The truffle hunting hound of choice ...

There is something exotic and mystical about the white truffle; coveted treasure of Italy. This aromatic tuber has been a gastronomical object of desire for centuries, and even today is one of the most expensive culinary delicacies: with a price tag that often hits thousands of euros per kilogram.The word truffle originates from the latin word for growth, and this warty circular object that looks a bit like a knobby potato, has been appreciated since Egyptian times. In Roman times Pliny described them as "callus's of the soil", and in the 16th century they were considered a possible byproduct of rutting deer semen.[caption id="attachment_3241" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="White Truffles"][/caption]There are 32 different types of truffle in europe. The white Truffle is found in Tuscany, Umbria and Northern Italy (as well as Crotia) but most highly recognized is the white truffle of Alba. This 'super truffle' is especially highly prized due to its superior aroma - though the same exotic sent that today has gourmands in fits, was actually the reason the church forbid them in the middle ages. During medieval times they prohibited these strange looking fungi and deemed them eurowitches fareeuro. The strong musky sent is what attracts animals (and humans) to their hidden location at the root of certain trees (Oak Hazelnut and Chestnut are common examples).The female pig was traditionally the animal of choice for truffle hunters (and old school traditionalists still utilize the hog over the hound) but in recent times they have fallen from popularity (officially) due to the fact the pig will often eat the truffle before the handler gets to it. The truffle has a similar scent to the sex hormone of male pigs, hence the attraction!I imagine urbanization has also played a part in this fall from favor though, especially since one hundred years ago, the prized truffle hog was often kept in the masters home as a pet. Todayeuros truffle hunters most likely do not have the space for a full sized sow in the house, and also for this reason, the hound is more commonly used hunting for truffle.[caption id="attachment_3238" align="aligncenter" width="712" caption="Picture showing the Lagotto during renaissance times."][/caption]The Lagotto Romagnolo is the official truffle hound, however any dog with a good sense of smell can be trained. The Lagotto (an ancient italian breed that has curly coat similar to the poodle) is unique in the fact that they are the only pure bred dog in the world recognized as a specialized truffle searcher. The breed association claim that they originated with Etruscan dogs, and archeological digs do show evidence of a short curly haired dog very similar to todays Lagotto that lived in Etruscan and Roman times. Paintings dating back to the middle ages show an almost identical dog, and it is even considered by many eurodog peopleeuro, that the Lagotto is actually the descendent of all modern hunting breeds, spread to north Africa and the rest of Europe by travelling merchants.The Lagotto almost died out earlier this century when it was no longer fashionable. The breed was saved from extinction by a group of dedicated enthusiasts, and they have now gained popularity throughout the world, with kennel clubs as far away as Canada and Australia. The dogs areperfectly suited for truffle hunting (they were originally bred as hunting dogs), with their short bristly coats, they can negotiate the dense woodlands of central and north Italy. Today this interesting little curly coated pup, is recognized world wide as the truffle master, and is used in special truffle hunting events worldwide.The truffle dog is trained first as a puppy, where he is given pieces of truffle to mouth and play with. Soon he is taught to retrieve objects with the scent of truffle on them, and then he is taught to find the same objects underground. Digging comes naturally to this breed, much to the disdain of owners that have no interest in truffles... but much like the truffle hog, this is a desirable trait when looking for a tuber that grows at least a foot under the ground.I often come across truffle hunters (trifolau) with their dogs when I am out on horseback or walking. Secretive and quiet; they never discuss what they have found, or where - much like the Porcini hunters. Truffle have become much rarer today due to deforestation, so it is understandable that they wish to keep their trade secrets just that- secret.Truffle farms have popped up all over the world, with suprising sucess; but like many things in Italy, there is still so much to learn from the old masters.Many of the truffle hunters here have been handed down the secrets of the trade by their parents, grandparents or relatives. The secret hunting grounds, knowledge of different truffles, the training and breeding of their specialized truffle dogs and the best time to search for them - all of these secrets are kept close to the heart. Taking part in an authentic truffle hunt in Italy, is an experience not to be missed. Mucking in and following the trifolau and his hound is taking part in a historic tradition that has been bred into the trifolau as much as his dog.Right now throughout Italy truffle hunters are out searching for the mystical winter white and black truffles. There are festivals throughout northern and central Italy where you can see demonstrations of truffle hounds, taste different types of truffle, and of course - buy the produce of the trifolau. Gossip surrounds these markets -tales of crime and intrigue, dogs stolen, hunters mugged, and the infusion of lesser quality chinese truffles on the market.There is truth beneath these murmours, as in other industries, where a bit of luck and the right dog or horsecan reap BIG money (ie racing) there is always going to be baddies. The saddest of these truths is the dog statistics. In 2010 6233 dogs were stolen in Tuscany, Umbria and Piemonte alone. 60% of these were puppies, and almost all were hunting or truffle breeds. The saddest part of this dark side of truffle hunting, is that the number is rising every year. Truffle hunting websites in Italy are filled with stories of missing dogs, prized truffle hunters but also much loved family pets - most are apparantly stolen on commission by professional dog thieves - perhaps another reason why truffle hunters are so reserved when asked about how they did...Later this month near Florence l'Associazione Tartufai del Mugello hosts the annual 'Mostra Mercato del Tartufo Bianco' (White truffle show and market) in Borgo San Lorenzo. This pretty town in the Mugello region is located amongt what was once the hunting grounds of the Medici family. Interested Truffle lovers will be able to see Truffle hounds in action in two organized hunts on Sunday the 21st (10.30 am and 15,30 pm at the Sieve river bridge). This is a great region to day trip too from Florence, and you can use the truffles as an excuse to visit pretty Vicchio (where Giotto was born and raised) and the Castello di Trebbio, a large and supposedly haunted castle nearby...There is more information on the festival at: information on Lagotto Romagnolo dogs:
Unione Europea
Repubblica Italiana
Regione Toscana

This company beneficiated by the financial support of the Tuscany Region for the development of internationalization initiatives
bando POR CREO FESR 2014-2020 – Azione 3.4.2 "Incentivi all’acquisto di servizi a supporto dell’internazionalizzazione in favore delle PMI” per la concessione delle delle PMI toscane operanti nei settori del manifatturiero (sub azione a) agevolazioni a sostegno dell’export - anno 2017