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On the truffle trail

SNOQUALMIE, Wash. — In the Cascade foothills of Washington state's King County, Lolo raised her head to catch a whiff of the dank morning air that hung among the ferns. Then she moved ahead, nose to the ground, until stopping between two Douglas firs to scratch at the forest floor.

That was the signal for Alana McGee to get to work. She moved in beside her dog, pulled out a garden trowel and brushed away the duff.

There, nested in the soil, she found a firm black truffle — roughly the size of a pingpong ball — that exuded a slightly fruity aroma.

"Good girl, Lola. Good job!" cried McGee, and offered her dog a bit of bacon.

McGee is part of a new generation of Northwest U.S. truffle harvesters who use dogs to selectively find prime fungi rather than rakes that sweep the ground, unearthing lots of immature truffles lacking in flavor and fragrance.

In the rapidly evolving world of Northwest cuisine, the dog-found truffles command a premium price — $25 an ounce or $400 per pound — from chefs who shave them on to pasta, infuse their flavors into butters and oils, and make specialty items such as black-truffle ice cream.

McGee, a 29-year-old native of Edmonds, Wash., settled on this career path after graduating from Colby College in Maine and holding jobs that included assisting a Hollywood producer and working in a winery.

"I get to be outside and with dogs," said McGee, founder of Toil & Truffle, which offers trained dogs for surveys and harvesting of truffles. "I'm not a cubicle type of person."

Her dog Lolo is an 8-month-old Lagotto Romagnolo, an ancient Italian breed that has been used for centuries to locate a prized European truffle variety that may sell from $1,500 to $4,000 a pound.

Some Lagotto breeders will go so far as to smear truffle oil on the teats of whelping dogs to help imprint the scent on offsprings. One such pup found a truffle on her second day of training last month in Oregon.

But it does not take such a purebred to find truffles.

Duff, Lolo's partner in the woods, is a shaggy black rescue dog, the largest in a litter of 12 puppies abandoned in an Eastern Washington irrigation ditch. McGee adopted Duff six years ago, and he's matured into a stalwart truffle dog who displays endurance and great enthusiasm. When Duff locates a truffle site, his paws, working like a canine roto-tiller, flail away at the soil, and he starts to whine if McGee takes too long to start digging.

"He's very dramatic," McGee said. "I'm trying to get him to be a bit more gentle. Sometimes he digs so hard that he throws out the truffle behind him."

Several European truffle varieties can be cultivated by inoculating the root stock of hazelnut and oak trees. But there are still plenty of mysteries that surround these fungi, which include hundreds of different species around the world.

The truffles are the fungi's fruit. The gaseous odors they give off when ripe help spur their reproduction by attracting animals that consume them and spread their spores.

Walking through the foothills with Lolo and Duff, it is easy to spot the tiny holes made by squirrels, deer and other creatures who have dined on truffles in recent days.

Secrecy surrounds truffle hot spots. Most are on private lands, and there are plenty of conflicts when rake-bearing harvesters try to sneak onto a property and steal the bounty.

"They use heavy rakes that rip up the tree roots and are really destructive," said Roy Marshall, an 82-year-old Oregonian who owns a 20-acre tree farm west of Eugene.

But their product has been uneven, with ripe truffles mixed in with those that lack flavor and fragrance. Through the years, such lackluster harvests caused many buyers to dismiss the Northwest truffles as dull stepchildren to the European offerings.

But as the use of dogs expands, the reputation of Northwest truffles is on the rise.

"They can stand on their own. They are so unique," said Toivo Heyduckj, sous chef at Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island. "When we get them, we love them."

So far, there are just a handful of people who rely exclusively on dogs to gather truffles for commercial sale.

This can be a tough way to make a living.

Some years, truffles are scarce. Some days, a dog might find a lot of over-ripe truffles past their prime.

"The handlers have to have an understanding of truffles, and keep the dogs tuned to what they want," said John Getz, of Florence, who began working with dogs a decade ago

And, even after a good day in the field that might yield several marketable pounds, there is additional work cleaning and trimming to prepare quality truffles.

Kris Jacobson, a retired police officer in Eugene, went into the business a year ago after her Belgian Malinois, Ilsa, locked onto the truffle scent during a two-day training.

She estimates that her company, Umami Truffle Dogs, was able to harvest about 30 pounds last year.

She also has ventured south to Texas to survey for a southern variety, the pecan truffle — in nut orchards.

"I am still learning how Ilsa communicates with me. It's really kind of amazing," Jacobson said. "If it happens to be a really small truffle that I just don't see, she will pinpoint where it is, and sneeze."

McGee has been prospecting in Western Washington, where the Olympic Peninsula is a long-established area for truffles.

But many other areas are relatively unexplored. She is working with several large landowners to survey sites for truffles, and she hopes some day to get permission to explore the vast acreages of Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

Last year, McGee gathered about 10 pounds of truffles, and supplemented her income training dogs. This year has been spotty, with one prime site flooded and a nearby site yielding truffles too spongy to send to market.

But she remains bullish on the future.

Each year, more Northwest landowners are planting hazelnut trees inoculated with a species of European truffles.

So far, none of these stands are producing truffles.

But the trees are still young. McGee hopes it's only a matter of time until her dogs lend a nose to the harvests.