If you don't mind getting a little wet and muddy, going on a dog-led truffle hunt in the Pacific Northwest will be one of the most memorable experiences of your life.This was my sentiment after spending a rainy, cold afternoon out in Oregon's wine country with Stella Endora Del Tiglio, a two-year-old Lagotto Romagnolo and her proud owner, Sunny Diaz. The two of them drove over three hours from their home in Issaquah, Washington to a patch of Douglas fir trees just a mile or so away from Angela Estate Winery to show us a day in the life of an American truffle hunter. We were all there as part of the Oregon Truffle Festival, a statewide event that has been celebrating Oregon truffles for the last 11 years.
While Stella is the granddaughter of the first truffle dog to ever put a nose to the ground in the US, and has placed second for two years in a row in The Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship, any dog can be trained to sniff for truffles as long as they are good with their nose and like to get rewarded with treats. The annual festival actually has a whole other weekend dedicated to training dogs and their humans to be aspiring truffle dogs.
The first thing you need to know about Oregon truffles is that they are nothing like their European counterparts. At one of festival's panels, lauded food scientist Harold McGee even deemed it a bit unfair to call Oregon's genus by the same name, since they taste, smell, and look completely different than anything coming out of Europe.
Oregon truffles can only be found in the roots of Douglas firs in constantly wet, forested areas. They are usually buried about an inch or so in loosely packed soil. The most common Oregon varieties are white, which smell faintly of Alba truffles because of their butane-like aroma and umami-packed flavor. There are also black truffles, which are a little drier in texture and smell like ripe papayas, bananas, and pineapple but don't offer as much flavor. Peak season is usually in the winter, but they have been found to grow year-round if all the conditions are right.Recently, there has been a movement spearheaded by leisure truffle hunters such as Diaz to get rid of the perceived double-standard set against Oregon truffles by European varieties like Alba or Perigord. This belief among consumers stemmed from bad harvesting practices in the early days of the Oregon Truffle industry—specifically, using rakes to pick up truffles, including ones that weren't fully ripe that developed off-flavors and aromas when forced to ripen outside.
Diaz's dog, like all other truffle dogs, have been trained to only detect the ripest ones. Diaz works with chefs in the Seattle area to teach them everything she knows about Oregon truffles, taking groups of them on complementary foraging trips with the hope that they will one day prefer American truffles over European ones.
During a two-hour hunt, everyone receives at least one white truffle, while others went home with more than just a handful. After the truffle hunt, we all feasted on a truffled beet salad, truffled braised short rib, and a truffled chocolate cheesecake. It all tasted a little better knowing that a super-cute dog worked incredibly hard to get these for us.
Editor's note: Sunny Diaz loves to show local chefs and truffle enthusiasts in the Seattle area what's up with Oregon truffles. She is available for private truffle hunting sessions and land surveys to find out if truffles grow in your backyard. Follow her on Instagram to find out more or send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.