Pheromone-Rich Pricey Truffles Take Root in U.S. Thanks to Dogs

Tom, a Lagotto Romagnolo from Italy. Tom and his handler, Jim Sanford, teach the locals the art of truffle hunting. Photographer: Mike Di Paola/Bloomberg

The center of attention at the Oregon Truffle Festival in Eugene this year will probably be a magnificent Lagotto Romagnolo named Tom.

Last January, the dog responded to his handler’s cue with a manic sniff-and-scan of the vicinity that led him to buried culinary treasure in seconds.

The woolly-haired pooch and his handler, Jim Sanford of Blackberry Farm in Knoxville, Tennessee, teach festival attendees how to find the Oregon white truffle.

“We’re here to train the owners more than the dogs,” Sanford told me at the last festival. The latter group included another Lagotto, a Pekingese, a Labradoodle and a half-dozen other canines of less certain ancestry.

After Tom’s find, trainees went through their paces with varying degrees of success, yet all of them showed promise. And paradoxically, that’s good news for the truffles.

The species native to the Pacific Northwest is usually harvested using rakes, a process that churns up the soil around trees until the precious nuggets are revealed and plucked. This is bad, says mycologist Charles Lefevre.

“The rakes are causing harm and destroying the reputation of the Oregon truffles,” he says. “That’s really a tragedy, and that’s the reason to use dogs, because dogs only find ripe truffles with an aroma.”

Not everyone at the festival was all that green, environmentally. One truffle farmer spoke of using herbicides to keep orchard weeds down, while another addressed the most pernicious pest of the Pacific Northwest -- the gopher -- with his 9mm Glock.

An Owl or Two

To these responses, Lefevre just shakes his head. “Truffle cultivation really lends itself to organic methods and a chemical-free approach to farming,” he says. Weeds can be kept back using a propane torch for example, and gophers and voles can be controlled by coaxing an owl or two to patrol the farm.

Lefevre founded New World Truffieres, where he inoculates -- the preferred verb -- young trees with truffle spores. The nascent industry (Garland Truffles of Hillsborough, North Carolina, claims the country’s first harvest in 1992) has the potential to change the face of small farms in the U.S. -- not to mention American kitchens -- but truffle growers face many challenges.

The subterranean tubers thrive on a combination of variables -- climate, soil, symbiotic flora and fauna, rainfall -- that aren’t all fully understood. The presence of rabbits, horses or pigs in an orchard can be conducive to healthy truffles. No one knows exactly why.

Vineyard Efforts

In North America there are two main truffle ranges -- most of the west Coast and the middle South of the U.S. Besides orchards, more and more vineyards are inoculating their grounds with truffle spores. Lefevre estimates there are about 30 vineyards now cultivating truffles along with grapes, with some vintners finding fungus to be the more profitable crop.

“We even have three customers in Sonoma County who have either pulled out grapes or plan to remove grapes to replace them with truffle trees, or in one case a vineyard management company who planted truffle trees on their own land rather than wine grapes.”

It is somewhat of a mystery that humans find truffles so tasty. The fungus contains steroids identical to the sex pheromone found in boar’s saliva (which is why pigs are also used to find them) and which, no less unnerving, also matches a steroid secreted in the human male’s underarm.

Devil’s Work

Medieval Europeans were wary of the truffle, thinking that a black and gnarly underground “fruit” that ripened in the middle of winter was the Devil’s work, an association that is naturally a bit sexy. Gourmand Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote that truffle talk “awakens erotic and gastronomical dreams” in both sexes.

Aphrodisiac speculations aren’t entirely apocryphal: A 1970s experiment at the University of Buckingham, in the U.K., showed that subjects exposed to the truffle steroid responded more enthusiastically to photographs of the opposite sex than did those breathing plain air.

Happily the Oregon festival isn’t all classroom talk and rooting around in the dirt. Activities are linked by a series of intense truffle-centric feasts, and visits to local vintners with a vested interest in truffle mania.

“The wineries want to have wonderful food that’s local and seasonal and goes beautifully with their wines,” says Leslie Scott, organizer of the festival (and wife of Lefevre), “and truffles are the ultimate ingredient.”

The sixth annual Oregon Truffle Festival takes place Jan. 28-30. Napa hosted its first truffle fest Dec. 10-12.

(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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