It begins with a snap of the head. A little dog circles, nose to the ground, then turns back. It catches the scent again and snorts.
Tiny paws dig in the loose duff. Suddenly, a small white lump is upturned. “Good girl!” cries Melanie Fast, the little dog’s owner.
Melanie lifts the new find to her nose and inhales. “There’s a mushroom smell there, just a really fresh earthiness, fruity, nutty.” She pauses, searches for more words and then laughs. “I can’t get enough of it!”
In her hand is a truffle. Specifically, an Oregon winter white. To be honest, it doesn’t look like much to get excited about: think of a soft, stinky golf ball-shaped lump of fungus. But to chefs and truffle aficionados — this find is culinary gold.
It’s the first truffle Melanie and her dog, Lucy, have found together. They’ve traveled to Oregon’s Willamette Valley all the way from British Columbia, Canada, to learn how to forage the wild fungus.
They are one of several dog-and-owner teams that have come to these dank woods in the middle of winter to hunt for Oregon truffles.
When people think of truffles, they usually think of truffles from France and Italy. These truffles are often a foodie superlative — cited as “the world’s most expensive food ingredient.” The Italian winter white truffles, for example, can fetch as much as $7,000 a pound, ranking them right up there with saffron and beluga caviar.
European truffles have long been revered without rival. Until recently.
People like Melanie are discovering that truffles grow wild in the woods of Oregon. Chefs are realizing that these truffles are just as complex in taste as their European counterparts. And a small, dedicated team of truffle advocates are trying their best to put Oregon truffles on the map. These efforts manifest in an annual event: the Oregon Truffle Festival.
“The Oregon Truffle Festival is a cacophony of truffles,” describes Kristina Leipzig, one of the festival leads. “It brings in growers, connoisseurs of truffles, chefs, and it also brings teams that are interested in getting into finding truffles with their dogs.”
A lot of people have worked hard to elevate Oregon truffles to a world status, but credit must also be given to the dogs.
Using dogs to forage wild-growing truffles has been the secret to the recent success (and esteem) of the once-lowly Oregon truffle.
Pigs are the creatures that often get the credit.
Back in Europe, in places like the French and Italian countryside, peasants had pigs. And the female pigs, when in heat, rooted out wild-growing truffles. That’s because the chemical compound found in truffles, androstenone, is also found in the pheromones of male pigs.
For a long time, truffles (stinky lumps of fungus growing underground) were considered food for pigs and peasants. Like potatoes. Eventually, the gentry caught on, and truffles became haute cuisine.
But now fast forward. Change the location from the rolling foothills of Italy to the dense Douglas fir forests of western Oregon.
Here dogs, not pigs, are used to sniff out the truffles.
“A pig is hard to fit into the back of a Subaru,” jokes Deb Walker, lead organizer of the dog training for the Oregon Truffle Festival.
And pigs … well, the females in heat like to gobble the pheromone-scented truffles. Dogs can be trained to find truffles and accept other rewards — like a tossed ball, or a good belly rub.
Although there is a famous Italian breed of dog — the Lagotto Romagnolo — renowned as the best-of-the-best for sniffing out truffles, this year, the annual truffle hunting completion was won by a German Shepard from Seattle named Cowboy.
Here’s a little secret: pretty much any dog can sniff out truffles, and pretty much any dog owner can train their dog to hunt truffles.
Dogs have changed how truffles are harvested in Oregon, and this change has driven up both the prices and reputation of Oregon truffles.
Only a few decades ago, truffle harvesters used to rake under trees, pulling up truffles. They found a lot of truffles, but only some were ripe. The rest were either overripe and rotting or not yet matured. These all got scooped up and sent to restaurants. As a result, people considered the Oregon truffles a distant second to the robust European truffles.
When professional truffle forager John Getz first started 16 years ago, rake harvesters sold truffles for as little as $5 per pound. "Despite being told by virtually everyone I knew that 'we don’t use dogs here, we use rakes' I had to try," recalls Getz, "and to my knowledge no one else in the Pacific Northwest was using a dog at that time." Today, with the help of his yellow lab Chloe, he purveys to chefs for more than $400 per pound.
A native Oregon truffle recently sold for $80 per ounce, as expensive as European prices, says Dr. Charles Lefevre, President of the Oregon Truffle Festival board.
This year, folks like Melanie and her little Cavalier King Charles Spaniel Lucy have come to learn the secret to hunting wild truffles.
Part of a two-day workshop lead by Deb Walker, they first introduce the dogs to the scent of truffles in the ballroom of the downtown Eugene Hilton.
They teach them the scent of a perfectly ripe truffle and then reward them each time they sniff for one. It’s actually pretty simple, as dog trainer Deb Walker points out: sniff, reward. Sniff, reward.
Once keyed on the scent of a ripe truffle, a dog will find only the ripe ones, ignoring the unripe and overripe. This means that each truffle found is ready to be sent to the hands of chefs. It also means that truffle hunters with dogs can return to the same spot, finding new truffles as they ripen.
“We thought the peak was in January and over by February, but we were wrong,” says Oregon Truffle Festival General Manager, Leslie Scott. "With dogs, we found that there are sequential patches, early patches and late patches, and there's a rhythm to it."
Using truffle dogs lead to a new discovery: truffle harvesting season for Oregon winter whites could actually extend to March. And Oregon black truffles have a spring season, April-May.
The second day of the workshop, the dog teams head a short drive outside of Eugene to a historic farm.
They wander the woods. It is cold and damp. The air smells of soil and moss and ferns and is punctuated with the soft chimes of dog collars.
The owners whisper to their dogs, “Go find the truffle. Go find it!”
Those who remain quiet, let their dogs work.
But some of the newbies are talking too much. The dogs look up at them, eager to please, but confused.
Deb looks on. “Let them lead,” she says. She patiently instructs the dog owners to say less, and watch for the telltale sign: the snap of the head.
“All of a sudden they’ll start turning in circles because they’re finding the edge of what we call the scent cone,” explains Deb.
The dog begins to dig, little paws burrowing into the fir needles. Then the cheer from the owner: “Good dog!”
Out comes the treat.
Another truffle found.
Deb grins. “It’s just a hoot to watch!”