A nose for a truf­fle

You’ve trained your dog to re­trieve a dummy – but how will it fare when asked in­stead to find these sub­ter­ranean tu­bers?

The Field - - Contents - writ­ten BY david tom­lin­son

Can David Tom­lin­son train his gun­dog to find fungi?

My spaniel, Rowan, is a se­ri­ous hunter of moles. She stalks slowly round my pad­dock, head cocked to one side, lis­ten­ing for her quarry. It’s hard to know how much of her mole-hunt­ing is based on sound or scent, and it has to be ad­mit­ted that her suc­cess rate isn’t great – just suf­fi­cient to keep her keen. Such an in­ter­est in the sub­ter­ranean world sug­gested that, given the right train­ing, she might be just as keen to hunt for truf­fles. I had never heard of spaniels be­ing used for the job, so I did some re­search on the best breeds.

I was told that in Tus­cany they cross their lo­cal, mul­ti­pur­pose gun­dog, the lagotto ro­mag­nolo, with truf­fle-sniff­ing pigs to pro­duce what are known col­lo­qui­ally as digs or pogs. This, of course, is just one of the many myths sur­round­ing truf­fle hunt­ing. In fact, any breed of dog with a nose (and that’s most of them) can do the job but it’s best to avoid the flat-faced breeds such as pugs

and bull­dogs, as they have enough trou­ble try­ing to breathe with­out us­ing their noses to find things.

The Ital­ians use a va­ri­ety of breeds and cross-breeds for truf­fle hunt­ing, so there seems to be no rea­son why you shouldn’t train your cock­er­poo or clum­ber. Labradors seem pop­u­lar but that’s prob­a­bly be­cause they are our most nu­mer­ous breed, any­way. What you do need is a dog that has had some ba­sic train­ing. Dogs that like to dis­ap­pear down badger setts or pre­fer to chase squir­rels are not promis­ing ma­te­rial.

train­ing to truf­fle

Train­ing a truf­fle dog is a spe­cial­ist business. It was tempt­ing to take Rowan to Tus­cany to learn the trade. North­ern Italy is one of the best places to find the two species of truf­fle that rank most highly on the gour­mand’s list of del­i­ca­cies: the Perig­ord black truf­fle (Tu­ber melanospo­rum); and the Pied­mont white truf­fle (Tu­ber mag­na­tum). Here you will find com­pa­nies that spe­cialise in tak­ing vis­i­tors truf­fle hunt­ing and you can even com­bine the hunt with a chi­anti tour, al­low­ing you to drown your sor­rows if you fail to find any of the un­der­ground tu­bers. Frus­trat­ingly, I couldn’t find any Ital­ians of­fer­ing to train dogs to be truf­fle snif­fers. Per­haps the Tus­cans are wary of com­pe­ti­tion?

With Tus­cany ruled out, I looked closer to home. The English Truf­fle Com­pany is based in Dorset and spe­cialises in all things truf­fle, from sell­ing truf­fle trees to tak­ing peo­ple truf­fle hunt­ing. It also of­fers truf­fle train­ing for dogs, with prices rang­ing from £50 an hour for a field-based train­ing ses­sion to £75 for a wood­land-based les­son. The for­mer is best for begin­ners as there will be fewer con­flict­ing scents, while the lat­ter gives a real chance of find­ing a truf­fle.

There seems to be no rea­son why you shouldn’t train your cock­er­poo

Al­ter­na­tively, you could head to Gle­nea­gles Hotel in Perthshire and snuf­fle for truf­fles in Scot­tish splen­dour. Here, teach­ing your dog to be a truf­fler costs £279 for three 45-minute lessons. Gle­nea­gles may be best known for its golf but it also has many more out­door ac­tiv­i­ties to of­fer its vis­i­tors, of which train­ing dogs to be truf­fle hunters is per­haps the most un­likely.

How­ever, Gle­nea­gles does have one great ad­van­tage: its own gun­dog train­ing school. Es­tab­lished nearly 10 years ago by Steve and Emma Ford, it is un­usual, for de­spite its name it doesn’t train gun­dogs. The lat­ter are al­ready trained so it’s their han­dlers, usu­ally guests at the hotel, who get the train­ing. When the school opened, there were many who shook their heads and said that such a school wouldn’t work; 12,000 lessons later, it has proved to be re­mark­ably pop­u­lar.

You can’t take your own gun­dog for lessons at the Gle­nea­gles gun­dog school but you can take it for truf­fle train­ing. This was what I was plan­ning to do, un­til I dis­cov­ered that easy­jet doesn’t ac­cept ca­nine pas­sen­gers. No prob­lem, the hotel as­sured me, you can use one of the dogs from the gun­dog school, so this is what I did. The dog al­lot­ted to me was a lovely old black labrador called Max, a veteran of the gun­dog school and now re­tired. I was as­sured that he hadn’t been truf­fle hunt­ing be­fore.

