Nadine was excited. She scampered along a haphazard route, pausing now and then to sniff at the ground. Occasionally she began to dig in the dirt, her breath quickening and eyes widening.

But she was not permitted to complete the excavation she had begun. That task was finished by Vanessa, who distracted Nadine with a tasty treat and used a trowel to discover, and uncover, the object of their search.

Nadine is a dog, but she’s far from an ordinary canine. She is trained to find truffles, and I recently accompanied her, and her handler Vanessa Shea, on a hunt for those elusive, rather unattractive fungi that more than make up in value what they may lack in appearance.

This quest took placed at Virginia Truffles, a family-owned-and-operated enterprise in that state, but truffles are grown in orchards that span the country from Maryland, Kentucky, and Tennessee to Idaho, Oregon, and California.  

Several species of truffle grow wild in Colorado, embedded at the base of trees in ponderosa pine forests. They serve as food for deer and squirrels, but they’re not the variety that is so prized by humans.

Among good places to find truffles in Pennsylvania are Valley Forge National Historic Park, Moraine State Park, and Michaux State Forest.

My experience began with an introduction to everything truffle delivered around a blazing fire pit by Vanessa; her sister, Olivia; and their mother, Patrice.

My fellow adventurers and I benefitted from our hosts’ encyclopedic knowledge, which included historic facts, truffle tidbits, and recipes for using these highly prized gastronomic gems in a variety of ways.

For example, who knew that truffles were prized at the time of the Egyptian, Greek, and Roman empires? That the medieval Catholic Church largely banned consumption of “the devil’s fruit”? And that they were a favorite food of French Queen Catherine de Medici and King Louis XIV?

Modern truffling is said to have evolved when French farmers observed pigs uprooting a favorite food and then trained the animals for the hunt. However, because pigs love truffles, they often consumed their prize before the farmer could rescue it, so trackers began training dogs, who happily work for canine treats.

The object of the hunt is an edible fungus that grows several inches underground beneath tree branches. Favorite hosts are oak and hazelnut trees.

Upon learning that truffle farmers can wait as long as 10 years after planting their seedlings before they get their first harvest, and that the crop is retrieved during a truncated harvesting time of only a few months, I concluded that raising the subterranean fungus is as much an art as a science and qualifies as a labor of love.

Love between human and dog was evident as I followed Nadine and Vanessa walking rapidly through the orchard, Vanessa repeating the mantra, “Where’s the truffle?” Our trek, which lasted a little over an hour, produced five black truffles.

A post-hunt mini-buffet included carrot soup, deviled eggs, pastrami, and brie cheese, all enhanced with fresh truffle shavings or slices.

While the earthy, pungent odor of the tubers that Nadine unearthed was almost too strong for my nostrils or taste buds, the hints of truffle in the food added a unique dimension that I found easy to enjoy but difficult to describe.

During a post-snack visit to the small onsite laboratory, Patrice explained the truffle-cleaning process, which includes cutting out any small rotted areas.

She described the truffle-grading guidelines that have been adopted by the United Nations and mentioned that some of the tubers that the farm sells to nearby white-tablecloth restaurants are priced at more than $120 an ounce.

She also listed some of the many ways truffles may be used to add flavor to a variety of foods, several of which were demonstrated, and enjoyed, during our snack.

While some cuisine seems like a natural fit — think eggs, soup, mashed potatoes, infusing sauces and dips, and making truffle butter and cream — the possibilities for using truffles to titillate taste buds are virtually endless.

Having been hooked by the distinctive scent, lore, and taste of this nondescript but delicious taste enhancer, I purchased truffle-infused honey, salt, and pepper to bring home.

I look forward to enjoying them, along with memories of a unique experience that long will linger in my mind — and on my tongue.

Information about truffles, and a list of growers throughout the United States, is available at, the website of the North American Truffle Growers Association.


After gallivanting around the world, Victor Block still retains the travel bug. He believes that travel is the best possible education. A member of the Society of American Travel Writers, Victor loves to explore new destinations and cultures, and his stories about them have won a number of writing awards.

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