Best Places to Hunt for Delicious Native Truffles
Beguiling. Rapturous. Intoxicating. Enticing. Euphoric.
Searching for the right word to describe the overwhelmingly delightful qualities of truffles isn’t nearly as exciting as hunting for these Northwest-native delicacies.
Italian white truffles are among the most expensive foods in the world, selling for as much as $6,000 per pound. Oregon and Washington sit along the same latitudes as the truffle-growing regions of France and Italy that dominate the global market. With its temperate climate and wet conditions, the Pacific Northwest provides perfect conditions for many kinds of truffles.
Truffles grow around the world, even the Sahara Desert. However, only a few species are palatable. The Pacific Northwest is one of the few places on the planet that has native truffles with culinary value. This is good news for us because these delicate delicacies have a very short shelf life: European species last about two weeks, twice as long as native Northwest truffles.
Wild Northwest truffles hide several inches below the leaf-covered forest floor, nestled in the soil at the base of Douglas fir trees. They resemble walnut-sized, lumpy potatoes and most regional species mature between fall and early spring, meaning that a search often calls for a slog through the rain and cold.
Discovering these elusive fungi while enjoying the moss-scented air makes this wintertime adventure worth a frigidly numb face.
Noses furiously scanning the forest floor, truffle dogs sniff out the pungent aroma emitted by mature truffles. When the four-legged hunters find something delicious, they paw at the ground or stop and stare at one spot, their way of saying, “Start digging.” With these trained canines acting as quality control, the truffles representing the Pacific Northwest are increasingly the mouth-watering culinary ingredient worthy of its place as the pinnacle of fine dining.
One of the reasons that Pacific Northwest truffles haven’t yet risen to the same world-renowned status as European truffles, those in the regional truffle community say, is that our truffles have historically been foraged with rakes. This method surfaces ripe, unripe and overripe truffles all while disturbing large swaths of the soil where truffles grow. Properly trained dogs can zero in on the most appetizing truffles in a less disruptive manner because attracting animals is all part of the plan.
Related to the mushroom but living beneath the soil, truffles lack access to wind to disperse their spores. Instead, they rely on a complex set of aromatic compounds to attract animals. Just like humans, squirrels, mice and deer feast on the truffles and disperse the spores. Rainfall then drives the spores underground where they germinate and grow, starting the life cycle over. The handful of species native to the region that find their way onto menus across the country are truffles that have formed a symbiotic relationship with Douglas firs.
Truffles access sugar from the tree roots while enabling the tree to glean water and absorb nutrients from the soil. “The mutual arrangement between the truffle and the tree is the product of the millions of experiments that evolution conducts every day,” says Jim Trappe, a renowned mycologist who has studied truffles for about 60 years.
Though they have the common name of Oregon black, Oregon white and Oregon brown truffles, the same truffles are generally found from northern California to British Columbia. “In Washington, it’s less explored,” says Alana McGee, who has worked in the truffle business for more than 10 years. “We have the same habitat as Oregon, but nobody was out looking for truffles.”
McGee’s Seattle-based Truffle Dog Co. trains dogs to search for the musky scents and teaches owners how to read their pups. It is also one of several companies that offers forays, a guided truffle hunt through the forest, and she’ll even search your property by request. Many of McGee’s favorite hunting locations are closer to Seattle than you might think, places like Marysville, Duvall and Issaquah.
Because hunting on private and public land can require permission and permits, the best way for beginners to try finding these tantalizing treats is through a tour operator or the Oregon Truffle Festival, which will be held Jan. 28 to Feb. 25 in 2023. The truffle hunt is an experience unlike any other. The quiet of the forest is broken by the crunch of leaves underfoot and a dog panting as it pushes through sword ferns.
Climbing over downed tree trunks and weaving through knobby limbs covered in bright green moss is all part of the fun. Mud boots and raincoats are encouraged, and hunters should be prepared to walk on uneven ground. The anticipation builds as the dog leads you to the place to dig, revealing a golf-ball sized nugget that radiates a musky odor. You’ve struck edible gold.
Cultivation of truffles in the Pacific Northwest is relatively new compared to wild truffle hunts. Dozens of farmers have purchased seedlings introduced with the fungus and have started orchards, adding to a fast-growing European truffle cultivation industry in North America. “The growth of the industry will be a very slow process, particularly considering that nearly all of the orchards established in the early years were smaller scale hobby projects,” says Charles Lefevre, who harvests truffles and sells trees for truffles across the Pacific Northwest and the country.
It’s difficult to introduce the fungus to Douglas firs, Lefevre says, making the European varieties the favorite among truffle cultivators. The longer shelf life of European truffles also makes them an easier crop to sell. Secrecy abounds in the industry, not only about truffle-rich locations in the wild, but even among farmers.
Forest foragers may threaten to blindfold guests when taking them to “their spots,” and truffle growers keep production numbers and other details close to their chest. “We’re one of the odd ducks that lets people onto the property,” says Simon Cartwright, an Australian-born truffle enthusiast who owns Cartwright Truffière in Oregon, with his wife, Linnet.
The Cartwright Truffière tour experience invites the public to search their Cottage Grove orchard with dogs followed by a farmhouse tasting of truffle-focused bites and a wine pairing; Pinot noir is a classic accompaniment in the Willamette Valley.
“The flavor profiles are that much more intense the fresher it is out of the ground … We just want people to experience it firsthand,” Cartwright says.
That fresh flavor difference is why chef Jimmy Liang, the owner of Capers + Olives in Everett, buys truffles for his restaurant from a Snohomish County farm whenever he can.
“People love it,” he says of thinly sliced truffle shavings atop Italian dishes. “When you see people’s face when they eat that, they’re in heaven.”
Liang warns that it’s an acquired taste, but worth the work. And when you consider the effort that goes into foraging among the trees and unearthing your own aromatic nugget, perhaps the best word to describe the Northwest truffle experience is “satisfying.”
–Written by Emily Gillespie, last updated in January 2023.
This story originally appeared in the November/December 2020 edition of the AAA Washington member magazine, Journey.