San Francisco Chronicle : By Tara Duggan March 27, 2019
As California’s truffle industry grows, so does the need for trained hunters.
In Placerville, Alana McGee trains dogs bred for centuries to sniff out the luxury ingredient.
“Truffle,” William Shadbolt said firmly to Zane, his 5-month-old dog, holding a small perforated tin with a slice of the luxury mushroom inside. As soon as the distracted puppy finally came over to sniff it, Shadbolt gave him a treat.
“Good!” said trainer Alana McGee of Truffle Dog Co., praising both man and dog. When Shadbolt repeated the command, the white dog with chocolate-brown spots sat down in compliance and quickly sniffed the tin, having picked up that a payoff would follow.
Twelve curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo dogs, along with their humans, had gathered on a truffle farm in Placerville (El Dorado County) for a day-long workshop in the ancient art of truffle hunting.
All the dogs at the day’s workshop were Lagotto Romagnolo (lah-GOAT-TOH ro-man-YO-lo), an Italian breed, and all were related. Placerville-area breeder Lisa Sobon specializes in the breed, which may have been the world’s original water retriever, predating the poodle, the Labrador and, of course, the labradoodle.
According to the Lagotto Romagnolo Club of America’s website, the breed may have originated as far back as the fifth or sixth century B.C. along Italy’s northern Adriatic coast, in the region of Romagna (“Lagotto Romagnolo” means lake dog of Romagna). A 15th century Andrea Mantegna painting titled “The Meeting” shows a kinky-haired Lagotto lookalike peeking out between the limbs of several towering figures. Originally, they were bred to hunt waterfowl, until, apparently, they had hunted them into exinction. Then they turned to truffles.
In Southern Europe, where several types of truffles grow wild and are farmed extensively, Lagotto Romagnolo and other dogs are trained to find their scent so that farmers can dig them up and sell the pricey tubers. Italian dog breeders have been known to rub truffle oil on the mother’s teats to give puppies a good early association with the tuber.
The hunt for black gold: is California the world’s next truffle hotspot?
For decades, enthusiasts have hoped truffles can follow wine’s path to success in the state. Charlotte Simmonds joins a search for the delicacy
Staci O’Toole is lying face down in the dirt. “I can smell it!” she cries, nose to the roots of a hazelnut tree.
A funky, fungal odor emanates from a shallow hole in the ground of this Sonoma Valley orchard. It hints at a hidden treasure many years in the making: a French Périgord truffle, grown right here in California.
Commonly known as black truffles or even black diamonds, Périgords are one of the world’s most sought-after delicacies, selling for $800 or more per pound. Revered for lending an intoxicating flavor to everything from tagliatelle to sushi, they remain widely adored and shrouded in mystery.
With wild truffles increasingly scarce, scenes of affable farmers trawling the woods with a pot-bellied pig are becoming a rare sight. Most black truffles these days come from farms, where they are hunted by specially trained dogs. Cultivation secrets in this lucrative industry have traditionally been closely guarded, with the market dominated by France, Italy and Spain. But in recent years New World upstarts have been gaining ground: Australia isexpected to produce 15 metric tons this year, while New Zealand, South Africa and Chile all have burgeoning industries.
For decades many have pinned their hopes on the Mediterranean climate, robust wine industry and thriving food scene of California as the world’s next truffle hotspot. Now, it appears, such hopes are paying off.
The birth of an industry’
On this bright winter day, O’Toole, AKA the Truffle Huntress, has brought her pedigree truffle dogs to survey a property in the heart of northern California’s wine country. Mila, the more experienced of the lagotto Romagnolo dogs, is leading the charge. Panettone, still in training, bounds close behind.
The pair survey the orchard with enthusiasm and ruthless efficiency: several quick sniffs at the base of a tree are enough to determine whether a truffle lurks beneath. They comb several rows of trees without luck before Mila pounces and paws at the ground: the sign to start digging.
Wearing knee-high wellies and oversized sunglasses, O’Toole uses a delicate truffle trowel, a tool that looks more like a blunt dagger than a shovel, to turn the soil, occasionally lowering herself to the ground to sniff at her progress. “I can tell if I’ve got something here because it will make my mouth start watering,” she explains, brimming with optimism.
Truffles can take up to 10 years to produce, and growing them is like farming in the dark: fiddling at the surface in the hopes something magic is taking root below.
O’Toole came to truffle hunting after a career as a health insurance executive living in Silicon Valley. She wasn’t ready to retire but wasn’t sure what to do next.
Turned out her dog held the key. The lagotto Romagnolo is a traditional Italian truffle hunting breedso attuned to its craft that, when she bought Mila from the breeder, they made her promise she would train it up properly. Mila was a natural, finding her first truffle at just 12 weeks old. O’Toole now works as a hunter on various orchards while running her own farm, which this year harvested almost 2lb.
Sniffing out culinary gold in the heart of the Mother Lode
While walking dogs with her friends six years ago, Staci O’Toole and the other ladies fantasized about the perfect job. They joked that it would have to involve dogs, of course, plus wine, food and being outdoors.
Months later, O’Toole was in the market for a dog, Googled the criteria she sought, and two breeds popped up: the Tibetan Terrier, a herding dog, and the Lagotto Romagnolo, Italy’s truffle hunter.
Herding sparked no interest, but the idea of training a cute, curly mutt to hunt truffles, then to enjoy found fungi with wine and food had O’Toole’s imagination running wild. A Lagotto would be her next pooch.
O’Toole called a breeder, but was disappointed to learn there was a two-year waiting list for a puppy. Not only were Lagottos great at finding truffles, but they’re exceptional family dogs, don’t shed, are hypoallergenic, intelligent, have a good disposition, are compact, endearing and want to please.
The breeder recognized that O’Toole was looking for a working dog, one that would be driven to search for truffles, a trait not desirable in show or companion dogs. Working dogs are hard to place, often being returned by owners who can’t handle their obsession to find truffles. So, he promised to contact her should a working dog become available.
Four months later, O’Toole had her first Lagotto puppy and soon learned of a truffle dog training session being held at the Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene. She took 12-week-old Mila to the festival but was told not to expect much from a dog so young.
However, Mila was a natural, sniffing out the knobby fungi soon after connecting their pungent smoky odor with being given a treat. Upon returning home to the Bay Area, O’Toole continued as an insurance executive, while training Mila as a “truffle huntress.”
Soon, O’Toole and her Lagotto were being called to Sonoma and Mendocino County truffle orchards on weekends, creating the fantasy job she and her friends had imagined. O’Toole and Mila would follow truffle hunting with good wine, food and truffle talk, hosted by wineries and farms with truffle orchards. It was a dream, come true.