Truffles, of the black French variety from Perigord as well as the white Italian version, are renowned for both their enticing flavor and aroma, and the heart-attack-inducing prices they can bring. Considering they can fetch thousands of dollars a pound, making truffles one of the most expensive natural objects on the planet, you might expect that science has devised all kinds of amazing, high-tech ways to find the pungent mushrooms beneath the ground. But you'd be wrong. The two main tools used to find truffles? Pigs and dogs.
Truffle hogs are have been the traditional truffle-hunting tool of choice for hundreds of years--their strong sense of smell and apparent deep love of truffles makes them ideal tools for the job. Studies have indicated that a chemical in mature truffles is also found in the musk of male pigs and boars when in heat, so sows will make a beeline for any mature truffles they can find. But despite the romantic image of a Frenchman walking his truffle pig through the forests of Perigord, pigs haven't really been in use for quite a few decades. Dr. Charles Lefevre, president and founder of New World Truffieres and the Oregon Truffle Festival, as well as one of the foremost truffle experts in North America, notes that there are quite a few reasons pigs have been replaced by man's best friend.
Aside from the basic problem that pigs, unlike dogs, will try to eat the truffles before a human can snatch them up, "pigs don't have all that much stamina," says Lefevre, "and they're less inclined to try to please their handlers." Then there's the modern-day oddness of transporting a pig around. "Truffle-hunting is always a surreptitious activity--you don't want other people to know about it," says Lefevre, who compares it to hunting for hundred-dollar bills in the forest. "It's a lot harder to transport a pig around, and people will know what you're doing if you're walking a pig."
Dogs have taken prominence in truffle-hunting--they have to be trained, unlike pigs, but it doesn't seem especially difficult. One breed, the lagotto romagnolo (which is related to poodles and water dogs), has been long bred for truffle-hunting, though the Oregon Truffle Festival offers training for all sorts of dogs. Essentially, you just have to imprint the dog with the smell, and reward them for finding truffles. "People use all sorts of breeds," says Lefevre. "The individual dog is much more important."
But why, in 2011, are we still using dogs? Surely we can plant truffles, or at the very least use machines to find them, right? The problem, says Lefevre, is that truffles are "like a tomato: they take a long time to ripen, and they ripen at different times." And an unripe--"immature," in truffle-speak--truffle is "worthless in cooking." So the dog's role "isn't really to find truffles, but to pick the truffles that are ripe."
There are some artificial sensors that can detect the chemical compounds in truffles, but they're nowhere near as effective as dogs, which can calculate location based on wind patterns and strength of scent, and, best of all, take you right to the site of the truffle. Mechanical devices are used like metal detectors--not nearly so efficient.