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?
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