Hot on the Truffle Trail

A rescue dog’s entry into the foodie world of truffle hunting

Kris Jacobson
Kris Jacobson of Umami Truffle Dogs displays dog-harvested trufflesPhoto courtesy Jeff Kastner

It was a whim when I entered a crop-eared, scarred-up pitbull named Biggie in the Joriad North American Truffle Dog Championship at the Oregon Truffle Festival in January.

I knew nothing about truffles — only that truffle fries are amazing — and that the objects in question were fungus-related, not chocolate-related, bits of deliciousness. I also knew that, in the past, the Truffle Festival had put on truffle dog training seminars, and truffle hunting sounded fun.

Not to mention, training a dog to truffle hunt sounded less stressful than teaching one to search for missing people or illegal drugs.

Leslie Scott and her husband, Charles Lefevre, began the Oregon Truffle Festival about 10 years ago. The event brings together Scott’s event organizing skills — she was the manager of the Oregon Country Fair for 17 years — with Lefevre’s scientific background. Lefevre has a Ph.D. in forest mycology from Oregon State University and is the president and founder of the company New World Truffières.

A truffière is essentially a truffle orchard and, according to Lefevre, native New World truffles as well as Old World truffles can grow in Oregon. Lefevre, Scott and two others conducted a feasibility study in 2009 that showed the value of Oregon’s growing truffle industry could exceed $1.5 billion annually and rival the state’s wine industry.

Inherent to the burgeoning truffle business, and a star attraction at the Oregon Truffle Festival, are truffle dogs because, as Lefevre puts it, “dogs are cool, dogs attract positive attention and face it, dogs are cute.” And dogs find truffles.

A decade after the Oregon Truffle Festival began in 2006, at a time truffle-hunting dogs (and the truffles themselves) were virtually unheard of in Oregon, the sport of truffle hunting is now growing. And thanks to the skills of truffle dogs, the Oregon truffle, once maligned by foodies, has been redeemed.

Thanks to Biggie, I know a lot more about these mushrooms (more accurately fungi) that Plutarch the philosopher once believed were created when lightning struck the ground.

 

Biggie And Truffle Dogs

Biggie was just another brindle pit at the Carson Animal Shelter in Los Angeles where he had been dumped. He was shy and hiding in his kennel. Adopters simply passed him by. Shelter workers and animal advocates, like Jill Dyche, who eventually drove him from L.A. to Oregon, thought they saw something special in Biggie and kept networking on social media to try to save him.

He was scheduled to be put to sleep Dec. 11. I saw this on Facebook and told Sondra Arrache of Save the Pets I would foster him. Who knew the special thing those people saw in Biggie was some sort of pitbull-savant ability to sniff truffles?

Kris Jacobson of Umami Truffle Dogs in Eugene says that while she prefers the Belgian malinois, like her dog Ilsa — the kind of dog she worked with in her time with the sheriff’s office — someone looking for a truffle dog can “go to the shelter, find a dog that wants to fetch a ball and that’s a truffle dog.” The dog has to want to work, and it has to be fun for the dog, Jacobson says.

Biggie was polite, affectionate, shy, but a good boy. He was eager to please and loved to chase a ball.

I was told that “nosework” — teaching a dog to sniff for things — is a good way to get a shy dog out of his shell. Biggie, I decided, needed some nosework.

The dog most commonly associated with truffle hunting is the Lagotto Romagnolo, a breed from Italy, a country with a centuries-old history of truffle cultivation. They are small to medium-sized dogs, almost poodle-like in appearance, with curly coats in various shades of brown and white. The price for a Lagotto truffle dog trained by Jim Sanford of Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, which breeds and trains some of the fewer than 500 Lagottos in the U.S., can be upwards of $6,000.

As the time for the annual Truffle Festival grew closer — and tickets sold out, as they often do — Eugene Weekly published a story on the Joriad, the first contest of its kind in North America. Biggie had been with me for two weeks, and I was already pretty sure this foster dog was mine to stay. I posted the truffle story on social media and joked, “Who wants to sponsor Biggie?”

As it turned out, several of my friends did want to sponsor Biggie. A couple PayPal transactions later, I needed to put their money where my mouth was.

So I entered Biggie (aka Biggie Smalls) in the Joriad. After all, I reasoned, what would be a better way of showing how far a neglected pitbull had come than the reified sport of truffle hunting?

But I have to admit, when my alarm went off on the morning of Jan. 21, I rolled over and looked at Biggie and wondered what hell I was thinking. Who suddenly believes they can train a pitbull, fresh from the shelter and new to the skill of how to properly walk on a leash, to hunt truffles in three weeks?

 

Erotic and Addictive 

Oregon truffles, both the black and white varieties, taste as good as European truffles, Lefevre says, something the mycologist discovered when he stored the Old and New World truffles in his refrigerator and compared them.

For years, he says, Oregon’s truffles suffered from the reputation of being an inexpensive, substandard replacement for real, European truffles. That was something he and Scott set out to change when they founded the Oregon Truffle Festival.

