The LookOut columns


What I Say
About Frank Gruber Send email to:

Old Dog, New Trick

By Frank Gruber

My parents live half the year in a farmhouse they fixed up down a dirt road from a village in the Umbria region of Italy. It's about two hours from Rome, two hours from Florence, but miles from nowhere in most directions.

Some years ago my parents adopted a stray dog. They named him Lorenzo, as he appeared at their door on the feast day of San Lorenzo.

Although not in any respect a "pet" person, I've always had some affinity for 'Renzo -- I'm a lucky dog myself for having parents who decided to spend the summers of their retirement in Italy.

I have also appreciated that 'Renzo has the right idea about how to spend a day in the country -- a walk in the morning, a walk in the evening, and lots of lying around in between.

'Renzo has appeared to be an average dog in all respects. His pedigree is indeterminate. Knee high, his head a little small for his body, his mottled white fur not quite shaggy, not quite short, 'Renzo has always impressed me as the canine equivalent of a utility infielder.

On the other hand, 'Renzo did learn, in middle-age, a few words in what must have been a second language -- "sit," "down," and "paw" in English. Not much worse from how much Italian I've managed to pick up in 20 years of sporadic learning.

Unfortunately, 'Renzo is aging fast. His eyes are misted with cataracts, his hearing is selective at best, and, worst of all, he recently underwent surgery for a tumor. Yet, late in his game 'Renzo has shown that he is some dog.

We underestimated him from the start. In retrospect, the signs were there, if only -- as with so many things -- we better understood the locals.

When my parents first took 'Renzo in, they were informed by Fausto, the village's "guardia della caccia" -- guardian of the hunt -- that 'Renzo was a hunting dog and that because of that, he could not let 'Renzo run free at any time outside of hunting season. The reason is to protect the young pheasants the hunters plan to shoot once the season starts. (During the season dogs may run wild -- apparently the pheasants are fair game for all species.)

The idea of 'Renzo -- 'Renzo of the short legs and the little head -- as a hunter has always amused me, but it is true that no dog ever lunged more viciously at a lizard or looked more ruefully at a startled bird rising from the brush by the side of the road.

Yet, it turns out that 'Renzo has a skill that far surpasses an instinct for chasing pheasants or wild boar. 'Renzo is not a mere hunter, he is a gatherer.

'Renzo is a truffle dog.

This part of Umbria is black truffle country. Truffles grow around the scrub oaks that grow in the macchia, the mass of weed-like trees and vines and thorns that takes over when the village farmers abandon rock-filled fields and olive groves to take jobs that pay cash. Where fields are marginal, as around our village, farming and raising sheep -- after thousands of years -- are on the way out.

Italy has stringent laws protecting the rural landscape, and it's near impossible to build a new house outside of existing towns and villages, so farmland has no development value either. The local landowners are gradually selling their fields to vacationers -- such as my parents.

My parents have acquired about fifteen acres of land, about half of which is macchia, and in truffle season about five every morning a car or two of truffle hunters and their dogs lumber down the dirt road past their house. Truffle hunters -- as well as hunters of game -- have free access to private property, as, under the law, one cannot own the products of nature.

(Truffle hunters are, however, subject to other laws. For instance, the only tool they can use is a hand spade with a small blade -- apparently designed to prevent a hunter from indiscriminately excavating the area around an oak tree.)

Occasionally -- and only very occasionally -- a truffle hunter would give a few of the precious fungi to my parents. This happened once during one of my visits, when I came to the profound realization that no truffle tastes so good as a free truffle.

Only if truffles are free does one feel justified in using them with the abandon that becomes them, because you really haven't tasted truffle until you've tasted a lot of truffle. True, as my father says, they taste like mud, but it's tangy mud, and kind of addictive.

Which brings us back to 'Renzo.

A couple months ago my father took 'Renzo for a walk down to some macchia he bought two years ago and which he has been trying to clear, gradually, to free the old olive trees and grape vines that are now buried in brush.

'Renzo started sniffing the ground, intently, and scratching, and in a moment he was chewing on something. My father bent down and looked closer, and realized that 'Renzo was chomping on truffle.

So that started it. Nearly every evening now my father takes 'Renzo for a walk in the macchia. 'Renzo keeps his nose to the ground, and when he gets serious, there's a race to see if the truffle will end up in the human's hand or the dog's mouth.

You may have heard that the advantage of hunting truffles with dogs rather than the pigs the truffle hunters use in France is that you don't have to give the dogs any truffle to encourage them. Perhaps trained truffle dogs will find the truffle and simply "point," happy to wait for a dog biscuit or even just their master's approbation, but that doesn't go for 'Renzo. Given a moment's advantage, he'll eat the truffle himself.

After all, he's an old dog.

The first night we arrived on this visit I tried my hand at truffle hunting with 'Renzo. It's not easy. 'Renzo gets excited, and he likes to drag you through the brush. If you want to find truffles, you go along to the extent possible, which means squatting down to 'Renzo's height and doing your best Chuck Berry "duck walk" imitation, all the while trying to avoid the thorns.

We found two truffles that night. There's nothing complicated about cooking them. We chopped them in the food processor with olive oil, and poured the "sauce" over pasta.

Of course, before we ate, we raised our glasses and toasted 'Renzo -- 'Renzo of the unexpected tricks.

The views expressed in this column are those of Frank Gruber
and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Lookout.
Lookout Logo footer image
Copyright 1999-2008 All Rights Reserved.
Footer Email icon