If you’re a foodie like me, you’ve certainly heard of black truffles and how precious they are. Some people truly adore truffles (my people) while others think they’re overrated pieces of smelly fungus. People call them ‘black gold’, and in many ways, they are, as they’re extremely hard to cultivate and harvest. I came to fully appreciate how precious and scare they are during my truffle hunting experience at Tarago Truffle with Dusty, a friendly burgundy-brown Australian Shepherd who absolutely loves being the centre of attention.
As it turns out, truffle hunting is hard work. Yes, we’ve all heard that it’s hard but really, it is very, very hard! You’d think the dog would do all the sniffing and the digging but actually, humans do eighty percent of the physical work. The dogs find the approximate location of the truffles in question but it’s the farmer’s job to determine if the truffle is ripe enough for harvesting, by sniffing the soil, and then digging it out, all without damaging the truffle. It’s not an easy task – you’re on your knees a lot, with your nose buried in soil most of the time trying to find the elusive truffle. Your digging tools: a silver spoon and a bread knife.
It was an eye-opening and fun experience. We were given a chance to dig for our own truffles and we did. It was nearing the end of the truffle season (truffle season is late June to August in Australia) so there weren’t many left to dig out. Nevertheless it was quite thrilling to find some truffles underground and have a sniff at them. I think we found about five truffles or so in an hour of sniffing around.
The best part about the truffle hunting experience is that we got to eat some delicious soup, with crusty bread, shavings of fresh truffle and some truffle salt.
Dogs vs. Pigs
Traditionally, truffle hunters used pigs to find truffles. Pigs have a natural appetite and nose for truffles so they need no training at all.
Modern farmers now use dogs in place of pigs, though: Firstly, dogs have more stamina than pigs. Secondly, dogs are less likely to eat the truffle once they find it. And thirdly, it is easier to manage a 40kg dog than a 200kg pig when trying to rescue the truffle from its finder.
By the way, on the subject of these animals, did you know that dogs smell about 10,000 times better than humans, and pigs’ sense of smell is about three times better than dogs? Mindboggling stuff.
Are Truffles Vegan?
Some vegans don’t eat truffles because of ‘animal exploitation’. I remember feeling bad at Gigi’s in Newtown, once, when I offered a vegan friend a slice of mushroom pizza and they refused because they don’t eat truffles.
I see no problem in eating truffles (expect for the high cost). Yes, the truffler farmers use animals to help find them truffles. So what? That’s not exploitation on its own. It’s just like using miners to mine for gold. I think the important question is the working condition of the pigs or dogs used to find the truffles.
From my research, and what I’ve witnessed, at least in Australia, the animals are treated exceptionally well. Some truffle dogs are valued at $100,000 so you can imagine how well these valuable animals are treated. Truffle farmers dote on their dogs. At Tarango Truffle you could tell how precious the dogs were. A similar approach is taken with pigs. Truffle-hunting pigs are hand raised and trained, just like dogs. While we can never be absolutely certain of what passes behind the scenes, the best thing you can do, to make sure that your truffles are ethically sourced, is to go and see the process yourself. You might be pleasantly surprised.
On a sidenote, did you know that most truffle oils are not infused with real truffles? They have synthetic flavouring, and most of the truffle oil dishes you get at cafes are probably using flavoured truffle oil. So if you’re a level 5 vegan, truffle oil maybe a safe option for you. As for me, pass me those smelly, black funguses, please.
173 Willandra Ln, Tarago NSW 2580
50 minutes drive from Canberra, and two and a half to three hours from Sydney.