RODDI, Italy -- Let's get one thing cleared up right away. Italian truffle hunters do not use pigs, they use dogs. Not pigs, dogs. Got it? It's the French who occasionally hunt truffles with pigs, which is just the sort of thing they would do.
Seriously, can you imagine hunting truffles with a pig? Granted, pigs have a keen sense of smell; no one disputes that. But that's also the problem. Truffles give off a pungent aroma that produces an almost sexual chemical reaction in pigs. Given that an adult sow can weigh 300 pounds or more, you can imagine the problems wrestling a sexually charged pig away from the truffle before it snorts the entire thing up. It would be like keeping Kirstie Alley away from the dessert table at Sizzler.
Besides, Giovanni Monchierro says, you can develop a relationship with a truffle dog. "You cannot do that with a pig.'' Nor, it goes without saying, would you want to.
Monchierro is the dean of the Universita dei Cani da Tartufo, which translates into the University of the Truffle Hunting Dogs. His family has been training truffle dogs for four generations dating back to 1880. Trust me, if you are going up against Ken Jennings and the Jeopardy board lists nothing but truffle categories -- say, Truffle Regions, Truffle Hounds, Truffle Hunting, Truffle Varieties, Truffle Recipes and Truffle Odds and Ends -- this is the man you want holding the buzzer.
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The University of the Truffle Hunting Dogs is a very small training school scenically located atop a hill in the little town of Roddi, an hour drive outside Torino, which as you all know is the land of the treasured White Alba Truffle, also known as King Truffle or White Gold.
There are many truffle varieties, but the Piedmont region surrounding Torino is the only area in the world where the White Alba Truffle grows. Available only in the autumn, this delicacy is so coveted that it sells for $100 to $125 an ounce. That sounds expensive for a mushroom that grows underground in the roots of trees, but bear in mind that a little bit goes a long way, whether you choose to sprinkle it lightly over pasta during an elegant dinner or inject it directly into your veins in a dingy alleyway.
Naturally, with these prices and an estimated 7,000-8,000 licensed truffle hunters in Piedmont, competition can be fierce for the princely fungi. Truffle hunters take their dogs out in the middle of the night in part because the higher humidity levels at that time make it easier to smell the truffles but also to better maintain secrecy from competitors. While truffle hunting is safer than hunting with Dick Cheney (the truffles are not armed), it is not without its risks. Some of the less reputable hunters have been known to poison their rival's dogs.
"It happens,'' Monchierro says over coffee in his kitchen. "There are bad people. It is not the fault of the dog.
"There are a lot of tricks. If you meet a friend, it is no problem. I go this way and he goes that way. If you meet someone you don't want to meet, you switch off your lantern and hide and wait until he is gone. You can tell who they are because they have different types of lanterns and make different noises.''
So, does your dog have what it takes to be a champion truffle hound?
The answer is probably not, because your dog is stupid and can't tell the difference between your leg and another dog's reproductive area. Monchierro would find out for certain by introducing your dog to truffles and observing how it reacts to the scent.
There is no particular hunting breed, but your dog must enjoy the aroma and have a nose keen enough to smell a truffle buried as many as three feet underground. It also must be obedient with an agreeable disposition and good character. If your dog meets all these criteria and he has room at his school, Monchierro would teach it the fundamentals of hunting over the course of two to three weeks. It might be easier to buy a truffle hound from Monchierro -- Joe DiMaggio bought one from his family during a visit in the 1950s -- but don't bother asking about Lady, his 9-year-old champion.
"For her there is no price," he said. "I will never sell.''
Once you have purchased a hound you might feel ready to make a fortune digging up truffles. Don't be ridiculous. This is just the beginning. First, you must take the dog out every night and work it until the two of you become a single unit. It can take years before you have a really skilled dog, which is why you must have at least two hounds so you can break in a younger one. Otherwise, one bowl of poisoned Alpo and your truffle career comes to a deadening thud.
While we are currently out of prime truffle season, Monchierro graciously demonstrated hunting techniques by burying low-grade truffles in the surrounding thinly wooded hills and taking us out with Lady. While Monchierro followed with the traditional Barot curled walking cane, Lady trotted along a truffle path through the woods sniffing for her prey. When she detected a truffle, she burrowed her nose into the earth. Monchierro came along and instructed her to begin digging. She did so, her front paws clawing away the dirt more furiously than Sammy Sosa clearing the batters' box.
This is the moment of truth. With so much at stake, you must watch and listen closely for the telltale signs that the dog has reached its prey so that you can stop it from eating the truffle in a feeding frenzy. To aid in this goal, Monchierro reached into his pocket and pulled out a dog biscuit. Lady gave up on the truffle and devoured the biscuit greedily, then begged for more.
Lady's sense of smell is at least 300 times that of a human and yet, she readily chooses dog biscuits that cost $3 a bag over a truffle that sells for $125 an ounce. There might be a lesson in there for us, but then again, maybe not, because she also likes sniffing her fellow hounds' rear ends.
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com. Sound off to Page 2 here.