Truf­fle dogs sniff out fun­gus prized by food­ies


The grow­ing ap­petite for truf­fles is feed­ing de­mand for dogs trained to sniff out the pun­gent fun­gus prized by chefs and food­ies.

As more landown­ers plant or­chards in hopes of har­vest­ing truf­fles, more dogs are be­ing trained to de­tect the earthy del­i­ca­cies, which take sev­eral years to ripen on tree roots un­der­ground.

“There is huge de­mand for truf­fle dogs right now,” said Alana McGee, co-founder of the Truf­fle Dog Com­pany, which helps or­chard own­ers search for truf­fles and trains dogs how to find them in or­chards or in the wild.

“Truf­fle-hunt­ing is right up their al­ley. It’s fun for the dogs. They get re­warded for us­ing their noses, which is how they see the world,” she said.

On a re­cent morn­ing, McGee’s dog Lolo, a brown and white Lagotto Ro­mag­nolo, sniffed for signs of Perig­ord and bur­gundy truf­fles on the roots of oak and hazel­nut trees planted next to Robert Sinskey’s vine­yards in Carneros, Cal­i­for­nia.

Sinskey was the first Napa Val­ley wine­maker to plant a truf­fle or­chard five years ago and wants to be the first Cal­i­for­nia grower to harvest truf­fles, hope­fully next year. He plans to have McGee teach his dogs the art of truf­fle­hunt­ing.

“I hope my dogs will fi­nally be able to earn their keep,” Sinskey said. “It will be nice to see them ac­tu­ally work.”

Lolo is an Ital­ian breed com- monly used to hunt truf­fles, but McGee said any dog can be trained. “It’s about work­ing with the dogs’ per­son­al­i­ties and dif­fer­ent learn­ing styles.”

In Europe, truf­fle hun­ters tra­di­tion­ally used pigs, but in re­cent years the job has gone to the dogs, which are eas­ier to man­age, less con­spic­u­ous and less likely to eat the tasty tu­bers or bite a hand try­ing to snatch one from its mouth.

Known as the di­a­monds of the culi­nary world, most black truf­fles come from Europe or Aus­tralia and cost US$800 to US$1,200 per 0.45 kilo­grams, but sup­plies are shrink­ing while ap­petites are ex­pand­ing world­wide, said Robert Chang, chief truf­fle of­fi­cer of the Amer­i­can Truf­fle Com­pany.

“As peo­ple get richer all the time, the de­mand for truf­fles will con­tinue to grow,” Chang said. “Ten years ago, you men­tion the word truf­fles, and peo­ple think, ‘Oh, it’s the cho­co­late truf­fles.”’

Euro­pean black truf­fles, the ones most cov­eted for their pow­er­ful taste and aroma, are no­to­ri­ously fickle. Few in North Amer­ica have suc­cess­fully har­vested them, but many are try­ing be­cause the crop could be highly prof­itable.

The Amer­i­can Truf­fle Com­pany is work­ing with dozens of landown­ers across the U.S. to grow Euro­pean black truf­fles com­mer- cially. It’s still too early to judge their suc­cess since the or­chards were planted less than five years ago, and it takes at least that long for truf­fles to ripen.

But in March, Chang’s col­league, Paul Thomas, said he har­vested Bri­tain’s first cul­ti­vated black truf­fle from fun­gus he planted in Le­ices­ter­shire six years ago, us­ing the same tech­niques their com­pany is us­ing in the U.S. and other coun­tries.

In Cal­i­for­nia’s wine-grow­ing re­gions of Napa and Sonoma val­leys, the Amer­i­can Truf­fle Com­pany is work­ing with sev­eral wine­mak­ers, in­clud­ing Sinskey, Rocca Fam­ily Vine­yards, for­mer In­tel Corp. CEO Paul Otellini and most re­cently Peju Province Win­ery.

The trees don’t re­quire much wa­ter, so they haven’t been af­fected by Cal­i­for­nia’s record drought, which has forced farm­ers to tear out or­chards and re­duce crop plant­ings.

Napa Val­ley Chef Ken Frank, widely re­garded as Amer­ica’s top truf­fle chef, im­ports the de­lec­ta­ble fun­gus from Italy, France and Aus­tralia. He loves the idea of serv­ing fresh, lo­cally grown truf­fles at his res­tau­rant La Toque.

“To be able to get a truf­fle that was dug in Carneros this morn­ing for me to put on the menu tonight, that’s a game changer,” Frank said. “That’s a big deal and we’re very ex­cited about it.”


(Above) In this March 3 photo, chef Ken Frank dis­plays a pasta dish with shaved truf­fles on it at La Toque res­tau­rant in Napa, Cal­i­for­nia. (Right) In this March 3 photo, trainer Alana McGee works with her dog Lolo to search for truf­fles at the Robert Sinskey Vine­yards Truf­fle Or­chard in Napa, Cal­i­for­nia.

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