August 05

Can humans learn to hunt truffles by nose alone? According to some new research by a team at Berkeley, they can.

From the press release: "In a review appearing in the same issue of the journal, Jay A. Gottfried of the Department of Neurology at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine noted that the UC Berkeley findings open numerous avenues for further research. "Finally, what are the implications for the Provençal truffle hunt?" he wrote, only partly tongue-in-cheek. "In the traditional world of the truffle forests, the dog (or pig) is king. The evidence presented here suggests that humans are every bit as well equipped to carry out the search."

"Every bit as well equipped" as dogs? I think not. My experience suggests that if you are in a truffière that has a lot of ripe truffle in the ground, and the air is very still, you might smell truffle. You may also be able to say that the smell is stronger in one area than another. If you were to go on hands and knees and place your nose close to the earth, and then crawl around sniffing, you might be able to home in on a ripe truffle and dig it up. Time taken to find truffle? Being very generous, perhaps five minutes. Number of times each season the necessary conditions occur? Seldom.

Let us count the ways that dogs are better than humans at finding truffles. They have four paw drive, and are close to the ground. The nose/soil interface is achieved without ungainly crawling, and in running mode they can cover a lot of ground in a short time. Their olfactory apparatus is many times more sensitive than ours, and their brain is much better equipped to process the incoming information. A good truffle dog prefers a slight breeze to waft the truffle smell around and give them something to track. A dog will home in on the precise spot where the truffle is hiding and mark the spot with a scrape of the paw, and then politely wait for a small reward.

I'm sticking with the amazingly charming Peg.

The Truffle Book has steadily been taking shape over the last few weeks. I've got one more chapter to lay out, but the rest is ready for proofreading and the cover is in the final stages of tweaking. Off to a printer in a couple of weeks. Out in October?

With luck, it will attract attention on bookshop shelves, if only because the truffle on the cover could, according to a friend of mine, be mistaken by the uninitiated as a turd. I think it looks rather m ore like a warty UFO, but if it is in any way turd-like, then I will claim that this was a deliberate design ploy on my part, designed to set up a cognitive dissonance in the viewer, thus drawing them in to check out the book.

The truffle itself weighed 30g, was harvested at John & Iris Burn's Ashburton truffière in July, and provided by them for photography free of charge. Sadly, from an eating point of view, it had been frozen. Thanks very much indeed, John and Iris. You'll be getting a credit in the book, of course.

This picture arrived recently from Australia: I am both jealous and salivating...

Nick Malajczuk looks (unsurprisingly) rather pleased with his 1kg+ monster truffle.

I've been doing some checking up on NZ's largest truffle. Alan Hall believes the biggest he has ever found was about 760g (and there's a picture of what might be it on his web site), but his brother Ian believes that a bigger one turned up at about the same time ('97 or '98). Still, it looks as though Nick's claim to the largest black truffle found outside Europe is justified. Congratulations! Thanks for the picture Nick, it's going in the book...