While I love food and enjoy trying new foods, I must admit that I am not a fan of truffles. I find the smell almost overwhelming and can’t imagine spending a lot to get a few slices on my pasta.
That makes me a good date.
However, even though I don’t like truffles, I have always been curious about how they are gathered. This is why the ANIMAL theme for this month’s Italy Roundtable brings me back to truffles.
One of the most sought-after commodities in Italy is the truffle. It’s not the sweetly-scented chocolate treat, but the ugly little tuber. These little things can fetch thousands per kilogram, especially the white truffles from northern Italy. They can be difficult to find due to their underground growth.
Farmers and foodies have relied on animals to find the loot since at least 15th century.
According to, the scent of a truffle (which can be quite pungent if it is not three feet below the ground) is similar to the pheromones that male pigs produce. Therefore, female pigs are particularly adept at finding truffles. It’s not surprising that pigs are inclined to move dirt around in search of food.
It is difficult to teach pigs to stop eating truffles as soon as they find them. It is hard to imagine how a farmer would feel when he can’t keep up with his pig and has to watch as his sow eats several thousand dollars worth of truffle.
It might be tasty pork, but the farmer wasn’t looking for that.
Although truffle hogs, or pigs, are still used in France to hunt truffles, in Italy you will not see any truffle hunters following pigs. An
Pigs eat what they find and could cause a short-term headache for an Italian farmer. However, the ground is also damaged by pigs, so that less truffles can grow there. This could cause a panic attack in the food industry.
It is the dogs of Italy that have replaced the pig. Truffle hounds, as they are known, have a better sense of smell than humans and are easier to train and control. One of my favourite bits was that it is easier to transport a 35-pound dog than a 400-pound animal in your car, and that ” truffle hunters using pigs don’t tend to have all of their fingers“. This speaks volumes about how eager the pig is to eat the truffles it has worked so hard to find.
One dog breed is especially prized in Italy for its truffle-hunting skills. However, even these dogs need to be trained at an early age. These dogs are highly trained and expensive, but they can find lots of truffles if they do their job well.
Dogs can still dig for truffles, and sometimes disturb the ground, but not as often as pigs. Dogs can be trained to point out truffle locations to an assistant, one with opposable thumbs or a spade.
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4 Responses to “Italy roundtable: Italian truffles & animal instincts”
I will definitely try Sicilian truffles. I was captivated by the phrase “more delicately flavored”
Is that the name of this little restaurant? It’s a great idea! Where can one find Sicilian truffles in the United States? We are grateful.
Gerri, Hopefully Kate remembers.
D and I visited a small restaurant in Castiglione di Sicilia to try truffles. I had pasta with truffles. D is not a fan of truffles like me, but I wanted to try them. There were many, many wonderful things that happened. The maitre d’ explained that they were not going to use truffle oil (as it seems a lot – a dish sold as pasta al tartufi but actually has truffle-flavoured olive oil drizzled over it), but the real thing. She explained that they use Sicilian truffles, which are smaller and delicately flavoured and cost only a quarter of what the regular ones. (An amusing story was told by the chef later about the last point – but that’s another day …).. And then – and this is SO cool – the maitre de’ returned to the kitchen with a small kilner container, apparently filled with damp kitchen rolls, which she opened and blew under my nose. It wasn’t damp kitchen roll. It was damp kitchen roll wrapped around truffles. They tasted great when they arrived. If you find them, I recommend giving the Sicilian variety a shot.