Sunday, February 4, 2007

Educational project

Can you identify the dull brownish object that I've photographed alongside a euro coin (to indicate its size)? It's a specimen of a Black truffle, Tuber melanosporum, collected at midday on the hill opposite my house. The fellow who found it uses a couple of trained dogs. They came upon three truffles, and he gave me this one. Its exquisite sweet smell is difficult to describe: something like the musty mushroomy aroma of old books stored in a damp corner of a cellar. Nearly half the world's production of this exotic plant comes from France, and 80% of that production comes from the south-east corner of France. Truffles are sold for a fortune at the markets of Richerenches, down in Provence, just to the south of Grignan.

Now, what am I going to do with my truffle? Make a few omelettes? Maybe... but, above all, I'll use a few fragments of the truffle for an intensive canine educational project... which in fact went into operation this afternoon. In a nutshell, I intend to transform my dear dog Sophia into a talented truffle-finder!

Friends have often explained to me the technique. Basically, most dogs pick up easily the pungent aroma of a truffle, but it's not at all the sort of stuff that a dog would wish to eat. So, the dog-trainer combines the use of truffle fragments, placed in a small plastic container with holes all around it, with pieces of tasty dog-food such as ham or chicken. The training consists of coaxing the dog to dig up the plastic container with the truffle fragments, then you reward the dog with ham or chicken. For example, in the beginning, I actually buried chicken bones alongside the truffle container.

Sophia is so obsessed by tasty food (as you might conclude through seeing photos of my plump pet) that she's an ideal candidate for this kind of training. Once she's convinced that there's something worth digging for, she'll work like an engine to get it. Within a space of ten minutes, in a state of excitement (with me yelling out the French word truffe!), Sophia performed half-a-dozen successful tests. All I have to do is to repeat the hide-and-seek game regularly, every day for ten minutes or so, for as long as it takes to bring about automatic reactions from my dog. Meanwhile, I do intend to cook at least one omelette, because I too appreciate tasty food.

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