On the Truffle Trail with Stefan Czarnecki

One of the greatest gifts a wine region can give the world is a classic local pairing—a food and drink combination that is both truly complementary and uniquely expressive of place. The western Loire has Muscadet and oysters; Sardinia has Cannonau with pancetta and sheep’s cheese. Oregon is synonymous with Pinot noir, and its most precious and distinct food counterpart is truffles.

Stefan Czarnecki, age 36, might be the best person in the country to ask about the latter. His family name is synonymous with Oregon mushrooms; Stefan and his dad Jack Czarnecki, longtime operator of the Joel Palmer House and lifelong mushroom forager, are the expert truffle hunters whose unique brand of pure Oregon truffle oil is sold throughout the region. Launched in 2010, Oregon Truffle Oil is Oregon’s only artisanal truffle oil company.

Stefan Czarnecki in the woods with a rake

“One of the reasons we started doing the truffle oil is that the reputation of Oregon truffles wasn’t great,” Czarnecki explains. “People were using them before they were ripe, so they were kind of viewed as second-class truffles.” That’s partially because the traditionally popular raking method, in which truffle hunters rake the forest floor to unearth truffles, can turn up a mix of ripe and underripe truffles.

Truffle hunters in the old world enlisted pigs for their foraging skills, but Czarnecki says dogs can work well, too. “You can absolutely train certain dogs to go find nice ripe truffles and pull them out of the ground,” says Czarnecki, who is currently training his dog Ella (she’s a Lagotto Romangolo—an Italian truffle hunting breed) to hunt truffles. “You don’t have to have a dog, though; you can look for the signs in the forest and holes in the ground where animals have been digging and eating, and you can dig in that area. Just be prepared to separate the ripe from unripe. My dad knew about truffles, and he knew how to ripen them—ripe truffles don’t last very long out of the ground and they spoil very quickly.” Czarnecki recommends ripening unripe truffles by wrapping them in paper towels and refrigerating them in an airtight container.

Then there’s the challenge of preserving and showcasing truffles’ unique flavor. “Cooking with truffles is something people don’t know about,” Czarnecki says. “They watch food shows or something like that where people are sautéing truffles and that is the wrong way to do it.” Don’t get him started on truffle fries, the beloved staple of gastropubs around the country. “Most truffle fries use fake truffle oil,” Czarnecki says. “Some people figured out that the strongest gas in truffles is called 2,4-dithiapentane and they synthesized that and blasted it into olive oil and boom—instant truffle oil.” Such oils are typically advertised to be “truffle aroma” or “truffle flavor” to avoid legal implications; others will include a small amount of freeze-dried truffle, which Czarnecki says is nearly flavorless.

“Anybody can make truffle oil at home—it’s not this great secret—but we’ve perfected it and it’s shelf stable,” he says. “What people don’t understand is that the magic of truffles is in their gases.” As a truffle matures, it releases aromatic gases, and the secret is to capture and preserve those gases by one of two common methods. “The most common way that’s been used for many years is just shaving fresh truffles over warm food, so the truffle starts releasing those gases and as you’re eating you’re kind of breathing in that truffle and you really get the full effect in your olfactory system,” Czarnecki says.

“The other way is to do infusions. Truffle gases bond to fats primarily, so you can infuse cream cheese, butter, or even meat with truffle gases. My brother [Chris Czarnecki, current owner and chef at the Joel Palmer House] did this amazing dinner once for the Truffle Festival where the whole lunch was a truffle lunch with no actual truffle in it. It was all done with infusions and it tasted more like truffle than most of the things I’ve ever tasted that featured truffles.”

truffles in the dirt

It’s the elusive nature of truffles, from finding where they grow to coaxing out their best flavors, that drew Czarnecki, who grew up foraging for mushrooms with his dad and grandfather and began focusing on truffles around age 20. “My dad was definitely intrigued by the fact that you’ve got this amazing product of the earth but nobody knows how to use it. The information that was out there was so sparse and so that’s part of why he started the truffle oil—he really enjoyed the education part of it,” Czarnecki recalls. “I was used to going out and foraging and learning, and shifting over to truffles was a pretty cool transition.”

Not unlike the California wine industry’s historically competitive relationship with France, Czarnecki says comparisons between Oregon and European truffles spurred the pursuit of higher quality. “There was partly the Oregon chip on our shoulder, being the little brother of truffles to Europe’s big brother.”

There’s plenty of room for both. “Some people compare Oregon truffles to Pinot noir, and Cabernet to the European truffles,” Czarnecki explains. “European truffles are very strong, especially Italian white truffles, and will kind of knock you off your feet, whereas the Oregon truffles tend to be more subtle, but they’re also a little more complex and have different flavors.”

Oregon truffles come in spring white, winter white, and black varieties, with black truffles growing from November to June, winter white truffles growing through the winter months and petering out by February, and spring white truffles appearing in May and growing until June. It’s not an exact science, however. “Truffle seasons are pretty hard to predict,” Czarnecki says. “With mushrooms you can pretty much dial it in: if we had a good wet fall and the snow level isn’t too low so there’s going to be a lot of mushrooms. Truffles, they’re underground and trickier. We’ve had years where Washington had this great season of black truffles and we hardly got any at all.”

For those who want to try their hand at truffle hunting, Czarnecki recommends the Oregon Mycological Society and the North American Truffling Society. “They do forays where you get together with a group and have a guide or two, and they have spots they’re allowed to take people for educational purposes, and they just teach.” That’s the affordable option; some people prefer to hire a private guide to find the best places. Just don’t ask Czarnecki, who has a wine country touring company called Black Tie Tours, to reveal his. “We don’t have many spots, so our secret spots stay secret,” he laughs.

But the easiest and most delicious way to explore Oregon truffles is through the Willamette Valley’s many restaurants—starting with the Palmer House, which made its name on showcasing local mushrooms—and experimenting with truffle oil at home. “I like smashed potatoes with lots of sour cream and parmesan and a little drizzle of truffle,” Czarnecki says. He adds, “For a wine pairing I like a Pinot that has some age on it so the edges are kind of rounded off, or you can also do a medium-oaked Chardonnay that’s not too high in acid. You don’t want anything too fruity or too acidic because it will overpower the truffle.”

 

By Julia Burke

Julia Burke is a wine lover originally from Buffalo, New York, who moved to Oregon in August 2017 to work a harvest and decided to stay. She is the Willamette Valley Wineries Association’s marketing and content coordinator and a fan of Riesling, peanut butter, and the Chicago Cubs.