The morning after my frigid duck hunting initiation (see my previous post) I found myself again shivering, this time standing in the sunshine on the edge of a dense fir forest at Willamette Valley Vineyards in Turner, Ore., in the company of three professional truffle dog trainers and 18 neophyte truffle dog handlers, each of whom had plunked down $600 to participate in a two-day truffle dog training seminar (scent-detection dog trainers, take note!). I was there as an observer, a journalist gathering information for a culinary travel story about the Oregon white truffle that will be published in a national magazine in early 2013. Professional interest aside, given the years I’ve invested in fostering peanut-sniffing labradoodles for Angel Service Dogs, and the scope of my book project, this was an opportunity to explore and experience yet another, and wholly different, niche of scent-detection working dogs.
Some context about the Oregon white truffle: unlike its gilled above-ground mushroom cousins, the golden nuggetlike Tuber oregonense is an underground fungus that grows symbiotically within the root systems of native Northwest host trees like the doug fir. Prized for the complex aroma it infuses into everything from marbled beef to scrambled eggs (a winemaker I interviewed described its smell as “kind of like gasoline, like the plastic on your grandmother’s couch”), the fungus arrives at its odiferous apogee sometime between December and February, when perfectly ripe Oregon truffles appear on menus at high-end restaurants all across the Pacific Northwest. For regional foragers, the white truffle’s pay dirt, commanding $16 an ounce, or nearly $100 a pound. But that’s still peanuts compared to the premiums California chefs (who often turn their noses up at Oregon truffles) at five-star restaurants like the French Laundry will pay for imported European truffles like the French black (Tuber melanosporum, a.k.a. the Perigord truffle), which fetches $70 an ounce ($1,100 a pound) and the Italian white (Tuber magnatum), currently selling for $319 an ounce at buy.com (that’s, cha-ching, $5,104 a pound!). Which explains the recent proliferation of truffieres, truffle plantations, nationwide. Credit Oregon truffle guru Charles Lefevre, a Eugene mycologist who founded New World Truffieres in 2003 after he figured out a way to cultivate European truffles domestically by inoculating the root systems of oak and hazelnut saplings with French black truffle spores. Since then, entrepreneurs from the Great Smoky Mountains to Napa Valley have been plowing under pastureland and vineyards and planting Lefevre’s truffle trees. And since truffle trees take seven years or more to bear fruit, America appears to be on the cusp of a domestically grown European truffle gold rush. Which is where the dogs come in.
Although some French truffle farmers still prefer to use pigs (which are attracted to Perigords because they smell like a sow in heat; yum!), in Italy, truffle farmers have been using an obscure breed of working dog, the Lagotto Romagnolo, to harvest truffles since the late 16th Century. I’ve read that there are fewer than 500 of these dogs in the United States but once the U.S. truffle industry matures, expect the Lagotto Romagnolo to eclipse the labradoodle as the next hot dog (order yours now; breeders are standing by!). The 15 registered U.S. Lagotto Romagnolo breeders sell pups for as much as $3,500 (on par with the ‘doodle) while fully trained truffle dogs command upwards of $9,000. Jim Sanford, a former elephant trainer from the Oregon Zoo, now works as the Lagotto Romagnolo trainer/breeder/handler at Blackberry Farm, a 4,200-acre culinary-themed destination resort in the Great Smoky Mountains (Travel + Leisure recently deemed it the best in North America) that has planted 128 of Lefevre’s black truffle trees. Jim was the lead instructor at the Oregon truffle dog seminar, and got choked up when he handed over the leash of a Lagotto Romagnolo that he had raised and trained in Tennessee over the past year for two entrepreneurs with a nascent truffiere in Napa Valley, who had come to Oregon that weekend to take possession of their truffle-hunting stud dog, and learn from the truffle dog master. “Did I mention to you that I don’t want to let this dog go,” Sanford reiterated to the new owners. “You are getting a phenomenal dog.” Not that you can imagine a lifelong animal trainer like Jim Sanford, a guy who could stare down a bull elephant, shedding a tear (much less cracking a smile) from the gruff canine professional persona he cultivates in this photo I snapped of him with Tom, Blackberry Farm’s celebrity truffle dog, at the vineyard:
Jim’s actually quite a funny guy. When Tom, a few minutes later, began nosing the behind of that walking shag carpet of a Bouvier des Flandres standing just behind Jim in the above photo, the trainer sharply corrected his dog and apologized to the owner of the Bouvier, “He’s an intact male dog and sniffin’ butts is just what he’s got to do. Now who here doesn’t like to sniff butts?!”
