifies, from a woody muskiness to strong bleu cheese to, when left too long in a plastic bag (and something I learned the hard way), rotting flesh.
"We put more truffles in our dishes than any other restaurant in the world," says Czarnecki, as he preps truffles for dinner. What's the best way to make them?
"Well, they like fat," he says.
"Fat really brings out their flavors. Animal fat, mostly: bacon, butter, cream," he says, shaving paper-thin slices from a white truffle the size of a fist. "I had a vegan come in recently and ask if I had any recipes for truffles without animal fat, and I told her, I'm not that good a cook."
Tonight, Czarnecki serves-and I eat-porcini risotto with Parmigiano-Reggiano, white truffle oil and fresh Oregon white truffles; "faux" gras made from chicken livers, black chanterelles and ground white truffles that have been soaked in bourbon, and whole white truffles the size of chickpeas, cooked in heavy cream, and spooned into soft eggy brioche. For dessert, there's gelato swirled with finely chopped Oregon black truffles, their taste imbuing the sweet custard with the elusive zing of... fennel? Pepper? Pork? Trying to chase the taste captures the imagination.
And, apparently, the body; I am feeling... quite full.
"You have to remember, truffles are little biochemical factories, they're always giving off this gas," says Czarnecki. "That happens even after you swallow them."
So, you get farty?
"No, burpy, but that's the best way to taste a truffle," he says. "You burp, and it comes back through your nose, and it's, 'Oh, that was kinda good.'"
So, Czarnecki's in the business of gustatory gratification, both high and base.
"Basically, we're in the business of being pleasure-mongers," he says. "And to be in an area where truffles are available ten minutes from the restaurant; to be able to wash it down with the world's greatest pinot noir, how outrageous is this?"
Nancy Rommelmann is a columnist and feature writer for the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Bon Appetit and other publications, and a frequent contributor to Portland Food & Drink. She is the author of several books, including %%AMAZON=014026373X Everything You Pretend to Know About Food And Are Afraid Someone Will Ask,%% and the recently completed memoir, Leaving Los Angeles. Her personal blog can be read here.
Eggs and White Truffles
"Keep the eggs and truffle in a box during 24 hours. Cook your eggs and truffle in a double-boiler with sour cream. Turn slowly and you will have the best scrambled eggs of the world."