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With their rarity and exquisite, incomparable, earthy taste, it’s easy to imagine that truffles are secretly delivered by unseen magical woodland gnomes. But how do these unique delicacies really get to our table? The search for truffles is more complicated than most people think.
A good nose knows
In the past, pigs were often used to search for truffles because of their obviously exceptional olfactory organs. However, pigs are stubborn, difficult to discipline, and cause a lot of damage in their relentless pursuit of whatever is buried under ground. That’s why serious truffle hunters started using dogs. In fact, these specialized canines are still used in most cases nowadays.
The nasal academy
Truffle dogs are acquainted with the taste and smell of truffles shortly after they are weaned. Once the pups learn to savor the morsels, truffle hunting training begins. Truffles are spread on top of the ground for the dogs to sniff out. Then, they’re buried near the surface and eventually burrowed up to 1.5m in depth. They are accompanied by more experienced truffle hounds from the age of two and truffle dog training usually lasts 3 to 4 years.
Although some claim that certain breeds of dogs such as the Lagotto Romagnolo are better suited for truffle hunting than others, most professionals agree that any dog can become a skillful truffle hound. The key is early training and a good bond with the truffle hunter. The relationship is so important that many truffle hunters decide to train their dogs themselves and not buy pre-trained hounds. If the pair share a loving bond, it is an "honor" for the dog to find and hand over the truffle.
Man’s best friend
Most truffle seekers have multiple dogs and it is not uncommon for them to have a pack of 10-15 hounds. The reason for such a large group of working dogs is that truffle professionals spend hours on the hunt each and every day and need to alternate the dogs so as not to overtax them. During the truffle hunt itself, however, there are usually only two dogs because the truffle hunter has to be very attentive and would quickly lose track of several dogs.
During their "walk" through the forest, the hounds keep their noses to the ground. As soon as they start digging, the truffle hunter must be quick to their side to prevent the dogs from eating the truffles they’ve been conditioned to love. Even if the truffle is just damaged by the dog's teeth, the market value decreases since aesthetics is one of the major factors in price.
Uncovering buried treasure
Another value factor is the truffle’s size, the larger and more beautiful the truffle, the higher its price. Unearthing the truffle can take a long time if the truffle hunter is unable to estimate its size. The truffle hunter cautiously removes the dirt around the truffle with the small shovel then carefully frees the tuber by hand and lifts it out of the ground. After the truffle is lifted out, it is very important to cover the hole to allow another truffle to grow again.
Different varieties of truffle grow at different times of the year (you can find more about truffle varieties here). Most truffles are found at night or in the early morning hours because the dogs are more attentive and the ground is wetter, making the truffles more likely to release their scent. Because the truffle’s smell is intense only when fully ripe, it’s not uncommon that a hound will pass by a place and not notice any truffle smell, then pass the same place a few minutes later and bellow their alarm.
Truffles like high humidity and grow best at the roots of oak and hazelnut trees. So in Istria, truffles are scrounged inland, especially in Motovun forest.
Truffle hunting expedition
Truffle hunting is a unique undertaking that can be enjoyed by anyone (not just truffle lovers and gourmands). In Istria, visitors have the opportunity to participate in such a fascinating and exciting activity and witness how the dogs find the precious fungi in cooperation with the truffle hunters. Not to mention, there’s always a delicious tasting of various local truffle dishes afterwards. Do not miss this experience during your next holiday in Croatia!