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Doing the Truffle Snuffle

Looks innocuous doesn't it, this little snout? Brown and soft and warm.

As I type it gently twitches as hot breath pours forth; the small creature in charge of this powerful apparatus is dreaming in only the way a puppy can. Surrounded by his own special puppy debris: a chewed slipper, a gnawed wooden mushroom, my pyjama bottoms, wee puddles; he dreams on, blissfully unaware of the chaos only a puppy can bring.

The aptly named 'Dug' (though most often called 'Duggy') wasn't really supposed to be here just yet, wreaking havoc on our already slightly disheveled home.

In the valley of Coubjours, where Le Haut Repaire (our house) is nestled, is also the home of a stunningly well kept truffiere. We began to chat to Monsieur Pellagry, the owner of the truffiere at one of the local St Robert march nocturnes (a not-to-be-missed weekly event throughout July and August) where he was selling exquisite truffled omlettes and other truffled yummies. The subject of dogs came up - he uses dogs to hunt for his truffles. We told him that we were on the look out for a very special breed of dog to hunt for our future truffles, the Lagotto Romagnolo.

Kings of truffling, these dogs have long been used in Italy for seeking out truffles. Although it is very possible to train a whole variety of dogs to find truffles, the Lagotto Romanolo is, in fact, the only breed of dog that can officially claim the title of 'Truffle Dog'. And by happy coincidence, Monsieur Pellagry's mother breeds them. We enquired as to when the next litter of puppies would be arriving. The response? They had just had a litter of puppies that very week! Already, we were getting earthy aromas of planets and stars coming into alignment. However, we kept our cool and decided in September to pay the litter a visit, for research purposes only. So, camera in hand, we went to visit the little critters. There were four chubby and delicious puppies remaining, three to be collected and one just one unsold. That was it, our fate was sealed, we had absolutely no choice. Duggy came home that weekend.

The breed

The 'official' Haut Repaire anatomy of the Lagotto Romagnolo:

Although this all happened somewhat quicker than planned, we did not enter into Lagotto ownership lightly, we had done our research before he came home with us. Everything that we read indicated a dog who makes a superb family pet, being great with children and other animals. Already, we can testify to this, he is calm around our kids; watches the chickens, but never chases them; and is a crazy play companion to our kitten, Missy Missy (sorry, every photo of them is blurred!)

In their long Italian history, the Lagotto have been used as water dogs to retrieve game birds that had been shot down over water. They love to swim and instinctively act as retrievers in the water. The breed's name has been derived from the Italian word 'Romagnol can lagòt', which means water dog from Romagnol. However, as time went by, their use as a retriever was replaced by that of a truffle hunter. Another very strong instinct they have is to dig. While this could be annoying if you live in a town with manicured lawns, for us, living on a truffiere, it is an excellent and very desirable characteristic.

Nose power

Growing under the soil, the truffle releases a pungent aroma to be detected. The perfume travels through the soil and into the surrounding air. Some animals naturally find this smell irresistible such as the truffle fly (read one man and his fly for more) and perhaps the more well known truffle hunter, the pig.

Dogs however, make excellent truffle hunters because of their aptitude for training (many a man lost his finger to a pig whilst trying to prize free a truffle) and because of their incredible nose.

With their survival relying upon their sense of smell, the dog's nose has evolved throughout history to become the awesome machine that it is today:

  • Dogs can smell up to 100,000 times better than humans. They can detect 1/2 teaspoon of sugar in an Olympic sized swimming pool. They have up to 300 million olfactory receptors compared to 6 million for humans and the part of their brain dedicated to interpreting smells is 40 times larger than ours.

  • Dogs have the ability to breathe in and out at the same time so they can continuously smell the area.

  • Dogs smell separately with each nostril, so just as we use our two ears to locate an object emitting sound, they can do this with smell.

  • Some breeds have a better sense of smell than others.

The Lagotto Romagnolo has the nose for the job, loves to dig and is easily trained. They are literally destined to do the truffle snuffle.

Duggy also happens to look like a teddy bear, it doesn't help find truffles, but it is lovely!

Truffle training

When we first met Duggy at 10 weeks old, his training had already begun. The litter were given a heap of soil with truffles hidden. Daily, they would dig and when they found the truffle they would be praised and rewarded.

We have continued this exercise with Duggy. Along with a few extras. We put a few drops of truffle oil on his favourite toy so that he is familiar with the scent and can even have it around him when he is sleeping.

We also put truffle oil on a ball for Duggy to chase and play with. Soon, we shall begin to hide the ball for him to find around the house, outside, and eventually under the ground. To his pleasure, it is important for him to do some form of truffle training for at least 15 minutes every day.

Of course, we are also very fortunate having his dog family nearby because Duggy will be able to learn from these experts. They will be able to punctuate summer walks with finding wild summer truffles. And in the winter, the real fun begins. Sniffing around in the truffiere, finding the treasure that we are all after, tuber melanosporum, the elusive Black Diamond.

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