Walking The Forest With A Spanish Truffle Hunter

Contributing Editor Matt Rodbard has been traveling around the Somontano wine region in the northeast corner of Spain. Here's a report from a wild truffle hunt, where he meets a very special dog named Tito.

Of course there are Italian white truffles, pulled from the Piedmont soil in late October and fetching over $1,700/pound. Your favorite Michelin-starred chef or Bocuse D'Or Olympian may have shaved a few valuable slivers atop your risotto in recent weeks. But this is not a story about white truffles.

Our Ford F450 is bouncing along a gravel road above the tiny Aragon town of Sescastilla. In the truck's bed sits a metal cage where Tito — a skinny mutt with a splash of pointer and creaky joints — sleeps peacefully. Was he conserving his brain power for the morning's task? Possibly. Dogs are smart, and this one dropped out of M.I.T. because it was too easy.

After 15 minutes on the road our caravan stops in a clearing. Wild rosemary plants grow everywhere, enough to supply the entire Whole Foods of the Northeast. Tito's owner, a rugged-looking farmer working in the local wineries, has come to be known as one of the area's top truffle hunters, operating every other day during the early months of the year. (The season runs from late-December until February.) He allows Tito a day off between hunts, to allow the dog to recharge his valuable olfactory. The farmer has been offered over €5,000 for Tito, turning down the offers each time.

Spanish black truffles have been hunted in the northern parts of Spain for centuries. In France and Italy, pigs are often used for foraging the valuable fungi. But the practice is banned in Spain due to the pig's tendency to be all pig like and destroy the landscape. In Sescastilla's high elevation (around 2,000 feet above sea level), truffles typically grow at the base of the oak trees springing out of the rocky terroir. Unlike the Italian varieties, which are heavily perfumed, the Spanish product is much more subtle in smell. But, when manipulated in the kitchen, the coal-colored fungi are intensively flavorful — lacing the dish with a mushroomy perfume that explodes the senses. In the markets of Barbastro, these things can fetch as much as €600/kilo.

Within five minutes of leaving the truck, Tito is on the hunt. We follow him, negotiating chalky mud and ankle-snapping rocks as the truffle hunter feeds his panting employee a handful of treats. Five minutes in there is excitement at the base of small tree. A small metal spade materializes and the truffle hunter begins to dig a hole, as Tito sniffs and makes a guttural sound that's like the music of a winning slot machine to seasoned ears. Success.

The truffle hunter explains in Catalan how once the truffle is washed of soil, it loses roughly 30% of its weight. Still, when you collect five in under an hour's time — with several pauses to admire the snow-capped Pyrenees in the distance — it's still a pretty nice day's work. Tito receives another handful of treats and a guaranteed day's rest. For the truffle hunter, it's a stack of money and a very nice bowl of risotto in the evening.

Thanks to our friends at Viñas Del Vero for inviting us along for the truffle hunt. More from Spain next week.