Snapshots from Italy: Truffle Hunting (With a Dog!) in San Pietro de Avellana
Editor's note: Carey spent last week in Italy with the Gruppo Ristoratori Italiani, sponsored by the region of Molise.
This is Faina. She's a mutt, her owner believes, part setter, part black lab. Her name means "hyena" in Italian, but she's mellow as can be. And she can sniff out truffles up to a meter under the ground.
Think of truffles in Italy and Piedmont is the region that comes to mind, particularly around the cities of Alba and Asti. But the small region of Molise in Italy's central south produces around half of the country's supply; black truffles, which we searched for, but in the late autumn the prized white truffles are harvested as well.
Tiny San Pietro de Avellana, with a population of 700 ("plus cats and chickens," according to the mayor), is nestled on a mountainside rich in truffles, so integral to the town's identity that San Pietro rebranded itself as "Città del Tartufo," and hosts black truffle festivals in the late summer every year.
San Pietro has many truffle hobbyists who don't rely on their hunt for income, but enjoy it for the thrill of the chase, the delicious haul, and, as our truffle hunter Giuseppe told us, "the art." (Fair enough. I can think of less pleasant pastimes than running around wooded hillsides with spectacular views digging up delicacies together with your trusty pup.)
The breed of dog is less important than the training, says Giuseppe. To get a young pup primed for truffle hunting, trainers actually soak balls in truffle oil—rather than using more expensive truffles themselves—and use them for the puppy to fetch, teaching them to associate that smell with the chase. As the dog gets older, they start hiding the balls under leaves and then burying them in the ground, improving the dog's detection skills. They're rewarded with treats, of course, a practice which continues into their mature hunting days; bigger truffles earn bigger treats. And while both male and female dogs can be truffle hunters, our guide claimed that females were superior. "She'll find the truffle and show you where it is; a male dog will find it, dig it up, and run away."
Come see how Faina runs around the hillside to sniff out truffles—and see how tail-waggingly happy she is to find them.
Spoiler alert: If you're wondering "Is this just an excuse for another dog slideshow" the answer is an unequivocal YES.