For many people, the image of searching for truffles involves grunting pigs searching the ground with their snouts in a leafy forest. Female pigs were indeed traditionally involved in truffle hunting. Pigs are great for the task because of their excellent sense of smell, and their liking of the truffle scent. Research has suggested that the scent of a truffle is similar to the scent of the sex hormones of pigs, which would explain its high appeal to the animal.
The History of the Truffle Pigs
Truffle pigs, or truffle hogs as they are usually known, are thought to have been used since the Roman Empire. The truffle hog first appears in writing during the Renaissance, where it is mentioned by the 15th Century author and gastronomist Bartolomeo Platina. Platina was studying the gastronomy in Rome at the time, where he wrote De Honesta Voluptate et Valetudine (On honourable pleasure and health). The opus is considered to be the first-ever printed cookbook. It talks about truffle hogs, the best pigs for the job, and how it is recommended that they are muzzled to prevent them from eating the truffles.
Truffle pigs were the norm until quite recently. A domesticated female pig can smell truffles as far as six meters away, and as pigs were common among country folk who harvested truffles, it was natural to use them. However, the intelligent but independent pigs would often eat the truffles rather than merely locate them and let the humans enjoy the delicacy. Pigs can also harm the truffle orchards by breaking the sensitive mycelia of the truffle fungi, which reduces the amount of truffles produced in the upcoming years. That is one reason why the more obedient dog is nowadays normally used for truffle hunting instead of pigs. The destructive tendencies of the pigs even led to a ban of truffle hogs in Italy, where they have not been allowed since 1985. But truffle hogs still exist, and some argue that they have a better sense of smell than dogs.
Unlike dogs, a pig also loves the scent of truffles, so they can be keener at finding them. In hunting for truffles, there is sometimes a mix of dogs and pigs. Another perhaps surprising reason for the preference of truffle dogs over pigs is the fact that a huge number of truffles is still found in the forests where they grow naturally, rather than in artificial orchards. Truffles are extremely valuable, and if the forest is not private property and can be accessed freely, its potential truffles are like a gold treasure. That is why people prefer training truffle dogs rather than using pigs because a person going into the forest with a truffle pig has no way of hiding what they are after. In contrast, going truffle hunting with a truffle dog can be made to look like any old walk in the forest. If you suspect that there might be truffles in your nearby forest, how can you get a truffle smelling animal, be it a dog or a pig? In many countries, regions that have truffles rent truffle animals. If the plan is to start regularly harvesting truffles, it is better to train a truffle dog or a hog.