Christmas is the magical season when the white Piedmont truffle, valued in Italy above all others, overlaps with the black Périgord truffle, the prized tuber of France. In order to discover where the treasure lies buried, you need a truffle hound — not a pig. Although the pig has a long history as a truffle hunter, dogs have almost entirely replaced pigs for that purpose in regions where truffles are found.
A dog, no question, is much easier to handle. The main attraction of truffle to porker is that the scent exactly mimics that of a sow in heat as well as the mating fragrance emitted by the boar. Hence the truffle’s reputation as an aphrodisiac — says much the same thing to us humans. It’s the pheromones, you see. Believe the experts: They’ve done the chemistry. But the main reason for replacing pig with dog is that, once a pig finds a truffle, it’s very difficult to part it from the prize.
The truffling dog, while not naturally partial to truffles, can be trained to find the tubers by scent. A hound with a proven record of success is worth its weight in gold, which is why truffle hunters are prepared to spend time and trouble on dog training.
The right dog for the job
Certain dogs are suited to certain terrains. In France, where Tuber melanosporum, the Périgord Black, is the high-value truffle, truffle mutts are patch-coated, prick-eared terrier-types of no discernable breeding. In Italy, where T. magantum, the Piedmont White, is the truffle of choice, the canine for the job is a curly-coated, duck-retrieving poodle-spaniel, the lagarto romano, a dog of medium size and stocky build bred since the 16th century as a gun dog in the Comacchio valleys and Ravenna Lagoon and only adopted as a truffle hound in the past couple of centuries.
The Italian poodle-spaniels are marsh-loving water dogs, while the French patch-coats are dry-country field dogs, which tells you most of what you need to know about the differences between the territories favored by the Périgord black and the Piedmont white. The latter is in season from first rains to first frost: October through December, even January in some places. Picky of habitat, magnato (as T. magnatum is called in Italy) prefers poplar as a host plant, and is attractive to hedgehogs and snails as well as pigs and people. It limits its territory to chalky clay (with a preference for earthquake terrain with a little movement in the soil) running in a broad band of mountainous territory through Piedmont, Tuscany, Emiglia Romagna, the Marche and the northwestern corner of Croatia.
How to train your truffle hound
Which brings me to the Siena hills, and an early morning appointment with a state-licensed trifolao (truffle hunter, in the local dialect) who trains his own hounds and is prepared to share his experience with me, a woman in search of enlightenment on all things related to truffles. Licenses to gather truffles, he says, are awarded on completion of an examination and hunting is done in the hours of daylight since secretive night-gathering is no longer legal in Italy.
Here are his recommendations on training a truffle hound, with the proviso that however well-trained, any hound is most successful when working his own terrain.
How do you choose a puppy from a litter?
There will always be one who’s more curious than the others. You need a dog with enough intelligence to be curious.
How do you train a dog?
Everyone has his own method, but the principle’s always the same: patience. A dog needs encouragement. Myself, I show the dog a bit of truffle and see whether he wants to smell it. Then I bury a few bits of truffle, and if the dog digs in the right place, I know there’s potential. Some are quick, some slow — what matters is that the dog takes an interest and understands there’ll be a reward. I use a bit of dog biscuit, though bread will do.
Where do you train your dog?
In the field, as close as possible to natural conditions.
How do you choose the terrain?
The tradition around the Mediterranean in mountain areas where there is no cultivation is for open access, which means that truffle grounds are unfenced. That said, there is a code — sometimes established in law, sometimes not — as to where you may or may not search. No one wants to give any information about where they hunt, so you need to know the locality. In Italy, you’re not permitted to hunt for truffles at night, which is when the truffle thieves come in with their dogs.
Which is best, dog or bitch?
The females learn more easily, but the males make better hunters. A good dog can pick up the scent of a ripe truffle at well over 100 meters, however deep it’s buried — some are adept, some less interested.
Does the breed matter?
Pedigree dogs are useless. Even the lagarto is improved by a little crossbreeding. Intelligence is to be found in every breed, but you’re better off with mongrel. Dogs are no different from people — they become inbred. You’ll sometimes be told that truffle hunters avoid light-colored cars and pale-coated dogs because they can be easily seen at night. But since night hunting is illegal in Italy and frowned-upon in France, this tells you more about the honesty of the hunter than it does about the dog.
What particular crossbreeds would you recommend?
Setter, spaniel, terrier, retriever, poodle — the German hunting-dog — are all good crossbreed material. In Piedmont they call such breeds bastardelli da pagliaio, haystack mongrels.
Are the best hunters young or old?
A young dog will keep going for longer, but an old dog knows more. A dog is in its organoleptic prime from 5 to 8 years old. A talented crossbreed has an easy life — not always the way with farmyard dogs — and can expect to live to a ripe old age. A truffle dog should never be beaten. You reward him when he finds and never punish him if he fails.
Any dog-handling tips for outsiders who accompany a trifolao on his rounds?
Only one: Pay no attention to the dogs. Don’t pat them or make a fuss of them, or they’ll think you have food and lose all interest in hunting.
One last question, how do you like to eat your truffle?
I don’t. Truffles are found by the poor to sell to the rich. The rich take young wives and have to satisfy many mistresses, so have more need of it than the poor. Nevertheless, in a good year, I might keep one for ourselves to eat on Christmas Eve when meat is forbidden. My wife makes tagliolini — tagarin, as we call it — using only egg yolks and fine white flour, grano. And when she has cooked the pasta, she tosses it with a little sauce made by melting mascarpone, white wine and butter into which she has grated parmesan and a little nutmeg, and heaps it on hot plates, one for each person. Then, and only then, is the pasta ready to receive the truffle. This must be shaved as finely as possible onto the hot pasta by a person chosen for the task who serves each in turn. The flesh of the white truffle is particularly dense and silky and will fall in ribbons. The pasta must be hot and freshly dressed so that the truffle is immediately warmed and releases its fragrance directly into the nostrils. You must eat without delay. If you follow these rules, you will eat as well as a king.
Zester Daily contributor Elisabeth Luard is a British food writer, journalist and broadcaster specializing in the traditional cooking of Europe and Latin America, and its social, geographical and historical context.
Images, from top:
Watercolor of truffle hunting.
Watercolor of truffle hounds.
Credits: Elisabeth Luard