Like most people, we don’t know nearly enough of what goes on in finding a truffle. When we hear the word “truffle,” we think “france, pigs,” followed by “WANT.”
We were surprised to find out, via the Seattle Times, that the latest hot thing in the food world is using dogs to find truffles, and the dogs are finding those truffles in the Pacific Northwest.
The story talks about dogs such as Lolo, a young Lagotto Romagnolo (an Italian breed known for its truffle-hunting skills), hunting for truffles in the Cascade foothills of King County. Those truffles command a hefty price — $25 an ounce.
Alana McGee, 29, owns Lolo, and she has made truffle hunting her business, founding Seattle’s Toil & Truffle after a series of odd jobs, such as working in a winery and assisting a Hollywood producer.
“I get to be outside and with dogs,” she says. “I’m not a cubicle type of person.”
Lolo, who is 8 months old, is carrying on her breed’s rich tradition of hunting truffles. The Times story notes how some Lagotto breeders smear truffle oil on the teats of whelping dogs to hammer home the scent.
But, as you can imagine, all sorts of dogs are used to find truffles. McGee also has Duff in the field, a shaggy, black rescue dog who was found as a pup in an irrigation ditch. Duff is very enthusiastic about hunting truffles.
“He’s very dramatic,” McGee said. “I’m trying to get him to be a bit more gentle. Sometimes he digs so hard that he throws out the truffle behind him.”
The prime hunting spots are on private lands, and their locations are shrouded in secrecy. Landowners have long fought with truffle harvesters who use rakes, digging up the delicate root systems and putting uneven product on the markets.
Using dogs to hunt truffles, however, is gentler on the soil, as the dogs’ handlers are able to carefully dig around the fungi. Plus, the dogs locate only truffles that are ripe. As such, the reputation of Northwest truffles is increasing.
“They can stand on their own. They are so unique,” said Toivo Heyduckj, sous chef at Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island. “When we get them. We love them.”
Thus far, the truffle operation in the Pacific Northwest still pretty small — McGee harvested about 10 pounds last year, though she hopes to branch out into new areas and is working with large landowners.
One of her competitors, Umami Truffle Dogs, harvested about 30 pounds. Umami was started by Kris Jacobson, a retired police officer in Eugene, OR, about a year ago, after her Belgian Malinois named Ilsa showed promise during a two-day training course.
“I am still learning how Ilsa communicates with me. It’s really kind of amazing,” Jacobson said. “If it happens to be a really small truffle that I just don’t see, she will pinpoint where it is, and sneeze.”