The Trouble With Truffles Is That They’re Hard to Find

On the hunt for edible buried treasure in the wilds of the Beaver State.


Truffle hunting

Photo by Dana McMahan

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The first thing you’ll discover when truffle-hunting is that it’s much easier with a dog.

Following Chloe and her owner, John Getz, into the damp, mist-shrouded woods about 20 miles from Eugene, Ore., you become keenly aware of how much more this yellow Lab cares for her master than she cares about the small, round, white fungus she has been trained to detect. Truffle-hunting is a labor of love, but in this case none more so than that of a dog for its owner and the tidbits of kibble that come as a reward for accurately pinpointing edible buried treasure.

Chloe is a fairly recent inductee into the world of truffle-hunting, but some of her canine colleagues are old hands at this. Take Tom, a 12-year-old Lagotto Romagnolo and well-known veteran who in one season sniffed out 200 pounds of black Perigord truffles. Given that this type of truffle sells for $1,200 per pound, it’s no wonder Tom’s owner, Jim Sanford, quips: “That’s why I carry his bags when we travel.”

The ancient Greeks and Romans hailed the black truffle, Tuber melanosporum, for its alleged medicinal and aphrodisiac properties. The ancient Egyptians ate truffles with goose fat. Yet attitudes changed and, during the Middle Ages, many people associated these pungent morsels with Satan.

That prejudice clearly didn’t last.

Perhaps it’s the heady aroma that truffles dispense with such careless abandon that first compelled our ancestors to eat them. Enter those “aphrodisiac attributes” the ancients were so quick to deduce: As it turns out, a truffle’s scent is similar to that of androstenol, a sex pheromone found in boar saliva. Luring romantically inclined wild sows toward mature truffles’ underground lairs is a key factor in truffle survival: As the sow roots around looking for the source of her desire, she finds a truffle. After consuming it, she’ll move on, making her way across the woods. As her body processes and then eliminates its waste, spores from the truffle she ate will be dispersed across the forest floor and—voila!—the truffle can then begin to propagate.

But using a pig—even a muzzled one—for truffle-hunting is a lot more difficult than you might think. For one thing, these animals are huge; for another, they’re not exactly easy to crate up and take with you on a plane. Enter the truffle dog.

Because treats and praise—rather than pheromones—are what tempt dogs to dig for truffles, dogs are enthusiastic yet nonthreatening partners in this culinary “paws-de-deux.” It’s no wonder a well-trained truffle dog can cost more than $10,000. That’s why many dog-owning would-be truffle hunters willlingly pay to enroll their dogs in workshops that teach canines how to recognize the smell of a mature truffle and subsequently lead human handlers to it.

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