Writer’s Note: To celebrate the Dog Days of Summer, here’s one of my all-time favorite canine interviews, originally published in the Wild River Review.
There’s something about the forest that brings out the adventurer in every dog – and when you add truffles to the scene, the ultimate companion for woodland discoveries is my canine pal, Rico.
Like many of the world’s great truffle dogs, Rico is a Lagotto Romagnolo – a rare Italian breed that originated with the ancient Etruscans. Rico was born into a distinguished family of truffle hunters in the Sicilian village of Mazara del Vallo, arriving in America as a puppy with a keen nose for exploration.
Like many Sicilians, Rico has a charming talent for storytelling. He agreed to grant this exclusive interview if he could recount the truffle tales in his own words – read on for our question and answer session!
How did you first learn to hunt truffles, Rico?
When I was a tiny puppy in Sicily, the only toy I had was a tartufo (that’s Italian for ‘truffle’) sewn into a cloth bag called a borsa. Mario, my first tartufaio (truffle hunter), started my training by throwing the borsa for me to retrieve – and giving me a treat when I brought it back to him.
When that got really easy, Mario started hiding the borsa so I’d have to search for it with my nose. Next, I learned the secret of being a champion truffle dog: you have to really dig truffles – literally. Now, when I wanted a treat, I had to sniff out the borsa wherever Mario had buried it. He didn’t make it easy, but it turns out I’ve got a great nose and tireless paws.
These days, I’m a truffle hunting pro who travels all over the world – if there’s a truffle (or even truffle spores) anywhere around, you can count on me to bring you the treasure!
Can you tell us a little about your work as a truffle dog?
When I was about three months old, I started truffle hunting with my mamma, Gaia – she’s the dog who taught me everything I know. She said the first rule is make il tartufaio look good. Truffle dogs always have to put on a good show, even if there are no truffles.
First, we scent the air for the general vicinity of the truffles, then we sniff out the ground scent to determine their precise location. Next, we scratch the earth to show il tartufaio that we’ve found the exact spot – then we dig until we find the truffle. It’s tempting to eat it like truffle-hunting pigs often do, but we truffle dogs prefer gourmet canine treats.
Do truffles only grow wild – or can they also be cultivated?
There are indigenous truffles growing wild all around the globe. On the west coast of North America, we have several flavorful varieties that grow all the way from California through parts of British Columbia. However, to increase the traditional culinary truffle supply, increase their freshness, reduce transportation costs from Europe and help develop green businesses, there are groups throughout the world who plant truffle-infused trees in truffle orchards.
How do growers cultivate truffles?
There are a lot of well-kept secrets to the truffle-orchard trade, but the simplest version replicates nature. Mycologists take a collection of their desired ripe truffles, then make a slurry by placing the truffles and some secret ingredients in a high-tech blender. The slurry is infused on the roots of nascent host trees – usually oak or hazelnut trees. Cultivating a truffle orchard is an extremely complex process, but I’m keeping my paws crossed for all the would-be growers.
Exactly what is it about truffles that makes them so irresistible?
You might be surprised to learn that the allure of the truffle is not its taste but its aroma. Truffles actually have a limited flavor, but what they do to food is pure magic. The bouquet is difficult to express in words – people have described truffles as smelling like everything from fresh earth to old socks (which may be why we dogs are so good at finding them).
Even though it’s challenging to find the right descriptors, there’s one thing everyone agrees on: truffles are a rare luxury, like vintage champagne or caviar. In fact, next to saffron, they’re the most expensive food in the world.
What’s the simplest way to use truffles in the kitchen?
The secret is learning to make the most of truffles’ irresistible (and powerful) aroma. This lets you enjoy all sorts of wonderful homemade truffle products without necessarily using the truffle itself – and it’s what many tartufaios do to enjoy these magical tubers without having to give up the profits of selling them.
Could you tell us how to make truffle-infused foods?
It’s easy – you can ‘truffle’ all kinds of foods (and if you forget to keep your truffles in an airtight container, everything in your refrigerator will taste like truffles). My favorite foods for truffling are eggs, cheese and butter.
Start by cleaning fresh truffles with a mushroom brush under running water, then dry them with a cloth or paper towel. Next, loosely wrap the clean truffles in a paper towel to absorb any extra moisture.
Now make a nest of paper towels in a glass or plastic container with an airtight lid. Gently arrange the freshest organic eggs you can find in the nest, along with fresh butter and/or your favorite soft cheeses. Place the loosely wrapped truffle in the container, be sure the lid is tightly secured – and refrigerate.
Depending upon the size of the container and how generous you are with truffles, you’ll be enjoying truffled eggs, butter and cheese within 24 hours.
One of my all-time favorite truffle dishes is truffle-and-wild mushroom ravioli topped with truffle butter, scrambled truffled eggs and fresh truffles!
Where are your favorite places to find truffles?
Well, my motto in life and cooking is ‘hanno sempre una zampa avanti,’ which means ‘always have one paw forward.’ So, my favorite way to find truffles is simply to go for a walk.
These days, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area with my Sicilian-American tartufaio, Bill Collins. Within 30 yards of our urban home, there’s a tree where I can sniff out truffles the size of a quarter all the way from late fall through mid-spring!
Since I understand that not everyone is an expert at sniffing out local wild truffles, here are some other places to find them:
If you want to be a forager, you can look up indigenous truffles in your area in one of my favorite guidebooks – or join your local mycological society.
For a culinary truffle experience, go to a festival. My favorite ones on the west coast are the Oregon Truffle Festival and the Napa Truffle Festival. I also love visiting the truffle orchard at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, where I forage with local plant pathologist, Dr. Tom Michaels.
What do you like to do when you’re not hunting truffles?
Well, like most dogs, I love to chase tennis balls and play frisbee – but I also help Bill with his other important work. When he’s not being a tartufaio, Bill is a psychologist who works with military veterans returning from overseas – and I’m a certified therapy dog. It’s my job to sit with them, listen to their stories and share my puppyhood teddy bear whenever they need it.
I’m also assisting with studies at the Walter Reed National Medical Center, where researchers are pioneering programs that will find jobs for returning military personnel by teaming them with dogs who do everything from bomb sniffing and search-and-rescue to truffle hunting.
To help promote eco-friendly truffle practices, another favorite pastime is supporting my friends at Northwest Truffle Dogs. If you’d like to learn more about sustainable truffle harvesting (and learning to train your own truffle dog), please check out their program, Hound Found.
Happy truffle-hunting – and buonappetito!