Digging Up Delicacies
Your Guide to Truffle Foraging Season in the Willamette Valley
Wine might be the Willamette Valley’s most famous export — we do live in the middle of Oregon Wine Country, after all — but it’s far from our only claim to culinary fame. In fact, one of our greatest contributions to regional restaurants grows underground, is only ripe a few precious months each year, and requires a little assistance from a four-legged friend to find. Yes, the truffle is one of the most sought-after foods in the world — restaurants may pay $500 or more per pound for the forest-dwelling fungi — and it grows in forests all over the Willamette Valley.
So with truffle season in full swing, we thought we’d dig into all the fuss behind the elusive Oregon truffle, offer tips for foraging your own truffles this season, and show off a few restaurants and events where you can enjoy high-quality, local truffles.
What are Truffles—and Why Are They All Over the Willamette Valley?
Truffles are a kind of mushroom that grows underground in the root systems of Douglas fir trees. (Granted, they grow under various kinds of trees—but Douglas firs are among the most common.) Most truffles are relatively bulbous in shape and, size-wise, fall somewhere between a walnut and a potato.
Four native species of truffle grow in Oregon and are harvested for their culinary worth: the Oregon Winter White Truffle, the Oregon Spring White Truffle, the Oregon Black Truffle, and the Oregon Brown Truffle.
These delicacies can generally be harvested between November and May, depending on the species, though a successful season is usually dictated by the previous summer’s climate: The rainier August or September was, the more prosperous that winter and the following spring will be. You can tell you’ve found a ripe truffle when the inside resembles a marble and the outside feels firm after a light squeeze.
Outside of Europe, the Willamette Valley is among the world’s best regions for growing—and foraging for—truffles, thanks to a cool climate, steady diet of rainfall, and shady forests that provide ample nutrients for the reclusive fungi.
Can I Forage for Truffles Throughout the Willamette Valley?
Technically yes, you can—but rules and regulations on public lands, along with the hard-to-spot nature of truffles, make foraging a tough idea without some help.
Here’s the skinny on where to forage:
Public lands: Visitors are asked not to forage for truffles in the Willamette National Forest, which stretches more than 100 miles along the western slopes of the Cascades Range. Visitors can forage in Oregon state forests—but some of that forestland is set aside for logging, so one shouldn’t forage without some direction from officials. Foraging is also allowed on BLM land, but requires a permit (which can be obtained by visiting the BLM’s Northwest Oregon District Office in Salem). Be sure to stay alert and cautious in the forest.
Private lands: One should never forage for truffles on private property without the landowner’s permission.
What to Wear: Much of Oregon’s truffle foraging season occurs in winter and spring, which means rain, snow, ice, and wind are all possible (if not likely). Wear clothes you don’t mind getting muddy, layer up to protect against the elements, and stay away from cotton (which absorbs moisture, keeping the wearer wet and cool).
No Rakes: Truffles have traditionally been foraged with rakes, but that practice is generally frowned upon today; foraging with rakes damages the environment and digs up immature truffles that need more time underground. (Besides, rakes are illegal on BLM land.) Using a large spoon or ladle, your hands, or your pup’s gentle paws are your best bet for maintaining the soil’s quality.
Practice Leave No Trace principles so the landscape remains pristine and the wildlife stays healthy. Pack out all garbage (including organic waste); stay on trails and come prepared for the weather and conditions (carry a daypack with your 10 essentials, including water, maps, rain gear and layers — lots of them).
If you’re looking to unwind afterward, enjoy the slower pace of Cellar Season at Willamette Valley wineries; you never know when you’ll enjoy a special release, chat with the winemaker, or luck into a seat next to the tasting room’s fireplace.
What Should I Know About Guided Truffle Hunts?
Your best bet for finding truffles is to sign up for a guided foray with a professional (who usually brings a dog—or dogs—trained to find the elusive fungi).
Lisa Brosnan runs The Truffle Underground, which breeds truffle-finding dogs (adorable Lagotto Romagnolos) and leads forays on private land around the Willamette Valley; on any given foray, she may offer tips on what to look for, how to dig up truffles in a way that doesn’t damage each piece, where to look in a specific forest, how to tell when a truffle is ripe, and more. Plus, her pups will do most of the dirty work, sniffing out ripe truffles so foragers know where to dig in the first place.
Prestige Wine Tours leads truffle hunts around the Willamette Valley, also aided by a Lagotto Romagnolo. In addition to the standard hunt, which lasts one to two hours, Prestige also offers a package that follows the truffle hunt with a wine-and-food pairing at a nearby boutique winery.
Finally, the North American Truffling Society leads forays the first Saturday of most months between November and June.
As you hunt for truffles this winter, remember to keep at least six feet of distance from those outside your group—even outdoors—and wear a face covering if not possible.
Where Can I Enjoy Willamette Valley Truffles?
The annual Oregon Truffle Festival is the Woodstock of truffle season in the Willamette Valley. Events are held across two weekends every winter—with events around Eugene one weekend, and events around Yamhill on the other—and include everything a truffle fan could desire of such a festival: truffle dog competitions, lectures and workshops on growing and farming truffles, culinary tours, two-day dog training workshops, truffle-focused meals, a truffle marketplace, and more. (Keep in mind that several of the festival’s most popular events sell out weeks, if not months, ahead of time.)
If you can’t make it out for the festival, consider making reservations at The Joel Palmer House Restaurant in Dayton. The restaurant is known for using locally sourced ingredients—including mushrooms and, yes, truffles—in many of its menu items whenever possible.
Further south, Marché prides itself on fresh, seasonal ingredients—and generally incorporates truffles into its menu every winter in Eugene’s 5th Street Public Market.
How Can I Stay Safe Outdoors This Winter?
In so many words, all we’re asking is that you do a little advance planning, understand what’s closed, avoid crowds, wear your mask when around others (even outside), and keep close to home so rural communities stay safe.
These graphics offer a good overview of how to safely make the most of your outdoor experience while foraging this truffle season: