The Truffle Hunt

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“Dammit Axel! What’s that in your mouth?” I exclaimed while looking down to find my Miniature Schnauzer aggressively chomping on a discarded chicken bone.

A furious battle ensued, and I emerged the victor, managing to pull the remnants from his mouth and tossing them aside. This was a battle I fight often while walking Axel near our home in downtown Los Angeles. His keen nose able to sniff out a discarded chicken bone from a block away. “But what if his skills could be put to better use?” I thought to myself.

I was reminded of the truffle hunting dogs my girlfriend Jennifer and I met while on a recent trip to Tuscany, a region of Italy known for its food, wine, landscapes and history. These dogs are trained as puppies to sniff out truffles, an Italian delicacy, growing wild in the Italian forest. Jennifer had arranged our truffle hunting expedition through Ercolani winery, a renowned and respected winery in the medieval hilltop town of Montepulciano.

Alessandro and his three dogs: Bombolo, Diana and Lady.

Near an entrance to the woods a short drive from town, we met up with our expert truffle hunter Alessandro. Now at age twenty-eight, Alessandro has been hunting truffles for eight years. “My father taught me,” Alessandro said, “My father was a truffle hunter for forty years. He started with my uncle, and then my cousin.”

Alessandro introduced us to his three dogs, Bombolo, Diana, and Lady. As they bounded from his car we could easily tell Bombolo was the more boisterous one, running around in excitement to start the hunt.

“He is four and the youngest one,” Alessandro explained. “Diana is the oldest, fourteen, and Lady is six.”

Truffle hunting

Lagotto Romagnolos (Italian Water Dogs), are the most popular truffle hunting dog in Europe. They are the official truffle hunting breed of Italy, as they have been selectively bred over generations specifically for this purpose. Alessandro’s dogs however, appeared to be a different breed.

“He is a Springer Spaniel,” Alessandro said, pointing down to Bombolo. “And the other one’s are mixed, mixed with Italian dogs like Spinone and Lagotto. My family had twenty-nine dogs,” Alessandro continued. “And last year we had nine new puppies.”

Alessandro begins training his dogs to sniff out truffles soon after birth, and by the age of three they are ready for the hunt. “One thing we do is to put some truffles on the nipples of the mother,” Alessandro explained.

Alessandro and his dogs head into the Italian forest in search of truffles

Heading into the narrow, overgrown and wooded trail, Jennifer and I had trouble keeping up with Alessandro and his crew. The dogs charged ahead, nose to the ground and with tails wagging in search of finding a buried treasure.

“These are private lands, so just for me and my family,”Alessandro told us. “This is good land, it’s soft, so the truffles can grow better. Truffle growth depends on the land and season, with June, July and August the most important months for the truffle.”

Bounding through the forest at the head of the pack, Lady suddenly stopped and buried her nose into a patch of soft dirt covered with leaves.

Lady sniffs out a truffle buried in the forest floor

She frantically started digging, soon to be joined by Bombolo and Diana circling around her. Alessandro joined in the dig, carefully spreading away dirt while searching for his prize.

Finally Alessandro held up what looked like a small, light colored lump of mud. “It’s too small.” Alessandro said, passing it around so we could take a sniff. Albeit a small one, Lady had found a white truffle, more valuable for commercial use.

“The white truffle flavor is better than the black one,” Alessandro told us. “You can find the white truffle for just 4 months, September to December. The black one you can find all through the year.”

A white truffle, more valuable than black, and found only four months of the year

After replacing the truffle back in the soil Alessandro resumed the hunt. “Dai! Dai! Dai!” He shouted, and the dogs ran ahead with added vigor. Translated Italian to English, Dai means Come on!, or Let’s go! “I say Dai, Dai, Dai, to concentrate the dog,” Alessandro explained. “It’s motivating.”

Noses to the ground and tails wagging, the dogs scurried across the forest floor. Following close behind, Alessandro continued to shout, “Dai, Dai!,Dai!” Suddenly Bombolo buried his nose and started frantically digging. Alessandro soon joined him and pulled up another small white truffle.

Although our hunt only produced some very small truffles, what struck Jennifer and me the most was the skill of Alessandro and his dogs. The well trained dogs followed his every command, and together the team operated like a well-oiled machine.

Alessandro commanding his dogs in the search for buried truffles

A mutual affection was obvious between Alessandro and his dogs, and we could tell they were well cared for. The team works long hours on hunting days, but the dogs seemed to live for the hunt. “We walk around 25 to 30 kilometers,” Alessandro explained. “For me it’s like work, but not for the dogs.”

Back in Los Angeles, as I take Axel on his morning walk, I daydream of fame…. “Axel, the world’s best truffle hunting dog.” Or “Axel, the famous bomb sniffing dog.” Or perhaps “Axel, world renowned dog for finding lost persons.”

A sudden jerk on his leash stops me mid-stride and shocks my mind back to reality. I hear crunching and look down. “Dammit Axel! What’s that in your mouth?”

Images by Ralph Quinonez.

This is a guest post by Ralph Quinonez. Want to write for us? Visit www.dogstodaymagazine.co.uk/essay-submission or email editorial@dogstodaymagazine.co.uk

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