Those lucky enough to know the wonders of eating truffles will testify that this gift from the earth is the ultimate aphrodisiac. One might even go so far as to say it is the ultimate food experience… period, not to mention one of the most expensive ingredients for sale. Hard to believe that the discovery of this delicious indulgence starts with the truffle hog, a keen-nosed hunter who searches the ground for these treasures. What do I mean? Let’s explore the role of pigs in the indulgent world of this luxury ingredient.
Where do pigs hunt for truffles?
The two main divisions of truffles are black and white, coming historically from Perigord, France, and Alba, Italy, respectively. However, there are truffles that grow wild in other parts of the world, including North America. I’ve actually had the opportunity to hunt for truffles in Oregon and the flavor of freshly foraged Oregon truffles was as delicious as anything I’ve tasted in France.
Truffles are members of the edible fungus order Ascomycetous and are mainly of the Tuber genus. This means they are related to mushrooms. Both are fungi. But truffles grow underground and, unlike mushrooms, come in one fairly standard shape.
So what does a truffle pig do?
Now that we understand what truffles are and where they come from, we can take a closer look at how this wild fungus is hunted by hogs. (Note that although the pig is the traditional truffle hunting animal, today trained dogs are very popular hunters. I also know one truffle hunter who finds truffles without the use of any animal at all. But historically, pigs are the heroes of truffle lore.)
To understand how truffle-finding pigs actually discover truffles, you need to understand a little bit about how truffles grow. Truffles have a symbiotic relationship to certain tree roots, and the ground above the growing tubers can show a “scorched earth” appearance, referred to as terre brûlée in France.
An additional clue to finding truffles is to look for gnats. Small gnats or flies are often found around the area, apparently anxious to lay their larvae in a fertile food delta. Unfortunately, although many humans rave about the earthy musky smell of truffles, our sense of smell is not keen enough to detect them growing underground.
That’s why we need the chercheuse (“pursuer”), provided by a trained truffle pig or dog, whose sense of smell is a lot sharper than ours. (It is said that the pig’s sense of smell is even sharper than a dog’s.) Although their senses of smell need little to no honing, the pigs must be trained and be able to walk on a leash before they can work as a truffle hunting pig.
How are truffle hogs trained?
You may not think a pig is a trainable animal. But there is enough research to show that pigs may be smarter than dogs. Before they are trusted with hunting for rare and expensive tubers, pigs are trained not just to walk on a lead but to retrieve and release toys and treats. The process is similar to training a service dog. Incidentally, all breeds of pigs show the ability to be trained, you don’t have to have some special, rare breed.
Pigs finding truffles is a tradition dating back to Roman times. Today truffle hounds are also trained in the pursuit of this coveted fungus. Many modern truffle hunters have deemed truffle dogs easier to handle. It can be quite a trick to prevent a female pig from impulsively eating truffles as she finds them. After all, who can resist this tasty treat?
Do pigs get turned on by the scent?
Anyone who has savored a truffle can attest to its aphrodisiac effect. But there is also some objective scientific evidence to lend support that truffles can drive you wild. In Harold McGee’s book On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, we learn that truffles contain androstenol, a pheromone found in men’s underarm sweat, (be still my beating heart). This chemical is also found in the saliva of the male pig, which prompts mating behavior in the sow.
How much is a trained pig worth?
These finely trained and beloved creatures are of great value in France. Food writer Elatia Harris brings the point home with the story of a Frenchman sentenced to 45 years in prison for stealing two truffle-hunting pigs in 1985. No one protested. To the French, the punishment was considered quite fitting.
Also driving home this point is the 2021 Nicholas Cage film, Pig about the lengths a farmer will go to in trying to retrieve his stolen truffle hog. In the movie, the pig was said to be worth upwards of $25,000. In reality, a truffle pig costs a few thousand dollars, maybe less if the animal is young and less trained. (A well-trained and highly reputable pig will cost more but $25,000 might be a stretch.)
How many truffles can a pig find in a day?
There is no set number of truffles to expect from a day of truffle hunting. Some days the truffle hunter might return with just one truffle. On other days it is none. There are also days when truffle hogs or truffle hunting dogs identify half a dozen or more in a single afternoon. The experience and cooperative nature of the pig come into play in having a successful hunt.
What do truffles taste like?
If you haven’t yet tasted a truffle, you must be wondering what all the fuss is about at this point. The flavor of a fresh truffle is earthy, musty, and sexy, a multi-sensory experience involving sight, smell, taste, mouthfeel, and something innately primitive, even, some say, arousing. This taste experience is so uniquely powerful that it challenges a writer’s ability to translate flavor and texture into words. It rocks us into orbit.
Just don’t confuse it with the dessert kind. (It is unfortunate that the word truffle is used for two very different foods.) The dessert truffle is made from ganache, a mixture of heavy cream and chocolate. It is usually rolled in something else after it is chilled, such as cocoa powder, chopped nuts, or something sweet. It’s a decadent bite for a sweet tooth. But what we’re talking about here is not the dessert truffle but the rare, savory fruits of the earth.
Black vs white
There are two types of savory truffles, black truffles and white truffles. The flavors of the two have some startling differences. There are also some differences in scent and flavor profile between truffles that come from different origins.
Black truffles have the more subtle, earthy flavor of the two. White truffles are the more pungent of the two and are sometimes described as having a slightly garlicky flavor. Because their flavor is bolder, they’re usually used more sparingly than black truffles in cooking.
There is a fierce rivalry surrounding French and Italian truffles, as well as fierce debates concerning black and white truffles. Let it go. Both are great. However, you might want to take a little extra consideration as to how you will serve truffles. According to some experts, the black truffle needs to be slightly cooked, while the white truffle is sliced and eaten paper-thin, in the raw.
If you haven’t already had an opportunity to sample both the black and white kinds, you must find a way to taste these truffles. You will thank me for this. Below are some suggestions for retailers who carry truffle products. You can stretch your truffle tasting further by using them to flavor oil, butter or salt. A little truffle goes a long way.
Where to buy truffles
If you live in Tuscany or even the west coast of the United States, you might be lucky enough to find truffles for sale at your local farmer’s market in season. And if you live in the right conditions, you might just have truffles growing on your own property! (Check under your oak trees – just watch out for those gnats.) But for those of us who aren’t lucky enough to own truffle pigs, here are some resources to buy truffles online:
Pig photo by Annie Spratt
This article was written in 2009 with research by our intern, Le Cordon Bleu graduate Donna Whitehouse. It was most recently updated in October 2023.
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