Journey a land where the earth breeds precious nuggets of black gold, where men roam furtively to uncover such treasures, and where secrets to such an odyssey is passed on from one generation to the next in discreet whispers. As elusive as the description of the truffle hunting appears, my experience at Joel Gravier truffière or truffle orchard was much tamer. Truffle hunting on closed grounds in broad daylight with a group of gleeful women gasping and squealing each time Mr. Gravier dug up a knobby black truffle, made it seem more like an Easter Egg hunt than a speculative adventure. But make no mistake, the thrilling tales of truffle poaching, robberies and scandals heard on the trail were more than enough to supplement my expectations of excitement and danger.
Often the first question people ask they find out that I went truffle hunting is: "Was there a truffle pig?" After all it is the traditional method dating back to the 15th century. Nope, we used another furry animal.
Why have pigs been replaced by dogs?
- Pigs love to eat truffles. Pigs, particularly females, have a natural affinity toward truffles. Research indicates that truffles release scents that are identical to a pheromone produced male pigs. As such, it is not uncommon for the pig to eat the truffle or damage it before the hunter is able to intervene. Who can blame the pig for trying? Dogs, on the other hand, can be trained to sniff for truffles, are less eager to consume them, and are satisfied with alternative treats, making the venture mutually advantageous for both dog and owner.
- Dogs are easier to handle than pigs. Cute, furry and playful, make no mistake, pigs are strong and can get vicious, especially if you get between them and the object of their desire. A master fighting with its pig for a truffle can lose more than a precious nugget or two. In fact, there are a few hunters who sacrificed a few digits at the hands of getting between a pig and its truffle.
- Easy disguise. In a practice where the most fruitful trails are jealously guarded and motivations are deliberately disguised, walking dog through the woods is much less conspicuous than walking a pig.
Finding or training a dog to successfully hunt truffles is equally as interesting Some dogs have an exceptional talent, while others not so much. There are even truffle universities that exist to train dogs to find truffles. According to Mr. Gravier, good truffle dogs are hard to come by, and therefore well-guarded by owners. The truffle dogs in the picture above loved Sherry Page. They probably detected the scent of truffles from breakfast earlier in the day.
With the guide of Joel Gravier (left) and Grisette, his dog, we headed to oak orchard. Typically truffle hunts are conducted mid-morning, when the air is crisp and clear. Arrive too early, and the ground might be too cold for the dog to detect any truffle aroma; too late and competing scents become a distraction.
When we arrived in the grove of oak trees, Mr. Gravier, called out to Grisette, "Alle chercher," which translates into 'go look,' each time pointing toward an oak tree. Grisette went straight to work, sniffing aggressively around the stump of each oak tree. When ripe truffles were detected, the dog either scratched the surface slightly or barked to summon his master.
Joel Gravier quickly approches, sends his rake roughly six inches below the earth, lifting it to sift through the soil beneath, and voilà, a truffle is discovered! Over the course of the search Grisette finds about a dozen truffles, weighing roughly two pounds, with two locations that uncovered multiple nuggets.
A pound of black winter truffles (melanosporum) can command $1200, so all in all it was a profitable morning. Within half an hour, Grisette's nose gave out and became too cold to smell any truffles beneath the earth, so it was a short but productive morning for her.
In other parts of the world, such as China, truffle harvesting involves raking through soil around oak trees. While effective, the method mostly brings forth immature truffles that are bland and absent of the fragrant qualities that make truffles so alluring, making them worth much less. Once harvested, truffles do not ripen.
On our trail, Joel Gravier told us that just days before, a local truffle hunter was beaten up pretty badly for his day's harvest.
Image courtesy of Truffle Trees
While I didn't see any signs on Joel Gravier's truffle orchard, it is not uncommon for farmers to post warning signs of trespassing. There are cases of truffle poachers who come armed in the middle of the night to ferret truffles on private property. Likewise, property have threaten to shoot sight on scene. And in fact, there is precedence of casualties.
It's pretty tough for me to imagine such criminal behavior given that we were in a beautiful agricultural region populated by friendly neighborly farmers, but I guess money can make some people go crazy.
After our truffle hunt, we all headed to the farmhouse for a breakfast of truffle scrambled eggs.
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