As a New Yorker, I ordered my groceries online and had them delivered to my third-floor walkup. After we moved to Portland, Ore., my husband and I started growing our own fruits and vegetables in the backyard. The logical next step in our evolution from city to country-ish mice: foraging.
A few months ago, some friends asked us to go mushroom hunting. When we actually found chanterelles, which sell for $15 a pound at the grocery store, I felt a small thrill: Expensive ingredients were free for the taking in a forest half an hour from home.
Oregon truffles, which can retail for up to $50 per ounce, or $800 per pound, are also abundant nearby. But indiscriminately raking them up not only damages the mycelium, or underground “branches” of the truffle “fruit,” it also pulls up ripe and unripe truffles alike.
“An unripe truffle has all the culinary value of a piece of Styrofoam,” says animal trainer Jim Sanford, who raises and trains truffle-hunting dogs at the Great Smoky Mountains luxury retreat Blackberry Farm in Tennessee. When ripe, truffles put out an aroma that dogs can be trained to detect. Or at least that’s what I’m counting on.
Most dog owners believe their dog is smart, and I’m no exception. Since we adopted our terrier mix, Winston, three years ago, he’s learned to dance on his back legs and become certified as a volunteer therapy animal. He eats all of his food out of complicated puzzle toys. I like to believe he enjoys a challenge, and if he could unearth something of value in the meantime, all the better.
Salumist Elias Cairo, the owner of charcuterie Olympia Provisions in Portland, had a similar thought. “I hunt grouse and quail on very similar terrain to where truffles are found, and I thought it would be the most amazing thing ever if I could be hunting with my Brittany, Leather, and find some truffles on the way back to the truck,” he told me recently.
But it’s proven harder than he thought to teach a bird dog new tricks. “Bird hunting is the exact opposite of truffle hunting,” says Cairo. “You want their head held high, and they should be running hard and fast. I knew I had my hands full trying to get Leather to convert, but there’s been quite an improvement since I worked with Deb.”
Deb is Deb Walker, a dog trainer in Roseburg, Ore., whose little white poodle, Dottie, is an expert truffle hunter. Curious to find out whether Winston could become one, too, I signed up for her two-day truffle dog training seminar, one of the events comprising the 12th annual Oregon Truffle Festival.
On Day 1, as the other attendees filed into the hotel conference room with their dogs for the lecture portion of the training, I noticed a bloodhound, a cocker spaniel, a golden retriever — and five Lagotto Romagnolos.
Lagottos, which originated in Italy, were born to drag downed birds to shore. But their strong search drive, keen sense of smell, and compact, curly coat — good for repelling both water and the sharp branches of the trees truffles grow around — also make them excellent candidates for unearthing truffles.
Since the 19th century, Lagottos have been bred specifically to hunt truffles. But Walker assures me that any dog motivated by a reward (treats, toys or affection) and in possession of a great nose (“which is pretty much all of them”) can learn to hunt truffles. As proof, she points out that the dogs that found the most truffles in previous years included a Labrador, a Malinois, and a 12-year-old morbidly obese Dachshund.
And Winston does show promise. On our breaks, we start to practice a training technique called imprinting. Every time he sniffs the pungent truffle in my hand, I immediately pop a tiny piece of beef jerky into his mouth. He progresses to bopping the truffle with his nose excitedly when I say, “Where is it?” Success!
But when I hide the truffle under a little bit of soil in a planter on the patio, he looks at me, confused. Even when I point at the exact spot where the truffle is buried, he expresses little interest in rooting around in the dirt. That night in the hotel room, I try obscuring the truffle under the corner of the bed sheet, and there it stays, unmolested, until I put it back in its plastic container.
The next day, we all head to a truffle patch and spread out over a few acres. Again, Winston mostly puts his nose every which way but down. He seems interested in the swans floating on the pond and the sound of crunching branches, but not truffles. The few times he does sniff the ground, he’s adrenalized, not slow or methodical like a man with a metal detector, which is the preferred state of being. “When they’re hunting for rodents, dogs tend to be more animated and wiggly,” Walker says. “And terriers are genetically programmed to go after rodents.” Oof.
I convince myself that everyone is struggling, as it’s only our second day. But when we break for lunch in a 19th-century barn, I learn that a squirmy 4-month-old Lagotto has found 20 truffles in the roughly two hours we’ve been out. The golden retriever’s tally is 50, and even the French bulldog, a notoriously squish-faced breed, has dug up eight.
The truffle-training kit we’re sent home with contains a small vial of truffle oil, which I decide to drizzle over popcorn instead of using for more imprinting practice. Winston may never be a truffle hunter, but there is a mouse in our crawlspace, and I comfort myself with the knowledge that I know just the dog for the job.
Juno DeMelo is a writer based in Portland, Ore.