Move Over Pigs – Truffle Hunting Dogs Are Taking Over!

October 30, 2014

By Linda Cole

Truffles are one of the most expensive culinary delicacies used in cooking. This highly prized tubular fungi grows underground and can only be found by pigs or dogs trained to sniff them out. Female pigs have been the traditional truffle hunters because finding them is something they do naturally with no training, but they are apt to eat the pricey mushrooms. Truffle hunting dogs have been used in Italy and France for years, and now American hunters are also relying on canine noses to root out these elusive and expensive treats.

The Lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian water dog, has been the breed used by Italian truffle hunters since the 1800s. Retrievers, setters, pointers and dogs used in detection work – including the Belgian Malinois, German Shepherd and Beagle – all easily adapt to hunting truffles. Poodles, Fox Terriers and Dachshunds also have a good nose for finding the hidden gems. But any dog, mixed or purebred, can be trained to sniff out truffles. Like pigs, dogs will eat the truffles; however, it’s much easier to stop a dog from eating one than it is to convince a 300 pound pig to drop her favorite treat.

Truffles are among the world’s most expensive natural foods. They are found in Europe, North America, Asia and North Africa. Warty and irregular, truffles can be as small as marbles up to the size of a fist. They’re often found around the base of pine, willow, hazelnut and oak trees, although pretty much any tree can have one of these prized treats hidden underneath.

Because truffles live under the soil, they must rely on animals finding and eating them to spread and reproduce. Squirrels, chipmunks, rodents, deer and other wildlife are attracted to the smell of gases and pheromones that ripe truffles produce. Truffles are not known to be poisonous, but never eat any kind mushroom unless you’re sure it’s safe to consume. There are poisonous mushrooms that begin their life cycle underground as eggs and can easily be misidentified as truffles. A good truffle like the Oregon white is firm and brittle.

People have been truffle hunting with pigs since Roman times, but these days dogs are preferred for a very good reason. Truffle hunters are very secretive about where they find truffles and protect their hunting grounds. Once truffles are located, hunters can return to the same spot year after year. It’s not unusual to see someone in the woods with a dog. However, seeing someone walking a pig is a sure sign they’re searching for truffles.

It can be difficult to find these underground mushrooms and quality truffles can fetch a pretty penny – up to $2,000 a pound for the rare white Alba truffle or Black Perigord which is known as the “black diamond” truffle and has a pungent aroma with a fruity, musky, earthy taste.

Truffle hunting in the Pacific Northwest is booming. The dampness of the region creates good conditions for the underground mushrooms, especially in Oregon and Western Washington where white truffles bring a premium price of $25 an ounce. But it can be hard to find ripe truffles. They need ideal growing conditions and some years are better than others. Some days dogs only find immature or over-ripe truffles that have little to no taste. Truffle hunting is a game of chance and good luck. Texas and Tennessee have also seen an increase in truffle hunting.

Chefs enhance food by shaving truffles on pasta dishes, flavoring butter with them and using them in specialty dishes. Truffles have an earthy flavor and depending on the variety, a hint of garlic. The aromatic smell, flavor and color of truffles is determined by the species of tree it grows under. The white and black truffles are the most sought after and the most expensive.

There are hundreds of different varieties of truffles, but only a few are considered the “cream of the crop.” Some European varieties can be cultivated by inoculating the root stock of sapling trees with mushroom spores, but it’s difficult to grow them, there’s no guarantee, it requires an orchard on acres of organic land, and it can take years before truffles appear.

The annual Oregon Truffle Festival holds a seminar to train dogs for truffle hunting. It’s a skill that most canines can learn in one day. Dogs are introduced to the smell of truffles with truffle oil smeared on something. The object is hidden first under leaves, then rocks, and then underground. After a dog succeeds in finding the object, a ripe truffle is used.

Hunting for these elusive mushrooms takes practice, patience and respect for the environment. You need to carefully dig a truffle out of the ground to preserve land that is most likely on someone else’s property. A good truffle hunting dog could turn a walk in the woods into a fun and profitable hobby.

Top and bottom photos by Michela Simoncini/Flickr
Middle photo by Joy/Flickr 

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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