With a winning combination of cuteness, digging-osity, and the precision focus of a heat-seaking missile, Este the truffle dog has helped blaze a trail together with scientists that could both enliven American diets and help support American pecan growers. Have a look:
Este appears to be a Lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian hunting dog originally bred for retrieving game from water, but used increasingly over the last 100 years for tracking down truffles. As you can see, according to data from a team of scientists at the Universities of Florida, Georgia, and Minnesota, Duke and Texas Tech (some of whom are in the film), truffle dogs are far more effective at finding truffles than humans wielding rakes. As a result, the truffle dog idea is catching hold in the United States, and in another major truffle producing region -- Oregon, which has its own edible species -- you can even sign your Lagotto Romagnolo (or fido of choice) up for a truffle dog training seminar.
Truffles -- or, more properly, hypogeous fungi -- are mushrooms that have gone underground. Instead of relying on a humid breeze to disperse the spores falling from the gills, teeth or pores, they have shrunken into an enclosed ball of spores that emits a powerful odor that certain mammals -- pigs, or often squirrels -- find irresistible. They seek out and dig up the truffles, consume them, run around a bit, and then poop out the spores somewhere else. Dispersal accompli. This lifestyle has evolved independently in many, many groups of fungi.
I am not certain of this, but the truffle lifestyle may be more favored in arid forests. I know that in New Mexico alone, there are perhaps 100 of species hypogeous fungi dispersed by squirrels, many of which are undescribed, and most of which are completely unrelated to the genus Tuber, or "true" truffles. There are some times of year in which the squirrels there subsist almost entirely on truffles.
True truffles -- up till now primarily represented by three species of Tuber from Europe -- are a fungal gourmet delicacy that can set buyers back up to hundreds or even thousands of dollars a pound. When I lived in Ithaca, New York, our local Wegman's kept their truffles in dry white rice in a clear lucite box under lock and key, accessible to those either willing to ignore the sticker shock or immune to its effects. Today, their yield is diminishing for reasons not completely understood but which may involve climate change, driving prices to ever more dizzying heights.
Though most of the truffles found in the United States are of interest only to squirrels, there are a handful of species that trufflers have discovered are worth pursuing as an alternative to the expensive European species. One of them, as we saw above, is the "pecan truffle", Tuber lyonii (nice image here). It looks a bit like a buff-colored buckeye, and according to the scientists, its taste, though much less pungent than its European relation, has been described as good and "nutty". They've been known for a while, as you can see from this 2004 New York Times article on the subject.
But translating a recreational pursuit into a sustainable cash crop takes work. The scientists in the video, whose work I viewed at the APS/MSA conference this week, have banded together to collect data they can share with pecan growers about how best to promote the cultivation of truffles in their plantations. That included studying the work of truffle dogs like Este, but they have also found that the truffle is widespread across the southeastern United States, and that how growers manage weeds and soil pH can have an effect on their truffle yields. Even better, pecan orchards have already been set aside as agricultural land, so this type of truffling will not affect native forests or any animals who depend on truffles in the wild. Win-win!