Mushrooms: Why Pigs Aren’t The Best Truffle Hunters
Truffles are known for their ‘weird’ smell, but they are also the gem of the earth that cost an average of “USD$230 for a pound of summer black truffles“, says Francesca Sparvoli, co-owner of Done4NY, a truffle distribution company in New York. Truffle dealer Ian Purkayastha describes them as smelling like “dirty socks in a good way”. It is also the very same fungus that is dubbed “the jewel of cuisine” by French gourmet Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin.
Truffles, which are otherwise too elusive to be detected by a human’s nose, are hunted with the help of pigs and dogs. The fungus emits its distinct smell only when its spores are ripe, thus making it vulnerable to the noses of pigs and dogs even if they are hidden as deep as three feet underground.
In the 15th century, truffle hunting pigs were depicted as large and hairy animals with long tusks, such as the pigs seen in one of the paintings from Très Riches Heures of the Duc de Berry. The pigs’ wild appearance suggests that “they exist at the border of the civilised and the wild”, explains Zachary Nowak in his book Truffle, A Global History. The pigs were domesticated and yet allowed to roam wild in the woods. Sometimes, they were accompanied by a swineherd, as seen in the Très Riches Heures painting. Nowak believes this could be how truffles were discovered in Europe, while the pigs were foraging in the woods under the ‘supervision’ of their human. However, it is a mystery “what led that swineherd to try to eat this smelly, grubby underground mushroom”, says Nowak.
On 24 March 1982, The New York Times ran an article on the discovery of a substance in truffles, which is also “synthesized in the testes of boars”. Researchers discovered that this substance “is secreted into their saliva when they court females”. Sows are therefore used for the hunt because they are attracted to the scent of a truffle, which carries the same smell as that of a boar on heat.
There is common knowledge amongst truffle-hunters that those who “use pigs don’t tend to have all their fingers”, quipped Charles Lefevre, president and founder of New World Truffieres and organizer of the annual Oregon Truffle Festival. This is the price to pay for trying to retrieve a truffle from a hog’s mouth.
In Italy, pigs are banned from being used in truffle hunting since 1985. In its zealousness to dig for the prized fungus, the pig destroys the terrain and renders the damaged soil unsuitable for the growth of future truffles.
Another reason for the preference of dogs to pigs is that all truffle-hunters want to be discreet. “When you’re out in the woods with your pig, everyone knows what you are doing”, says an article by the organisers of Napa Truffle Festival.
Hence, dogs have put many truffle hogs out of job. Pigs “are no longer much used to find the hidden fungi… dogs are easier to train to leave the truffles to the truffle-hunter and eat a doggie treat instead”, says Nowak.
The perfect breed for a truffle dog is much debated. The Lagotto Romagnolo, a poodle-like dog has often been cited as the ideal dog to be trained for truffle hunting. Jim Sanford, a renowned truffle dog trainer from Blackberry Farm, began a breeding program since 2008. All the dogs from Sanford’s program are not just any Lagotto Romagnolo, but the progeny of “two distinct bloodlines … acquired from a breeder in Italy”, says an article by Blackberry Farm. Each truffle dog trained by Sanford is exclusively available to Blackberry Farm’s guests at a cost of USD$8500.
However, according to Ian Hall, a truffle expert, the breed of the dog isn’t the primary factor. In 2007, Italy, a 14-year-old blind mongrel dog named Rocco, helped his family unearth one of the world’s largest truffles weighing 3.3 pounds. It was sold for USD$330,000 to a Macau casino mogul.
In a competition held last summer by The North America Truffle Dog Championship, it was Gustave, a chihuahua mix, who beat the other 24 contestants. In the same competition held this year, it was Joey, a nine-year-old Labrador Retriever rescue who took home the top prize.
Any dog can be trained to be a successful truffle hunter. “It’s more important to consider the characteristics of a dog when deciding if they’ll be your truffle hunting companion”, says Hall.