Sniffing out culinary gold

Mountain Democrat: By John Poimiroo March 06 2019

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.

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