It’s early morning in the Willamette Valley, and a soft rain pitter-patters across a thick canopy of Douglas fir trees. Two chefs — father and son — stand side by side surveying a confetti of pine needles carpeting the forest floor. The harder the rain falls, the more excited they get. “Truffle hunters actually prefer wet weather,” says Jack Czarnecki with gusto.
Jack and his son Chris are sleuthing through the forest in search of buried treasure — tuber oregonense, Oregon’s white truffle, also known as culinary gold.
Truffles are spore-bearing fungi that propagate naturally underground and grow in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots, particularly around Douglas firs. And chefs love them. “A truffle is one of the most prized of all foods,” says Jack. “For one, it’s rare. Then they have a unique characteristic, a grouping of volatile organic compounds that create the most alluring, almost animalistic aroma.” While hundreds of truffle species fruit in the Pacific Northwest, only a few are harvested for culinary use.
The white truffle in Oregon has herbal notes with a hint of garlic, while the black truffle evokes chocolate, musk and tropical fruit. Both are equally coveted for transforming a dish from simple to seductive. “What makes the Pacific Northwest stand out is this abundance of wild mushrooms, especially truffles, which don’t grow in most parts of the U.S. unless they are cultivated,” says Jack.
For this family, though, it’s not just about the treasure; hunting truffles has become a Czarnecki tradition.
“My best memories growing up were foraging with the whole family, making a day of it,” says Chris. “For us it’s always been about more than just putting food on the table. It’s getting out in the woods, being with nature.” His grandfather was an amateur mycologist, and his father, Jack, is revered as the “truffle czar” of Oregon.
In fact, wild mushrooms and the allure of truffles are what wooed Jack on his first visit to Oregon. After three decades on the East Coast running his family legacy, Joe’s Restaurant in Reading, Pennsylvania, the third-generation chef and his wife, Heidi, began scouting the country for a place where they could combine their love for mushroom hunting, fine dining and great wine.
In 1996 the Czarneckis moved the family business west. They turned a stately 139-year-old mansion, the Joel Palmer House (listed on the National Register of Historic Places), into a destination restaurant. For Jack, the most important thing was to create a restaurant with a sense of place — “where the food on your plate is redolent of the area,” he explains.
As it turns out, finding the heritage space in the tiny town of Dayton was kismet. The restaurant is in the heart of the Willamette Valley, surrounded by renowned wineries and vineyards, hazelnut orchards and small family farms. Most importantly, misty forests perfect for foraging wild mushrooms and truffles are just a few country roads away.
“My father always describes himself as a mushroom hunter who likes to cook,” says Chris. His father has celebrated his zeal for wild fungi by penning multiple cookbooks, and he won a James Beard Award in 1996.“It’s all about unraveling the mystery of the flavors of the truffle,” he says, raising an eyebrow.
After a few hours of hunting truffles, father and son head back to the Joel Palmer House, where they begin prep for the dinner rush. Chris pauses to greet his mom, Heidi, when she stops by the restaurant with fresh flower arrangements. The three Czarneckis hang out in the kitchen for a few minutes, chatting about — you’ve guessed it — foraging and how best to use the truffles on tonight’s menu. Chris examines his truffle haul from the morning adventures.
In 2006 he joined his father at the restaurant, and two years later, he took over the business when his father retired. “Not only do we forage together, we’ve managed to stay in business as a family for four generations,” says Jack with a sense of pride.
Their culinary heritage can be tasted in long-standing menu favorites. “Heidi’s three-mushroom tart is a dish from my mom,” says Chris. Joe’s wild-mushroom soup pays tribute to his great-grandfather. Chris is making his own mark by playing with elements of molecular gastronomy. He uses his father’s truffle oil (the first all-natural truffle oil ever produced in the United States) to make a white truffle snow to embellish the beef tartare.
“And it’s not just about eating truffles, it’s about the experience,” says Jack. It’s an experience that, for this family, is almost ceremonial: Rise early. Pack provisions and caravan down country roads with friends and family to a secret forest pocket. Walk and walk and walk in the quiet rain until someone whoops with joy because they’ve dug up a wildly aromatic truffle.
“For us it’s having a great day out in the woods, coming home and cooking with friends and family, and washing dinner down with a great pinot noir,” says Jack, who also admits truffle hunting verges on addiction. “Once you find one,” he says, “all you want to do is find another.”
Experience Oregon Truffles: When it comes to foraging for truffles, we encourage relying on the experts to dig up the goods — if you venture out alone, you probably won’t find anything and you could easily get lost in the wild. Better yet is to experience them with renowned experts at the annual Oregon Truffle Festival, held each winter. This celebration features truffle-inspired dinners and culinary adventures throughout Oregon wine country in Newberg, McMinnville and Eugene, including a series of feasts, lectures and “sensory tours.” During truffle season — which runs from late November through early May — restaurants throughout the Willamette Valley enhance dishes with truffles in creative ways.
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