The key to truffle flavor is aroma, and the taste is the rich, savory flavor of umami. As it says in the feasibility study, “Oregon Culinary Truffles,” the aroma of truffles can be “overwhelmingly seductive. The experience of truffle has been described as intoxicating, heady, provocative, rapturous, erotic and addictive.”

The fragrance of an Oregon black truffle (Leucangium carthusianum) is fruitier, while the white truffle (Tuber oregonense and Tuber gibbosum) is more savory, garlicky and cheesy, without tasting garlicky or cheesy at all. Lefevre and Scott say one reason Oregon truffles had a bad reputation was that they were sometimes harvested before they were ripe.

A truffle can reach its full size months before it is ready for harvest, and its aroma indicates readiness, Sanford tells me as he helpfully ties on my official yellow Joriad armband to designate me a competitor in the truffle dog contest. And truffle dogs will only hunt ripe truffles, making dogs the key to Oregon’s industry, he says.

Truffles ripen throughout the year, with some white truffles ripening December through February and others May and June.

Lefevre says while truffle dogs have been used to snuffle for truffles in European orchards, harvesters as well as scientists like himself historically used rakes in Oregon. This can lead to the harvest of unripe, thus unflavorful, truffles.

Lefevre advocates for truffle dogs, but he takes a middle road on raking — he points out that you really can’t fault people for harvesting truffles the way they have done it for years. Others, like Jacobson, take a harder line.

Jacobson says one of her truffle patches was poached by rakers and it “breaks your heart” to see the damage done, including two-foot deep holes in the ground, exposed tree roots and garbage strewn around. “I can go out the entire season, for months at a time, and it will looked untouched. The dog hones in on one truffle only.”

Left: Sunny Diaz Praises Stella the Lagotto Romagnolo for finding the scent of truffles in the first round  of the Joriad Truffle Dog Championship. Photo by David Barajas.
Right: Biggie the Pitbull sits amid Douglas fir and dreams of the day he finds a truffle in the wild. Photo by Camilla Mortensen.

 

Hunters and Competitors

The trick, of course, is to be able to find that elusive truffle.

Jacobson tells me she remembers Biggie and me at the competition and was delighted to cheer on a rescue pit bull. Jacobson and Pat Russell of Trifecta Training Center in Veneta, who was among the first to teach dogs to truffle hunt in Oregon, agree that any dog with the right motivation and energy can learn. Pits, they say, might get a bad rap from their detractors but they can make a perfectly good truffle dog.

According to Scott, the Joriad Truffle Dog Championship is named for Oregon’s state soil, red clayish Jory soil, which grows excellent truffles as well as wine grapes. Having a contest, she says, was something she and Lefevre had in the back of their minds early on, but it had to wait until enough dogs in the U.S. knew how to truffle hunt.

I reasoned that Biggie didn’t have that much of a chance of pulling off a truffle hunt in three weeks — never mind that I didn’t know how to train him — but all he needed to do was show up, prove that pits are good dogs and put out a reasonable attempt at sniffing something.

To that end, I Googled truffle hunting. Then I bought a bottle of truffle oil at Market of Choice and began to offer Biggie treats scented with the oil. He was down with that — who wouldn’t be? I drooled every time I opened the bag of truffle-scented treats. I began hiding the treats around my office and would ask him, “Where is it?” Soon he was finding them under jackets and desks.

Knowing the contest was in a horse arena, I took Biggie out to an arena in the evenings and began tossing and then hiding the treats in the dirt. By the end of the second week he could sniff out a treat, so I began scenting tennis balls with white truffle oil — I chose white because I’m a savory, not sweet girl and truffle oil is more than $12 for a tiny bottle so I wasn’t buying black truffle oil, too.

Chasing a tasty tennis ball was right up Biggie’s alley.

When the time for the contest hit, Biggie was … sometimes … able to sniff out a rag with truffle scent buried in dirt. Sometimes he sniffed out a delicious piece of horse poop, so I was feeling a bit dubious as to our chances.

You don’t need a truffle class to sniff truffles, Russell tells me, a basic nosework class will do. She taught her first truffle dog class at the third Oregon Truffle Festival in 2009. “It’s the work ethic, the desire to please and the level of energy,” she says, that make a truffle dog.

Jacobson, the former K9 cop, tells me, “Dogs already know how to smell things,” and you are rewarding and reinforcing that instinct.

When I got to the Joriad, I counted at least eight Lagotto Romagnolos, as well as a greyhound, a corgi, a cocker spaniel, some Labs and retrievers and assorted other dogs.

Biggie was the only pit.

One of the Lagotto owners, Will Sherman, an attorney from Ashland, tells me he got his dog Santos in Italy on his way back from Central Asia. A former foreign intelligence worker, Sherman is the president of the nonprofit Afghan Child Project. Before getting his dog, he’d never warmed to truffle hunting, he says, with pine needles sticking to you as you dig around for the fungi. But as a former hunter turned vegan, he became interested in the sport after going truffling with a breeder in Italy.

