Jade is a lovely pure bread black Labrador; her full registered name is Ogden’s Princess Jade. She is of hunting stock through her family linage. However, Jade was never trained as a hunting dog. The closest she came to participating in the action, was her one and only trip to Saskatchewan, duck hunting with Chili several years ago. Jade was really keen, she did not even mind the quick airplane ride in a dog kennel. She was happy to see the other dogs and even happier to greet their owners. However, when the first gunshot sounded Jade quickly retreated under the trailer-home, until everyone came back from the sporting activity. Jade had quickly decided that not only did she dislike the sound of the guns, she was not sure about swimming in cold water, lying quietly and chasing dead birds.
Needless to say, Jade has never been invited back to the annual hunt.
Jade is clearly not a Truffle Dog either. She does have keen sense of smell and can find bits of discarded food in the oddest places. However, she does not have a discerning nose and that is what is required for black (or white) truffle hunting. Truffles are a prize gourmand food in Europe and with increasing popularity and production levels on other continents.
Both dogs and pigs have been used for hundreds of years in Italy and France for finding truffles. The female pigs have an innate ability to smell the “black gold”, that requires no training (the smell is similar to a hormone emitted by the boar). The problem with hogs is that they LOVE truffles and it can be a fight to see if the pig or the rabassier (harvester) gets the fungi first. The dogs need to be trained to sniff out the prized truffles, using methods similar to K9 police dog training. They are not interested in eating the truffles, just the hunt.
In February, we went to visit Ginger’s truffle plants in Valensole. This village sits at the top of the Valensole plateau. It is stunning, with views of all of the surrounding peaks; Mont Sainte-Victoire, the Luberon Massif, Mont Ventoux and the Sud-Alpes. If the mountain views are not enough for you, the rolling countryside is filled with lavender fields, olive trees and oak trees (the source of the truffles).
Our hosts and new friends are lovely, gracious and definitely truffle experts. They run a full time operation called Truffe Noire de Haute-Provence. They currently have five dogs of different ages. Their personal training methodology uses voice and hand commands, no collars or leads. The dogs are trained to work in from the puppy stage, with both the human trainer and the older dogs. By the age of two, the young dog is usually ready to work with one partner in the field. It is incredible to see these animals work, they are able to pick up the scent of a truffle whether it is at the depth of a couple centimeters or much deeper. They start digging in the spot and then back off to allow the rabassier to dig out the prize. If need be they are called back to give some further direction, digging softly with one paw. The dogs are rewarded when the truffle is unearthed.
Do not think for a second that this is an easy trade. The prized black truffles mature in the coldest, darkest months of the year (November-February), so rain or shine the dogs and owner need to go out in the fields. Then there is marketing, sales work, packaging, planning, pruning and a careful guard against predators of both the animal and human varieties.
Ginger and Nutmeg were very fortunate to have a beautiful day for their visit (see above), a good harvest and more than anything a fabulous lunch. We tasted three different truffles all found the same morning and all with very distinct flavours. Then we had scrambled eggs with black truffles, a salad with beets and black truffles and finally chicken with a black truffle sauce. This was of course accompanied with some wonderful wine and conversation. What a day!!
One parting shot. What Jade lacks in specific talent she makes up for in enthusiasm:
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