Talk of the Town: Pet Tricks

Later this month, three men will travel to the tiny town of Hext, Texas, in the hope of finding black gold in the soil of the Texas Hill Country. One of the men, Roy Carver, is the president of the Oregon-based T-Bar Ranch, Ltd., which runs a hundred and-seventy-eight-acre computer-monitored orchard in Hext planted with fifty-five thousand filbert trees. Another is Rosario Safina, a New Yorker who owns Urbani USA, one of the biggest importers and distributors of gourmet specialty foods in the country. Together, they are planning to produce and market North America’s first large-scale crop of black winter truffles.

Black truffles are gnarled, intensely fragrant fungi that grow naturally only at the roots of nut, oak, and willow trees in Spain, Italy, and the South of France. In a bad harvest year, as this one was, they retail for as much as eight hundred dollars a pound. If all goes as planned, the T-Bar project will bring to market an average of no fewer than twelve thousand five hundred pounds of truffles each year.

But. Carver and Safina can’t do much without the third man: Pasquale Scricco, a fifty-two-year-old construction worker, who lives in Hopatcong, New Jersey. Scricco is the owner of a two-year-old cocker spaniel named Truffle, who is one of the only trained truffle-hunting dogs in the United States.

Traditionally, truffles were hunted with the help of pigs, which are good at detecting the fungi’s distinctive muskiness inches underground. These days, dogs are the preferred truffle-detectors. “Pigs, if you’re not careful, they’re going to eat the truffles they find,” Scricco said the other day. “And they’re going to shit in the car.”

One evening a few weeks ago, Safina drove out to New Jersey, to Scricco’s house, to meet Truffle for the first time. The two men stood on the front porch and watched the dog show his stuff. With his nose flattened against the ground, Truffle, running in a Z formation, scoured the small, scrubby front lawn. He headed toward a shed, then scanned the ground around some bushes. He put his paws up on a metal lawn table and looked around. Nothing.

Scricco moved to New Jersey thirty-two years ago from the Abruzzi region of Italy, where truffle-hunting is big business. At some point, he got it into his head that there might be truffles in New Jersey. On a trip back to Italy in 1996, he traded a metal detector for the pick of a cousin’s litter of truffle hunters. Scricco trained Truffle for a few months in Italy, and has continued the spaniel’s education back in Hopatcong, using bits of hot dog soaked in truffle oil and buried in the yard. Every weekend, weather permitting, the two go hunting together in state parks and forests. They have yet to find a black winter truffle.

In fact, no one has ever found a black winter truffle in the Northeast, but Scricco is undaunted. “In Italy, you do miles and miles, you don’t find nothing,” he said. “Then, all at once, you find one this big.” He cupped his hands in the shape of a softball. “This country is only a few hundred years old,” he continued. “Maybe I’m the only one who’s tried really, really hard. It’s hard to find the truffle.”

Since Truffle is a creature who is hardwired for a mission that he never gets to accomplish, it is understandable that he’s a little high-strung. He cowers before visitors and barks frantically at passing cars. “A dog is just like a person,” Scricco explained. “They get disgusted. When they don’t find anything, they go crazy.”

Safina had brought good news for the spaniel. Many of the Texas filbert trees, he told Scricco, had developed “burn” patterns at their bases—barren circles in the earth around the trunks that signify that truffles may be hoarding nutrients in the surrounding soil. And the orchard had been attracting animal intruders—opossums, skunks, and raccoons—in larger than usual numbers. T-Bar’s scientists had been performing autopsies on them and were finding truffle spores in their digestive tracts. “When we go down there, we will find something,” Safina proclaimed.

If all goes well, Scricco and Truffle could spend three months or more of the year in Hext, helping to harvest the crop and training other dogs. It’s a dream of early retirement that the construction worker has always hoped for. “For me, it’s nice sport,” he said. “You enjoy the walk in the woods, plus you make a little bit of money. There’s nothing wrong with that.”