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Craved in kitchens throughout the culinary world, truffles add a coveted and pungent flair to any dish. But there’s a problem: the relished fungus grows underground where they latch onto the roots of trees, trading moisture and nutrients from the soil for sugar made by the trees. Hidden from the naked eye, determined chefs relied on pigs to sniff out the oils secreted by truffles. Of course, the pigs were just as apt to eat the fungi before their handlers could get to them. Fortunately, the Lagotto Romagnolo, a wooly hunting dog bred to sniff out waterfowl in the marshlands of Italy, proved just as adept at locating the subterranean delicacies, and they quickly replaced pigs in the 19th century.
Today, the practice of truffle-sniffing dogs is spreading to new regions as well as other breeds. Farther north, in Germany and Great Britain, family pets are unearthing unusually large discoveries in local forests and even backyard gardens, as shifting climate patterns alter the truffle’s traditional range. In the Pacific Northwest of the United States, native Oregon truffles have captured the attention of aspiring truffieres, working to cultivate the image and prestige of the new-world fungi to match their European counterparts. Many operations rely on a clumsy and indiscriminate process known as raking, which collects all truffles without regard for maturity, resulting in a harvest that is less valuable and can damage habitat, reducing future yields. Trained dogs, on the other hand, are more selective, attracted only to the ripest truffles, which release their trademark fragrances—pineapple and dark chocolate for the Oregon black truffles or spice, sulfur and ripe cheese for the white and brown varieties.
Italy already mandates the use of dogs, and Oregon hunters are catching up. Schools and seminars dedicated to training dogs to seek out (and not eat up) truffles. Rather than breeding and selling dogs, NW Truffle Dogs offers courses to train family pets, cultivating the existing relationship between family. And at several hundred dollars per pound, the dogs certainly earn their keep. Prized Italian and French truffles can sell for as much as $4000 a pound (the prestigious Alba truffle from Italy).
At the end of the day, these fungi-finding friends are better for the truffles, the environment and the families lucky enough to know them.