Italy’s Alfagia di Volterra, a specialty food company focused on truffles and based in Volterra, Tuscany, has been bringing diners the world’s finest Tuscan truffles for years.
Though the company has three human truffle hunters, among the best in Volterra, who devote their days to finding the city’s best hidden truffle spots, they can’t do this without their specially trained canines. A breed known as the Lagotto romagnolo is considered the “truffle dog,” but Alfagia di Volterra prefer cross-bred dogs, specifically Springer Spaniels crossed with lines of dogs that have been truffle hunting for generations.
The dogs who work with Alfagia di Volterra’s truffle hunters undergo years of training to learn how to sniff out the scent of the delectable truffle — and how to ignore the urge to get distracted by other stimuli and scents.
“The training starts immediately after birth, when the pups are exposed to the smell of truffles,” the company says of its training process. “At 2 months of age, dogs are taught to play by chasing a small toy that contains a truffle fragment. Once the dog has associated playful activity with that particular smell, the game is gradually stepped up: it involves finding the source of the smell, bringing it back, searching in competition with other dogs, etc. When this activity has become an ingrained habit, the next and last stage is to turn it into a real hunt for truffles.”
On the “real hunt,” human hunters rely on their dogs’ noses to detect the faint smell of a truffle, as the funghi grow a few feet below ground. Once the dog has tracked down one of the precious mushrooms, it begins to dig; and it is here that the dog’s job is done and human hunters step in to carefully extract the prized food item.
“Only the white truffle (Tuber magnatum Pico) has not been successfully cultivated – which is why Alfagia sells only fresh white truffles, which are found by our partners and their dogs. But cultivated truffles are not hunted: they are simply dug out. And since they grow in bundles, only the top ones may be ripe, while the ones growing deeper are not. This is why so many cheaper fresh truffles are simply tasteless. Hunting for truffles with dogs is the only way to ensure that one finds ripe, naturally grown truffles,” the company’s spokesperson says of why these dogs are vital to their work.
Since extreme focus is required to sniff out a truffle, Alfagia di Volterra’s dogs only work a few hours a day. After they are off the clock, the dogs enjoy hours of play, affection and rest.
Their efforts allow Alfagia di Volterra to produce black truffle Volterra salt, white truffle flavored extra virgin olive oil, two varieties of truffle honey and butter, all of which are available at U.S. speciality shops.