Truffle pigs lose their jobs in Istria

by Loretta N. Di Vita (IT)

Snout wars

Imagine the Jobboom ad in a world where animals could read going something like this: “Dogs only. Pigs need not apply.”

In renowned truffle hubs, like Istria, dogs have muscled their way into the mossy terrains, leaving professional truffle harvesters, as well as tourists on truffle-digging excursions, in canine company.

Notably, in 1999, it was a dog – not a pig – named Diana who found a 1.31-kilogram rare white truffle in the Istrian forest of Motovun near Livade. The whopping tuber was so extraordinary it earned a place in the Guinness World Records. Diana’s owner Giancarlo

Zigante, a restaurateur, used it to whip up dinner for 100 friends (notice author’s restraint in not saying pig-out). “I will never forget the discovery of the record truffle because, after that, many things changed,” Zigante states.

Naturally, he gives full credit to his dog – well, almost – as he describes the discovery of the celebrated truffle in this way: “It fell from the sky into my arms.”

Through marketing zeal – notwithstanding divine intervention – he went on to turn the serendipitous stumble into a veritable fortune, opening a chain of specialty shops and an eponymous restaurant in Livade featuring a smorgasbord of truffle-based offerings. Today, he is known as the “Truffle King” and heads Zigante Truffles, one of the world’s largest truffle suppliers.

Zigante is not alone when it comes to his preferred snout. Most truffle seekers choose dogs over hogs. Nikola Tarandek, a truffle-hunting tour guide also hailing from Istria, claims dogs are integral to the hunt, and have been for such a long time that the notion of pigs assisting harvesters is preposterous – total hogwash – or as he tells it, “a make-believe fairy tale created for children.” 

It isn’t that diligence and technique elude the trusty pig. In fact, pigs are naturals when it comes to zeroing in on the subterranean delicacies thanks to their instinctual rooting behaviour. Essentially, the dirt-worshipping porker loves to get to the bottom of things, and that’s a valuable trait given that truffles attach themselves to the roots of trees. Sows are especially ambitious diggers since they respond to the truffle’s odour, which mimics androsterone – a hormone found in male pigs’ saliva, responsible for triggering the females’ sex drive.

So why then has a whole workforce of pink-bellied star performers fallen out of demand? The problem, it seems, lies primarily in the fact that little piggies can’t control their gluttonous impulses once they dislodge the object of their desire from layers of moss and soil, eating the gnarly knobs almost instantly upon discovering them. Dogs, on the other hand, have proven themselves less inclined to eat the fruits of their labour. In addition, they are more easily trainable, easier to transport (have you ever seen a pig in the backseat of a car?) and less likely to attract the attention of possible turf-invading competitors.

Since canines boast 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses (the human schnoz holds six million) and depend on their sense of smell to experience the world, virtually any breed of dog can be trained as a truffle hunter.

In true Pavlovian form, when dogs score their first trove, they’re encouraged to continue searching for more. Tarandek explains that motivation is built through material reinforcement: “After my best dog, Nero – who will be featured on Global Farm on Netflix this year – digs deep for a truffle, he is rewarded with his favourite dog biscuits.” According to truffle folklore, Zigante’s dog got to eat an entire loaf of bread after unburying her record-breaking truffle.

It’s a simple process of positive association: find a truffle – get a treat, or a belly rub, or maybe even a game of fetch – then repeat. And with cool perks like these, it’s no wonder pooches are lining up for the job.