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.
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.
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.
Finally, after hours of fruitless digging, I had found 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 for a weekend to chase the elusive truffle. Czarnecki might 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. (I included it on my shortlist of most excellent Christmas gift ideas last week.)
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 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, and I got 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.
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 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 a fossil of a velociraptor—hoping, praying 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.
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.