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Smellin' truffles in Southern Oregon

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Kelly’s padded paws ruffle the crispy leaves beneath a hazelnut tree as she sniffs her way through the field in hopes of locating a particular fungi that will send her into canine culinary glee.

Under one particular tree, the Nova Scotia duck-tolling retriever stops and starts scratching in the dirt before sitting down with a very proud air of herself.

An exuberant Joe Strahl, Kelly’s owner, sounds like a stage mom at dress rehearsal.

“Good job, Kelly, you found one!” he says, petting her jowls.

A few scratches in the dirt and Strahl finds the prize of the day. A black truffle, one of the world’s most sought-after fungi.

For finding a truffle worth $50 or more, Kelly gets something she likes even better — a piece of cheese.

“She doesn’t do this for the truffles,” Stahl says. “She does it strictly for the treat.”

Kelly, the truffle-sniffing hound, is one of a growing number of dogs becoming trained to locate underground truffles, becoming the family pet equivalent of a metal detector to help mine the forest for these mycological pots of gold.

These dogs — a variety of breeds can be trained to do it — are taught to identify truffles by smell and locate them underground.

The man-and-dog duo refine the tedious task of walking through Christmas tree farms, hazelnut groves or young stands of Douglas fir and other trees, then blindly raking the duff in search of black or white truffles prized by connoisseurs.

Unlike chanterelles, morels and other locally available mushrooms that fruit above ground, truffles spend their entire lives 1 to 6 inches below the surface, so a good nose to the ground creates quite the advantage.

In France, pigs are used to locate truffles, but their employment is riskier than with a dog.

“The pigs want to eat the truffle,” Strahl says. “They have a lot of desire to dig the truffle up. The dogs have no desire to do anything to the truffle. All she wants is her reward. In her case, she’ll do anything for a piece of cheese.”

The forage season for winter white truffles runs from October through March, with spring white truffles harvested from May through July. Oregon black truffles are hunted from December through March, depending on weather.

The Willamette Valley is home to copious amounts of white and black truffles. In 2010 and 2011, Southern Oregon University biology professor Diane Southworth had a contract with the Bureau of Land Management to look for truffles on public lands in Southern Oregon.

During two spring seasons, she gathered about 600 truffles across 30 species.

“They’re uncommon, they’re very hard to find,” Southworth says. “You have to look for them, but they’re there.”

But she didn’t find any black or white truffles prized by culinarians, just a series of others that lacked the tastiness of the more valuable ones.

“They’re not necessarily choice, they’re not necessarily delicious,” Southworth says. “They’re an acquired taste.”

But they are tasty enough to squirrels and other rodents that dig them up and eat them — a key element of these truffles’ life cycles.

Because truffles don’t fruit above ground, their spores are dispersed in the feces of animals that eat them.

“There’s a certain requirement of general edibility by mammals,” Southworth says. “That’s why they smell so strong. That’s why they have some peculiar flavors.”

It was at an Oregon Truffle Festival in the Willamette Valley where Strahl, the retired former Jackson County Roads and Parks director, introduced Kelly to truffle-hunting five years ago. They attended classes for two days, with Strahl learning the basic skills of getting Kelly to understand truffles’ scents and how to use rewards to look for them.

The final day was field testing, and Kelly was the class’s top student, netting 60 truffles in a very truffle-rich area.

“She did remarkably,” Strahl says.

When Strahl takes Kelly hunting, he preps her with a good dose of truffle scent, then sends her after them while carrying a plethora of cheese.

“When she shows interest, I say ‘yes’ and I treat her,” Strahl says. “She is really good at smelling them, but she has virtually no interest in them other than the treat.”

Strahl and Kelly occasionally hunt black truffles in a hazelnut grove where the trees were inoculated with truffles about a decade ago. They hunt the truffles and give them to the landowner.

All of their other hunts are in the “more target-rich environment” of the Willamette Valley, Strahl says.

Strahl hunts strictly for recreation, enjoying his truffles by cooking them with cheeses, butter and eggs.

“I’m really into it mostly for the fun and the dog,” Strahl says. “Kind of like coon hunting. But what would you do with a coon?”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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A truffle is held at a hazelnut orchard near Medford. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune