Kidnappings, poisonings, after dark hunts along secret paths, thousands of dollars per kilo for a commodity that is exported all over the world.
Underground Drug Trade or the Latest Crime Novel Plot?
No, just a day in the life of an Italian truffle hunter and the unsung heroes of the hunt, the truffle hunting dogs, as Intrepid Travel leader Mandy Curran explains.
"On the face of it, the truffle doesn't have a lot going for it - it really isn't the most aesthetically pleasing luxury item and their pungent odor has often been compared with sweaty socks and even a strong smelling cheese! Truffles are also fussy about where they will live and thrive - being from the mushroom family, they live underground in potassium rich soil and only under certain trees - mainly hazelnut and oak trees.
What makes a good truffle? They are judged overall by size, color, shape, texture and aroma - no one has yet found a way to farm or manually cultivate then, hence the scarcity and mystery that surrounds truffle hunting. There are 63 varieties of truffles that are black, white or tan. The rare white truffle is found in the Piedmont region, Alba specifically. While the French generally use pigs as their truffle hunters, this is not always successful, given that pigs often take a liking not only to the scent of a truffle, but also the taste. When thousands of dollars per kilo are fetched for the commodity, pigs are not viable hunters.
All About Truffle Hunting & the Truffle Trade
The unsung heroes of the truffle hunt in Italy are without a doubt the truffle hunting dogs. Any dog can be a potential hunter, but those who are not up for the job are quickly rejected. Hunter dogs must absolutely love truffles - but not so much that they want to eat them, rather sniff them out!
If you are a dog and are lucky enough to be identified as a potential truffle hunter, you will be accepted into the Universita dei Cani Tartufo - the University of the Truffle Hunting Dogs. This very exclusive school is perched on top of a hill in Roddi, a tiny village about an hour from Turin.
Rigorous training over two to three weeks involves learning to find and identify truffle smells, exercises involving locating hidden truffles, as well as perfecting the fine art of excavating truffles - one can't be too enthusiastic with one's digging - the truffle must not be damaged, or worse still, eaten!
The University has been running since the 1880s by a family who has been hunting truffles for four generations, so they certainly know that it can take up to four years for a dog to be fully trained in the art of truffle hunting. Other important traits needed by a truffling hound is that they need to be able to keep secrets, and not be scared of the dark! Hunting for truffles is somewhat of a secret society and quiet competition - hunters who encounter each other while on the hunt don't reveal too much at all, particularly if they have had a successful hunt, for fear of other hunters discovering the relatively scarce commodity and profitable hunting grounds. It is for this reason that most of the hunts take place at night.
Mystery, Absolute Secrecy, Kidnappings, Poisonings and Late Night Hunts
No torches or lights are used, which not only distract the dogs, but can draw attention from other hunters. Some hunters prefer to use only dark colored dogs that can't be easily seen at night, whereas other hunters use only light coat dogs so they can be spotted in the dark. There are even decoy dogs strategically placed, who dig indiscriminately - again, to distract other hunters and their dogs. Once paths have been walked, their tracks are covered.
There is also a seedier side to truffle hunting. Truffle dogs that have had their training perfected and are in-sync with their owners are so valuable, there have been cases of some dogs being poisoned, or kidnapped, often with the dognappers demanding enormous ransoms.
So next time you are enjoying your truffle infused risotto, spare a thought for the hunters who trained hard and even went to university to locate your truffle, and all their reward was likely to be was a tasty bone!"