The first round of the contest involves truffle scent hidden in tiny containers set into trays. You and your dog have five minutes to find two truffle scents. If you don’t find two in the time allowed, you’re out. If you dig up two containers without a truffle before finding your two, you’re also out.

“Biggie,” I say, “all you have to do is walk at my side and not pee on a truffle tray and we’re good.”

When it was our turn to go, the judge asks me what Biggie’s “tell” was. Sort of like poker, a tell is an indicator the dog has something — in this case a truffle rather than a full house. The better you can read the tell, the better the chance of you and your dog finding a truffle.

“Umm, his tell is that he sniffs hard,” I blurt, before confessing I had no idea what I was doing and Biggie was barely six weeks out of the shelter.

Biggie and I stroll down the line of 15 or so dirt-filled trays — it takes a minute to get him to realize he actually needed to sniff the trays. On the second pass Biggie gives one of the trays a good whiff, just as he had done at the practice tray outside. “Truffle,” I say hesitantly, looking at the judge. She digs up the container, checks it out and smiles at me: “Truffle!”

I gape in disbelief and stuff a bunch of treats into Biggie.

We resume our saunter, and Biggie stands on a tray. “Truffle?”

Nope, no truffle. “My bad,” I tell Biggie. “You didn’t sniff before you stood on it.”

At the next tray over, Biggie snuffles the dirt. One truffle found, one blank found. If this was a truffle, we were in, if this wasn’t then we were done.

“Truffle,” I tell the judge.

“Truffle!” she confirms. We did it. We found the elusive truffle and made it out of the round that was no doubt designed to weed out clueless neophytes like the Bigster and me.

The judge compliments me on my ability to read my dog’s tell and says she has a dog just like him. I grin and just keep stuffing treats into him.

“Biggie, you are amazing,” I tell him. Given that the top price for Oregon truffles has been around $500 per pound, Biggie could more than earn his keep, I fantasize, if we figured this truffle-sniffing thing out.

 

Truffles in the Wild 

“When your dog finds his first truffle, it’s like your first kiss; you never forget it,” Jacobson says.

While expensive Italian truffles are mainly found in cultivated orchards, Oregon truffles are found in the wild, — or, more precisely, on old farmland with young, 15-to-35-year-old Douglas fir trees, according to Lefevre and Jacobson.

Most Oregon truffles are actually found on private land, and since 2013 the Oregon Board of Forestry has required a permit for truffle hunting on state and private lands. There are 100,000 acres of suitable truffle land in this state, according to the feasibility study.

Another reason Lefevre, who also professionally inoculates trees with truffle spores to create orchards, doesn’t come down hard on rakers is that truffles thrive on land already disturbed by humans. Most Oregon truffles are found west of the Cascades in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and black truffles are found in the Coast Range and the foothills of the Cascades.

Out of the 26 or so original competitors, 16 make it into the second round, including Biggie and six Lagotto Romagnolos. The second round involves finding truffles in a simulated wild setting — buried in the arena dirt among logs and trees.

The next day the top five dogs from that round then head out into the forest for an actual field trial where the winner takes home $500 and the Keeper DeGlane award, named, of course, for a truffle dog.

Sanford, who together with Tom, his Lagotto, is probably one of the best known truffle hunters in the country, tells me after the first round, “One in 10 dogs can go out there and will sniff a truffle, because he knows something different is there.”

“Yeah, that was my dog today,” I respond.

“Dogs harvesting truffles ensures quality,” he says. He says he (and Tom) come to the Truffle Festival not to promote the Oregon truffle, “but a dog-harvested Oregon truffle.”

Jacobson agrees and says she’d like to see dog-harvested truffles labeled, the way dolphin-safe tuna is labeled.

At the end of the Joriad’s third round, Marilyn Richen and her yellow Lab Gucci take home first place. Lefevre says they found a truffle every minute and 45 seconds “for a solid hour.” Second place finisher, Sunny Diaz and her Lagotto Stella, averaged one every two minutes, he tells me.

Biggie and I? Not so much. As Russell points out, dog training takes time. Lots of time, you can’t rush it. “Repetition, repetition, repetition,” she says.

When Biggie and I walk out before the audience for round two, he gleefully sniffs around for a while. We find no truffles. But he does take a nice poop in the truffle arena.

Afterward, I gave him lots more treats for being a very good dog and, as I like to tell people, he did beat 10 or 11 actual trained truffle dogs, proving any dog, even an unwanted L.A. pitbull, can become a truffle dog.

The Oregon Truffle Festival and the Joriad return to Eugene Jan. 29-31, 2016. Biggie and I will be practicing.

Go for a truffle hunt with Umami Truffle Dogs at umamitruffledogs.com. Truffle train your dogs with Trifecta Training Center trifectatraining.com and check out New World Truffières at truffletree.com for more on growing truffles.