Everything you need to know about truffle dogs in the South of France
Mousti gets ready to hunt truffles — Photo courtesy of Ali Wunderman
Rarely is a mosquito a welcome guest, but when it’s the name of a salt-and-pepper truffle-sniffing dog in Southern France’s Languedoc region, the more Mosquitos, the better.
At first glance, Mousti (short for the French moustique, or mosquito) seems like any other dog: energetic, a little hard to contain, and absolutely in love with his handler, William (and the cheesy treats in his pocket). It’s hard to tell if the gray on the dog’s face is due to age or a result of his obvious mixed breed parentage, but either way he is undoubtedly adorable.
Mousti the truffle-sniffing dog/professional cutie — Photo courtesy of Ali Wunderman
I’m gathered with others on the sloping terrain of one of winemaker Gérard Bertrand’s many biodynamic vineyards, overlooked by his breathtaking hotel estate, Château l’Hospitalet, nicknamed “where the land meets the sea.” The Mediterranean itself is just a short drive away.
Mousti is already more familiar with the particular terroir upon which I stand than any human could ever hope to be (besides, perhaps, Gérard Bertrand), so he doesn’t listen to the introduction speech about what makes it so remarkable.
Instead he spends his time receiving affectionate pats from whoever is offering, which is everyone, before moving onto the next set of eager hands, the sight of his trailing leash causing laughter among the group: as if this dog would run off when there are treats, pets and eventually truffles to be had.
“Sometimes they will eat a little truffle,” William tells me later via translator. He hazards a smile while admitting this: considering that a single ounce of black truffle can fetch upwards of $125 per ounce, a fair amount of money has ended up in his dogs’ tummies. It’s fortunate a translator is needed to hear what he has to say, because the lilt of his French is distractingly lovely.
Mousti and his handler William, holding a handful of black truffle — Photo courtesy of Ali Wunderman
When working, however, William appears deadly serious, a characteristic echoed by his dog. As soon as Mousti receives the signal that the hunt is about to begin, he quickly loses interest in seeking out affection from the collected strangers, focusing instead on the task at hand. His job is to find black truffles planted beneath various trees throughout the vineyard. William’s job is to reward him for finding them.
As soon as Mousti is released, he bolts for a grove of short trees, a variation of oak, tea and nut species. Earlier it was explained that “for [truffles] to grow, they have to have a tree partner,” since truffles only grow at the base of trees.
It’s less than a minute before the dog is digging furiously into the dirt beneath a sapling, and in even less time he’s pulled an ineffable chunk of black from the ground, proudly displaying it to William, who exchanges the black diamond for cheese pulled from a plastic bag in his pocket. As far as Mousti is concerned, it’s a fair trade.
William prepares to switch out Mousti’s newfound truffle with delicious cheese — Photo courtesy of Ali Wunderman
Anyone happening upon the scene of Mousti hunting truffles would have to be convinced the dog was working, not just having fun.
But a lot of work goes into training dogs like Mousti for the job. William, who is a 3rd-generation French truffle hunter, doesn’t know exactly which breeds of dog contributed to his pack of six, but he believes they originally descended from the Lagotto Romagnolo, an Italian working dog renowned for its truffle hunting abilities. Mousti lacks the tight, curly hair of the “lake dog from Romagna,” but is just as skilled as his Italian brethren.
“I like a very faithful dog,” William shared when asked which qualities he looks for when selecting a new truffle hunter. But he mostly relies on his intuition, a method which has served him well. “I use my dog to reproduce with other dogs, and then I keep one of the puppies.” Not every puppy will have what it takes to perform this task, and those that can’t hack it are sold between €1,000-€1,500 ($1,120-$1,685) as pets.
Immediately following birth, the puppies’ mother has her teats coated in truffle oil to create a positive association with the their future quarry. Before they begin properly hunting truffles at around 6 months old, they are regularly fed bits of truffle to further increase their sensitivity to the unique scent and flavor. If they turn out to be skilled, a truffle hunting dog will work happily until the end of its life. Like most specially-trained dogs, those that don’t want to work are not forced to.
A black truffle straight from the earth (via Mousti’s mouth) — Photo courtesy of Ali Wunderman
But soon, work may not even be available to these dogs. “50 years ago, truffle was very common in France and Southern Europe,” explained an employee of Gérard Bertrand’s estate, but with climate change, the conditions most suitable for truffles are shifting such that they’re getting harder to find or cultivate even with a dog doing the dirty work (though not as dirty as when a pig does it, William points out).
In fact, it’s predicted that truffle production will cease within a generation, according to a recent study from the University of Stirling.
Until then, watching everyone’s favorite Mosquito and his fellow truffle-hunting dogs work among the picturesque vineyards of Languedoc is a delightful window into the ways our favorite high-end flavors are cultivated, and proof that there’s plenty of value in teaching new dogs old tricks.