The second instructor was Deb Walker, a search and rescue dog specialist from Roseburg, Ore., who trotted out a showdog-quality standard poodle named Tucker, her first truffle dog, who represents a new direction, and perhaps the future, for Walker’s K9-Behavior Company. Check out Tucker’s snappy vest:
The third instructor, D. Glenn Martyn, executive director of the Hearing Dog Program in San Francisco, who trains hearing and mobility service dogs, brought along an ebullient English Springer Spaniel named Ghillie. Leashed to the 18 novice truffle hunters was a menagerie of breeds, including three Lagottos, retired police dogs and labs, even a wiener dog and, improbably, a teacup-sized chihuahua. After Jim introduced the instructors and Tom as “Hands-down the finest truffle dog in North America” (one season, Tom unearthed 200 pounds of domestic French black truffles at a Tennessee truffiere, which amounted to the entire U.S. crop), he delivered a brief lecture about the Oregon truffle and announced that “I’m gonna take Tom down here and see if he can hit on a few truffles.” We followed Jim down a muddy embankment, ripping through blackberry brambles, and entered a dense forest. Shafts of sunlight filtered through breaks in the canopy and the air was pungeant with the earthy smell of wet dirt and hummous and decaying vegetation. Glenn Martyn let Ghillie off leash, and the dog bolted to the nearest tree and began digging, scoring the first truffle hit. Watch this video of Ghillie to appreciate the exuberance and absolute focus that a well-trained scent-detection working dog brings to the job (he’d make a fantastic peanut dog!):
Practically every dog began unearthing truffles, even the wiener dog and the chihuahua, which redeemed itself as something of a truffle dog savant. But it was clear that several centuries of selective breeding gave the Lagotto Romagnolo an instinctual advantage. In one far corner of the forest, I came across Bill Collins, a clinical psychologist from the VA in San Francisco. He was wearing a beret and his knees were covered in mud and he was speaking in Italian to a Teddybearlike Lagotto named Rico, who was furiously digging at the base of a giant fir tree. Watch this 10-second clip of Rico digging for truffles:
A couple years ago, Collins, a gourmand who hosts eight-course truffle-themed dinner parties, flew to his native Sicily and purchased Rico from an Italian truffle dog trainer, thinking he’d take up a new hobby. Then realized he had found another lifeline for the soldiers he counsels. Rico’s more than a truffle dog, he’s a therapy dog, tagging along with Bill on counseling visits with veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Bill envisions truffle dog training and foraging as part of the healing process, and potentially a career path, for veterans recently returned from Afghanistan and Iraq who are struggling to reassemble the pieces of their war-shattered lives here at home. That’s an admirable goal, and I wish Bill luck.
On the long drive back to Portland from Turner, I phoned my college roommate, a high school teacher with a wife and two kids in Los Angeles, who had called for our once-a-year check-in while I was truffle hunting in the forest, and I discovered something I hadn’t known about my lifelong friend: his daughter has a severe peanut allergy, and carries an EpiPen wherever she goes. Until now, I thought I was insulated from peanut allergy, training puppies that will assist children I’ve never met. I didn’t actually know anybody who daily confronted that life/death struggle. Or so I thought. As Angel Service Dogs CEO Sherry Mers once told me: “This isn’t going away. Pretty soon there won’t be anybody who doesn’t know somebody with a life-threatening peanut allergy.”
All too true.