Italy Roundtable: Italian Truffles & Animal Instincts


I will confess right up front that while I love food and adore trying new things, I have never been fond of truffles. The smell alone is almost too overpowering for me, so I can’t imagine paying a fortune to have a few slices dripped onto my pasta.

I guess that makes me a cheap date.

Anyway, despite the fact that I’m not interested in eating truffles, I’ve always been interested in how they’re gathered. Which is why this month’s Italy Roundtable theme of ANIMAL brings me back to truffles.

A valuable Tuscan truffle || creative commons photo by Michela Simoncini

A valuable Tuscan truffle || creative commons photo by Michela Simoncini

The truffle – the ugly little tuber, not the chocolately treat – is one of the most valuable commodities found in Italy. The little things can fetch thousands of dollars per kilogram, particularly the white truffle found in northern Italy. They’re notoriously difficult to find, however, sometimes growing several feet underground.

So, since at least the 15th century, farmers and foodies have had to rely on animals to locate the loot.

The story goes that the smell of a truffle (which is quite pungent when it’s not three feet underground) is akin to the pheromones male pigs produce, so female pigs are especially adept at finding truffles. The fact that pigs have a tendency to push dirt around to find food doesn’t hurt, either.

Truffle hunting with a pig in France || creative commons photo by Robert Vayssie

Truffle hunting with a pig in France || creative commons photo by Robert Vayssie

The trouble is that pigs – headstrong animals, and very smart – quite like the flavor of truffles, not just the smell, and it can be very hard to train them to not devour the truffle as soon as they find it. I can’t even imagine the consternation of a farmer who can’t quite keep up with his pig, so that he has to watch from afar as the sow gobbles up several thousand dollars’ worth of truffle.

Tasty pork, maybe, but that’s not what the farmer was going for.

Pigs – or “truffle hogs” as they’re called – are still used to search for truffles in France and some other truffle-growing areas, but in Italy, you won’t see any more truffle hunters following pigs. An Italian law in 1985 prohibited the use of pigs for truffle hunting.

In addition to eating what they find, which could give an Italian farmer the vapors in the short-term, pigs also damage the ground to such a degree that fewer truffles grow in that soil afterward. And that kind of thing could give the entire food industry a heart attack.

Truffle-hunting dog in Italy || creative commons photo by Micheal Simoncini

Truffle-hunting dog in Italy || creative commons photo by Micheal Simoncini

These days in Italy, it’s dogs that have taken the pig’s place. Truffle hounds (as they’re known) also have a much better sense of smell than humans, but they’re both easier to train and easier to control. Some of my favorite bits I read were that it’s much easier to get a 35-pound dog in the back of your car than a 400-pound pig, and that “truffle hunters who use pigs don’t tend to have all their fingers” – a testament to how much the pig wants to eat the truffle it has worked hard to dig up.

There’s one dog breed in particular that is prized in Italy for its truffle-hunting skill, but even these dogs must be trained from a very early age to seek out truffles. Such highly-trained dogs are, as you might guess, expensive – but if they do their jobs well, they more than pay for their high pricetag by finding lots of truffles.

Dogs still dig for truffles and disturb the ground in some cases, but not as indiscriminately as pigs. What’s more, dogs can also be trained to simply point out the truffle location to an awaiting assistant – one with opposable thumbs and a spade.

Other Voices at the Italy Roundtable

What fauna are my Roundtable cohorts covering this month? Click along with me through to the following links to read each of their posts – and please leave comments, share them with your friends, and tune in next month for another Italy Blogging Roundtable topic!

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2 responses to “Italy Roundtable: Italian Truffles & Animal Instincts”

  1. I’d not eaten truffles until very recently, when D and I went to a little restaurant in Castiglione di Sicilia. I ordered pasta with truffles. D is like you, and not a big fan, but I was dying to try them. Many, many good things then happened. First of all, the maitre d’ took pains to tell us that they weren’t just going to be using truffle oil (as apparently happens a lot – a dish is sold as pasta ai tartufi, but in fact just has truffle-flavoured oil drizzled over it), but the real deal. Then, she explained to us that the type of truffles they use are Sicilian ones, which are smaller, more delicately flavoured, and a quarter of the price. (Amusing story told to us later by the chef related to the last point as well – but that’s for another day …). Then – and this was SO cool – the maitre d’ reappeared out of the kitchen with a kilner jar, seemingly stuffed with damp kitchen roll, which she opened up and wafted under my nose. Turns out it wasn’t just damp kitchen roll, but damp kitchen roll wrapped around truffles, which smelt of damp earth and woodlands and rain and all sorts of good things. Tasted amazing, too, when they arrived. I can humbly suggest giving the Sicilian type a try if you come across them 🙂

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