Truffle hunting has been in practice for centuries, but when truffle hunters first took to the woods, they had a pig as a helper. Nowadays though, you’ll be hard pressed to go on a hunt for the prized tubers with a pig. Rather, during a number of our Italy cooking vacations, you’ll be heading out with a very loyal companion instead, a dog.
For ages, pigs were used because they have a natural predilection for hunting out truffles buried as much as three feet underground, where truffles grow through a symbiotic relationship with a tree’s root system. But pigs also tend to have a propensity to eat the very-expensive treats. That’s one huge reason why hunters decided to find a new way of hunting out the tartufo – Italian for truffle; plus, hunters also grew tired, understandably so, of getting their hand chomped on when they wrestled away the truffles from the pig’s mouth.
Dogs do require training when it comes to sniffing out truffles, but many – such as poodle, German shepherd, fox terrier, and dachshund breeds – can be trained quite easily over the course of a couple weeks to a month. This training is all about rewarding the pooch with a special treat for finding – and handing over – the prized tubers. Some trainers will start by having the dog hunt out a piece of cheese that smells remarkably like the truffle, while others will coat a toy in truffle oil. Over the course of the training, the dog learns that if they find the truffle, they’ll always get a special reward of food.
When a dog is really well-trained, it can actually pick up the scent of a buried truffle from 100 meters! That’s why, when I headed out on a truffle hunt in September 2012 during A Food Lover’s Paradise in Norcia, the dogs would go zooming off. They were on the hunt, and they knew exactly where to start digging.
The truffle hunter and our group followed the pooches over the rolling hills of the beautiful Umbrian countryside, and often by the time we reached the dogs, they’d uncovered treasure: a black as night truffle. Some were big, some were small, but all of them smelled a bit like earth, and even, strangely, a bit like chocolate. The flavor? Well, we discovered that back at Ristorante Vespasia, where we were treated to decadent and out-of-this-world dishes like chianina beef, and, of course, pasta topped with shaved black truffles.
While the meals were memorable, so too was the truffle hunt. It was a a wonderful experience watching the dogs get excited about discovering truffles, and it was a perfect way to see the countryside while we were at it.
Ready to go on a truffle hunt?
By Liz Hall
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