Noses to the ground


The Nation - - LIVING IT UP -

“GO ON Rocky, find it! Good boy!” The labrador wags his tail, happy to have found the hid­den trea­sure as he grad­u­ates from Italy’s “truf­fle dog uni­ver­sity”, do­ing his mas­ter proud.

Gio­vanni Monchiero is the dean of the un­usual academy in Roddi in north­west­ern Italy and, like his fa­ther, grand­fa­ther and great grand­fa­ther, trans­forms “nor­mal” dogs into ex­pert seek­ers of the lu­cra­tive fun­gus.

“Teach­ing a dog to find truf­fles is very sim­ple, you just need plenty of pa­tience and to re­alise that for the dog, it’s a game,” says Monchiero, 55.

“We start by get­ting the dog to play with the truf­fle. Per­son­ally, I use a fresh truf­fle, but if you don’t have one you can put some truf­fles­cented oil on a ten­nis ball. You throw it, the dog has to re­trieve it and you re­ward him with dog bis­cuits.”

Then the mas­ter makes the game a lit­tle more com­pli­cated by throw­ing the truf­fle into long grass, where the dog can’t see it.

“That’s when you start giv­ing com­mands: go on, find it, you’ve found it, well done! You have to al­ways con­grat­u­late and re­ward,” Monchiero says.

“Once the dog has learned the truf­fle aroma, the next step is to bury the truf­fle, not very deep at first.”

Grad­u­ates then de­light in un­earthing the knob­bly fungi lurk­ing among the roots of oak, lin­den, wil­lows or poplar trees – with which they have a sym­bi­otic re­la­tion­ship.

Roddi is in the Alba re­gion, fa­mous for its white truf­fles, “dis­tin­guished by an in­tense per­fume, evoca­tive of the woods, of na­ture,” says An­to­nio De­gia­comi, head of Italy’s Na­tional Cen­tre for Truf­fle Stud­ies.

This year white truf­fles fetch 350 eu­ros (Bt13,000) for 100 grammes, down from at least 600 eu­ros last year, with an av­er­age truf­fle weigh­ing 20g.

Go­ing truf­fle hunt­ing is a pas­sion, says Monchiero, who heads out ev­ery morn­ing and evening dur­ing the truf­fle sea­son, which runs from Septem­ber 21 to Jan­uary 31.

The uni­ver­sity was founded by his great­grand­fa­ther in 1880 and Monchiero’s prin­ci­ple is that while not ev­ery dog can be­come a good truf­fle-hunter, all breeds have a chance.

“Some dogs are pre­dis­posed to find truf­fles, oth­ers are not,” says Monchiero, who has even trained a small Ger­man Pin­scher to sniff out the del­i­cacy des­tined for the finest restau­rants.

He has trained dozens of dogs, usu­ally one or two at a time.

“Mas­ter Monchiero is the best in the whole Pied­mont re­gion. This is the third dog he has trained for me,” says Rocky’s mas­ter, Diego Guar­aldo.

“He doesn’t use cruel meth­ods like de­priv­ing the dog of food, but gen­tler meth­ods,” adds Guar­aldo, a 36-year-old lawyer, de­scrib­ing the uni­ver­sity’s grad­u­ates as “real cham­pi­ons”.

“He man­ages to set some­thing off in the an­i­mal, which be­comes crazy for truf­fles. That’s what all of us truf­fle-seek­ers want. The dog must be metic­u­lous, fo­cused, undis­tracted by the smell of game,” Guar­aldo notes.

“The an­i­mal can smell a truf­fle from 10, 15, 20 me­tres away,” Guar­aldo says of his grad­u­ate dogs.

The three-week ed­u­ca­tion costs 400 eu­ros and Monchiero says he gives three classes a day though he stops for an hour or two when he sees that his charge is bored or tired.

“This is a ba­sic course. To be­come a good truf­fle dog takes on av­er­age three years. What’s im­por­tant is to keep train­ing the dog, not nec­es­sar­ily ev­ery day but ev­ery other day,” Monchiero says.

Rocky mean­while has all the po­ten­tial to be­come an ex­cel­lent truf­fle dog. Ex­cept for his weak­ness for eat­ing his finds.

Not a prob­lem, Monchiero laughs. “He knows how to seek out the truf­fle and to find it. He just needs to learn to hand it over in ex­change for a bis­cuit,” he said, not­ing that some dogs al­ways nib­ble a bit of their truf­fle. Guar­aldo doesn’t mind.

“Bet­ter a slightly dam­aged truf­fle in your pocket than a per­fect truf­fle in some­one else’s!”

Truf­fle hunter Gio­vanni Monchiero smells a truf­fle past his dog in the woods near Alba in north­west Italy.

Monchiero is the heir to a dy­nasty of rec­tors from the “Uni­ver­sity of truf­fles dogs”, founded in 1880 by his great grand­fa­ther An­to­nio. In three weeks, the Uni­ver­sity can train a dog to be a truf­fle hunter.

A white truf­fle in the Morra Truf­fles Shop in Alba, near Turin, north­west­ern Italy

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