Can you teach an old dog new tricks? I was as­sured by my in­struc­tor, Deanne Freck­le­ton, that you can, so for my first les­son Max and I set off op­ti­misti­cally to hunt for truf­fles. Sadly, nei­ther Perig­ord nor Pied­mont truf­fles grow nat­u­rally in Bri­tain but we do have 12 na­tive species, all ed­i­ble though none will tit­il­late the taste buds quite like those Mediter­ranean tu­bers. Un­for­tu­nately, none of those dozen species have ever been found in Gle­nea­gles, ex­cept in the hotel kitchen, which is where we got ours.

tools of the trade

The tools of the trade to train a truf­fle dog are sim­ple. I won’t re­veal them all, as that might put the Gle­nea­gles school out of business, but they do in­clude a trowel and a truf­fle. With the truf­fle hid­den, Max and I set off to find it. Max re­ceived a firm in­struc­tion of “Truf­fle!”, the equiv­a­lent of “Hi Lost!”, and off we went. Frus­trat­ingly, we didn’t get far. Poor old Max looked some­what con­fused. I think that if we had buried a few pheas­ants he would have found them quite quickly but truf­fles? You’ve got to be jok­ing.

This wasn’t a good start and hadn’t been an­tic­i­pated. I do know that you can teach some old dogs new tricks but per­haps that’s push­ing it a bit with a pen­sioner like Max. Younger tal­ent was called for and at

Gle­nea­gles they’ve got a whole ken­nel of it. A two-year-old yel­low labrador dog called Mer­lin was re­cruited, so off we went again.

Truf­fles do have a very strong and dis­tinc­tive aroma, and it doesn’t take long for a dog to learn it. There’s no doubt that Mer­lin didn’t have a clue what the com­mand “Truf­fle!” meant but de­spite this he was off like a rocket, nose to the ground, hunt­ing out the hid­den truf­fles. As his han­dler all I could do was try and stay with him – he was a fast dog with a great deal of nat­u­ral ex­u­ber­ance. My chal­lenge was re­mem­ber­ing where the buried truf­fles were. To make sure that Mer­lin didn’t cheat and re­ally did use his nose they had to be un­der­ground and cov­ered up. There was one prob­lem: Mer­lin de­cided that he rather liked truf­fles and was quick to wolf them down un­less you in­ter­cepted him in time.

My fi­nal les­son was with an ex­pe­ri­enced truf­fle-hunter, a six-year-old yel­low labrador from the school called Whis­per. She demon­strated bril­liantly how a well-trained truf­fler goes about her business, sit­ting pa­tiently un­til given the com­mand, then search­ing dili­gently and thor­oughly. Un­like Mer­lin, it was easy to keep up with her and she merely in­di­cated where the buried truf­fle was, and didn’t try and eat it. I won­der if I could hire her and take her to Tus­cany?

The truf­fle-hunt­ing ex­pe­ri­ence was in­ter­est­ing and re­minded me that I’d never eaten a true truf­fle. (I have, how­ever, al­ways been a keen eater of choco­late truf­fles – es­pe­cially the Bel­gian va­ri­ety.) Stay­ing at Gle­nea­gles al­lowed me to rec­tify this, so for lunch after my les­son with Mer­lin I had a truf­fle and ba­con sand­wich in the hotel’s Bir­nam Brasserie. I found the truf­fle’s taste dis­tinc­tive and in­ter­est­ing but, I hate to ad­mit it, give me choco­late truf­fles any time.

How­ever, if there was a hope of find­ing the Perig­ord or Pied­mont truf­fles in my nearby woods then there would be a real in­cen­tive to train Rowan to be­come a truf­fle hunter. Truf­fles sell at quite lu­di­crous prices, mak­ing them one of the prici­est foods in the world: on my reck­on­ing your dog would only have to find a sin­gle 2oz white truf­fle to more than cover the cost of its lessons. For fur­ther in­for­ma­tion about truf­fle­hunt­ing lessons, con­tact: the Gle­nea­gles Gun­dog School, tel 01764 694347, www.gle­nea­gles-gol­fa­cademy.com/ ac­tiv­i­ties/gun­dog-school

To con­tact the English Truf­fle Com­pany, call 0330 1 330 805 or go to www.en­glishtruf­fles.co.uk

Mer­lin de­cided that he rather liked truf­fles and wolfed them down

Top: pro­fes­sional truf­fle hunter Tom Ly­wood, and his Ital­ian truf­fle-hunt­ing dogs, searches a Berk­shire wood­land for English black truf­fles. Above: the writer tries to in­ter­est Mer­lin in the ed­i­ble del­i­ca­cies

Top: Mer­lin picks up the whiff of truf­fle and puts the brakes on. Above: hunt­ing for white truf­fles near Alba Pied­monte in Italy

Top: a truf­fle hunter strikes gold in Langhe, Cu­neo, Italy. Above: Whis­per lo­cates a truf­fle

Top: Whis­per’s ex­pe­ri­ence shows as she in­di­cates a truf­fle. Above: English black truf­fles

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