Truffle Hunts & Forest Feasts In Willamette Valley Wine Country
When we imagine hunting for the elusive and seductive truffle prized by chefs around the globe, chances are we picture following the grunts and snorts of a truffle pig through a forest in Italy or France. And while those may be the two countries whose cuisines are most closely associated with this wildly expensive delicacy, the good news for Americans is that today, fresh, wild truffles can be found much closer to home.
Going on a truffle hunt had long been on my foodie travel wish list. But with international travel still limited, my chances of making it happen in Europe anytime soon were slim. So I was intrigued to learn that Black Tie Tours offers truffle and wine tours in Oregon’s famed Willamette Valley, home to some of the world’s best Pinot. Turns out, thanks to western Oregon’s cool climate, steady rainfall, and ample forests blanketed with Douglas Firs (whose root systems truffles grow from), it’s one of the best spots outside of Europe to forage for wild truffles.
Black Tie Tours’ truffle hunts are held in Newberg, Oregon, about an hour southwest of Portland. Led by Stefan Czarnecki, the company offers winery tours throughout the Valley year-round, as well as foraging tours when truffles are in season.
Stefan’s wine and culinary ties to the Valley go back several decades: His father, Jack Czarnecki, is an expert mushroom and truffle hunter who nabbed a James Beard Foundation award for his 1995 cookbook, Cook’s Book of Mushrooms. Then in 1996, Jack opened The Joel Palmer House in nearby Dayton, Oregon to showcase the bounty of the Pacific Northwest. He introduced his young sons to foraging in the Oregon wilderness, and the family tradition stuck. Today, Stefan and Jack run their own truffle oil company, while his brother, Chris infuses truffles into the menu at The Joel Palmer House in his role as executive chef.
On a recent Sunday, a friend and I drove to Newberg to join the hunt. Oregon has four native truffle species prized for their culinary value that can be harvested in the wild. But at this time of year, we were looking for the Oregon white winter truffle (AKA Tuber oregonense).
We met up with Stefan and his sweet dog, Ella, a Lagotto Romagnolo (“Also known as a pretentious Italian truffle dog,” joked Stefan). Unlike how truffle hunting was portrayed in the recent Nicolas Cage movie, Pig, pigs are rarely used for truffle foraging these days since dogs are so much better at releasing the delicacies they sniff out to their handler’s hands in exchange for a treat, Stefan explained. (Pigs are more likely to try to eat the truffles they find, which can result in mangled hands and missing digits for anyone who tries to wrestle a fragrant truffle away from the hungry pig that just unearthed it.)
Outfitted with a no-frills trifecta of knee pads, a gardening knife, and a repurposed plastic milk jug attached to his belt as a makeshift bucket, Stefan led our group of eight into the woods. Ella quickly got to work, pushing her nose gently into the forest floor to sniff out the culinary prizes we were in search of. It wasn’t long before she stopped and pawed at the soil near a Doug Fir, alerting Stefan to the treasure just underneath. Stefan took out his gardening knife and dug just below the surface until he upturned a knobby white ball roughly the size of a walnut. Admittedly, it wasn’t much to look at…but its intoxicating scent filled the air the moment it was pulled out of the earth.
The group followed just behind Ella, watching closely as she turned up a couple dozen more truffles. Then, we headed to the edge of the forest where local chef Erick Caballero was preparing a truffle-centric lunch, and Andrew Imboden, Assistant Winemaker at Alexana (one of my favorite local wineries) was opening bottles of Chardonnay and Pinot.
Stefan invites a different Willamette Valley winemaker to pour wines specifically paired with the menu for each truffle hunt. In addition to Alexana, EIEIO, Native Flora, Hazelfern Cellars, Beaux Frere, Eleveé, Violin, and Lingua Franca wineries have all been featured this year.
We started off grazing on a charcuterie and cheese plate, and then moved on to courses of Wagyu tartar on brioche, and Dungeness crab salad with crispy kale — all showered with shaved black truffles and eaten in the midst of the serene forest.
Black Tie’s $250 per person tour fee includes transportation to and from a meeting spot in Newberg, 1-2 hours of truffle foraging, the truffle-themed lunch, truffle education and culinary tips, and wine-tasting with a local winemaker. Stefan will even send you home with a truffle gift so you can get creative making a decadent truffle dish at home.
In Oregon, truffle season runs from roughly the end of January to mid-March, depending on how the season shapes up. Black Tie Tours’ last couple hunts of the winter truffle season are sold out. But if you’re interested in joining a future tour, check back on the company’s website to see if the spring season will allow for additional tours to be added in April and May.