Friday, March 23, 2012

Oregon's Black Gold: The Nose Knows

"I'm ceding the field to Chloe today," said Jack Czarnecki, master mushroom and truffle hunter. He'd just been bested by a young blond who totally skunked him in a day-long search for Oregon black truffles.

Jack appreciating Chloe's work.

The blond in question was a two-year-old golden Lab trained by Jack's friend John Getz (top photo, with Chloe), who'd invited him and a couple of observers to forage for this elusive buried treasure, Leucangium carthusianum, in a stand of Douglas fir in Oregon's Coast Range near Florence. Unlike Oregon's white truffle, Tuber oregonense, which grows on surface roots of the Douglas fir, the black truffle tends to grow at depths of six inches to three or four feet. (Read my article on foraging for white truffles.)

Jack and John "helping" Chloe dig.

And that's where young Chloe came in. Dogs have been used to hunt truffles in Europe for many years, almost completely replacing the famous truffle-hunting pigs. A well-trained dog can sniff out the gasses being released by a truffle hiding beneath the soil, and John had been training Chloe to find ripe or nearly-ripe truffles since she was a pup. Dogs are also preferred because they dig in one spot and disturb the tree roots much less than other methods for finding the deeper fungi.

The training is a totally reward-based system, beginning with hiding a truffle or a truffle oil-scented cloth around the house, giving the dog a treat when the bait is found, then gradually moving the game outdoors as the dog develops its skill. Chloe turned out to be a natural, one of the best that Getz had ever had, and she was able to keep at it for several hours without losing interest.

The day had started with an early morning drive to the coast, where my friend Linda and I met Jack at his family's beach house for a breakfast of coffee and egg strata prepared by his wife, Heidi. After fortifying ourselves for the day's work, we headed down to pick up John, his wife, Connie, and Chloe at their home in Florence.

Chloe gets excited about truffles.

Our little caravan made its way up into the mountains to an old Christmas tree stand that John had obtained permission to hunt on, and we ducked under the branches of the outermost trees and into the darkness beneath them. As we worked our way in, the temperature dropped precipitously and I was glad that I'd worn insulated boots and several layers of clothing.

Candy cap mushroom-infused vodka martini at Joel Palmer House.

Chloe was very excited to have all these people with her, and it took several minutes for her to calm down and focus on her job, but with a few gentle commands to "Go find them, girl," from John, she got down to business. Within a few minutes her nose was ruffling through the duff under the trees, and then she was digging furiously. John rushed to her side and when she got about six inches down he reached in and pulled out an almost-black lump about two inches in diameter.

Filet with foie gras, wild mushrooms and mushroom polonaise.

This happened many times over the next three hours or so as we tagged along, straining our eyes to see if there was the black edge of a truffle breaking the surface, but even Jack admitted that he could find little evidence of them above ground. Chloe, meanwhile, was finding a trove of the black beauties, and the scents that rose up from them were amazingly diverse, ranging from pineapple to apple to bacon and even chocolate. (Read how to ripen truffles at home by scrolling to the second half of the link.)

Scallop quenelle with black trumpet popcorn and trout caviar.

With around two pounds of Chloe's hard work in our buckets, it was back into the cars to drive to Dayton for a grand mushroom dinner at the Joel Palmer House, now owned by Jack's son Chris, who is also the chef. A shower of courses came and went, each one with a wine pairing chosen from the restaurant's cellar. And even though mushrooms were included in every course—even the martini was made from candy cap mushroom-infused vodka, which had its signature maple flavor—each one had a completely different flavor profile.

This was one of those days that was an education as well as a revelation, and ever since then I've been eyeing Walker as a potential candidate for truffle training. It could be the start of a whole new breed trait for Corgis…great idea, right?


Rebecca said...

What a great adventure! I'm sure Walker would love to give it a shot - he's close to the ground, so he might already have an advantage. ;-)

Kathleen Bauer said...

Thanks, Rebecca! Great minds, as they say…