How to train your dog to hunt for truffles
My dog Bristol has simple tastes. He likes sleeping, strolling along Wellington's waterfront and a green soft-toy which smells likes a cross between four-day-old socks and four-day-old milk.
The concept of work, of earning his keep, is about as remote as the possibility of ever catching the neighbour's annoying cat.
Yet I'm about to ease the 8-year-old schnauzer/terrier out of chronic unemployment by training him to find truffles. We've signed up for the Visa Wellington on a Plate (VWOAP) Find a Truffle with Your Dog event, where domestic dogs are taught to sniff out the aromatic black fungi which can retail for up to $3500 a kilo.
Truffle farmer Konrad Hickson, the ringmaster of the inaugural event, tells me by phone a few days before that dogs are a truffle hunter's most prized tool.
"Unlike other mushrooms which grow above ground, truffles grow around the roots of hazel, oak and pine trees so there's no way to find them without a dog whose sense of smell is roughly 40 times ours," says Hickson. "When truffles are mature, they give off a strong aroma which is undetectable to humans, whereas dogs can be trained to sniff them out."
Hickson, who started Bianchetto NZ, a truffiere (truffle farm) in Whanganui two years ago, says dogs are a relatively recent addition to truffle hunting; previously, pigs were used to sniff out the so-called black gold.
"The aroma a truffle exudes is similar to the male porcine pheromone and sows on heat excel at rooting out the source of the scent. The trouble is that pigs also love to eat truffles – imagine trying to keep a 130kg pig away from a truffle! It's often said that truffle hunters who use pigs don't tend to have all their fingers." Canines, it turns out, are also easier to train and transport.
Canterbury truffle farmer Gareth Renowden, whose beagle Rosie sniffs out the truffles he supplies to restaurants all over New Zealand, reckons almost any dog can be trained to hunt the subterranean mushrooms.
"Most dogs who are physically active and have a good sense of smell are eligible to be truffle dogs," says Renowden.
Minus the aggressive ones and those hard-wired for a different type of work (for example sheep dogs), that is. The key to training a truffle dog, says Renowden, is effective communication and control.
"A good truffle dog should have good recall and listen to his or her owner. Dogs also need to have some kind of positive association with the truffle – for most dogs that's food. Once a dog learns that a truffle smell means a food reward, he or she will do whatever it takes to find that smell."
Training should also include how to indicate a truffle has been found, with either a bark, a digging motion or simply by sitting down next to the truffle.
In Europe, truffle dog training is taken so seriously there's even a university for truffle dogs in Alba, Italy. Sadly it's a bit far to go, but Renowden suggests the easiest way to train a truffle dog is to give them a whiff of what they're looking for.
This can include hiding a cloth that has been rubbed with truffles, or old film canisters containing cotton-wool dipped in truffle oil. "You start by playing hide and seek and finally bury the baits around truffle trees."
Renowden suggests I do a trial run with Bristol so the day before the event, we head to my waterlogged garden. I'm not the kind of person who has truffles on hand, so I improvise, starting with a cloth rubbed with cheese that I bury in a corner of the garden.
This is how it goes: I tell Bristol to find the cloth, he licks his nether regions. I direct him to the spot, he cavorts around the lawn like an over-sugared toddler. Rinse and repeat for the better part of an hour. Bristol might be the apple of my eye, but he's not exactly a first division winner in the sniffing lottery.
Which is probably why I'm the only person in Wellington hoping that the following day will be rainy and wind-lashed, so the truffle hunt will be cancelled. Instead, the day dawns sunny and uncharacteristically warm. I take Bristol and my bad mood to Frank Kitts Park where 50 excited dogs and their owners are waiting. There's a rotund labrador, black with a couple of white splashes, a handbag-sized pinscher and an elderly jack russell with whorls of tight white fur. There are wagging tails, a few barks and an excess of butt sniffing.
Hickson introduces us to the truffles, passing around a container of the warty tubers which look like lumps of coal. He suggests the best way to enjoy them is shaved over pasta, risotto or scrambled eggs.
Our first challenge is to let the dogs smell a truffle-infused cloth to 'imprint' the scent. Try as I might to interest Bristol in the aroma, he would rather roll around with Murphy, his 3-year-old fox terrier mate.
Then it's time for a spot of hide and seek, with Hickson upturning three flower pots, under one of which he hides a truffle-infused cloth. We parade our four-legged friends, dog show style, past the pots hoping they'll stop at the one with the cloth (another epic fail by Bristol). Strike three is when we're tasked with finding the three cloths Hickson has buried around the park.
Kate tells me she's been training Wicket, her black griffon, all week. "Wicket had shaved truffle on her breakfast this morning to give her a taste," Kate says proudly.
Earlier, Hickson buried a 40g black truffle under a tree and we're let loose to find it. Bristol is in canine heaven, a grey and white streak pulling me around the park, peeing on every tree instead of sniffing around them for truffles.
Leigh Thornett, who's been training Frieda, her 1-year-old cavapom, with white truffle cheese, comes close to finding the buried treasure but in the end it's Dot, a 6-year-old black Pug, who uncovers the tuber. Dot's owner, graphic designer Kristy Miller, gets to take home the truffle, worth around $140.
Bristol may not have a taste for truffles but, it seems, others have had for centuries. It was those canny Romans and French who first hit on the aphrodisiac properties of truffles (Napoleon apparently feasted on them to boost his masculine potency) but when the Roman Empire fell, so too did the truffle's popularity. It wasn't until the Renaissance that the Europeans rediscovered their musky flavour and the culinary world sat up and took notice.
Although only grown in New Zealand for the last 24 years, there are now around 150 truffieres around the country, from Northland to Central Otago. Renowden, who established his Limestone Hills truffiere with wife Camille in 1996, says there are hundreds of varieties of truffles, but only a handful are commonly used in cooking. The most widely available here is the Perigord black truffle, which can range in size from a fingernail to a grapefruit.
The Hope Diamond of gastronomy is the Italian white truffle which can command about $8000 a kilo. The world's largest Italian white truffle, for example, weighed in at 1.8kg and sold at Sotheby's in 2014 for around $85,000 – a lot for one mushroom. "Because truffles live in a symbiotic relationship with tree roots, you can't just plant a seed in a field," says Renowden. "They also like specific types of soil and climate and it's this unpredictability which contributes to the extreme prices."
Although the domestic market takes all of Renowden's output, he says the export potential for Kiwi truffles is huge.
"Winter is truffle harvesting season, so our season coincides with the northern hemisphere summer, when Europeans don't have access to fresh truffles. New Zealand only produces a few hundred kilos of truffles at the moment but there is major room to grow."
Which, of course, means more truffle hunting dogs will be needed.
Maybe it's time to give Bristol another go.
- Your Weekend