Kristin Rosenbach and her border collie Callie search the forest floor for truffles. Rosenbach trained Callie to hunt truffles 10 years ago. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Kristin Rosenbach and her border collie Callie search the forest floor for truffles. Rosenbach trained Callie to hunt truffles 10 years ago. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Truffle-tracking dogs find the delicacy in local forestlands

This Arlington resident’s specially trained pooches are a chef’s best friend.

There’s culinary gold in them thar tree roots.

That’s because winter is truffle season in the rainy woods of Snohomish County.

But before chefs can garnish bowls of creamy polenta with paper-thin slices of shaved truffle, they need Kristin Rosenbach’s dogs to find the elusive fungi.

Rosenbach, 46, runs Wagnificent K9 Truffle Dogs out of her home near Arlington. Her four dogs are trained to find truffles, and she teaches the skill to clients’ dogs, in the field and online.

Truffles grow underground in the roots of trees. In the old days, pigs were used to sniff them out. The thing is, pigs like to eat truffles. Dogs don’t — and they’re much easier to work with, Rosenbach said.

Truffle dogs are trained to find only ripe truffles. Unripe ones are worthless, and once harvested, unripe truffles will not ripen. That’s why it’s a terrible idea to rake for truffles — you’ll get unripe truffles along with the ripe ones, and you’ll do environmental damage, Rosenbach said.

“When dogs alert on ripe truffles, there are unripe ones there that you can go back to at that spot later,” she said.

“You follow the dog.”

In Europe, the classic truffle dog is the lagotto romagnolo, an Italian breed that resembles a standard poodle. But Rosenbach says any dog can be trained to hunt truffles — although flat-faced and very small pooches will be at a disadvantage in the field.

“There is no best breed. So much of it comes down to the relationship and partnership” with the dog’s human, she said.

For Rosenbach’s dogs, that means lots of praise, tasty cheese and hot dogs for treats, and a squeaky ball to chew like gum.

Foraging season for white truffles typically begins in November and runs through March. Black truffles are available year-round, but they’re hard to find in summer, Rosenbach said.

Rosenbach says her students get to keep most of the truffles they find on hunts. She sells her excess truffles to restaurants for $25 an ounce. In contrast, the most prized Italian white truffles sell for upwards of $150 an ounce.

Tasting those Italian truffles helped give Rosenbach, a former athletic trainer who’d been doing agility training and herding with her dogs, the idea for the truffle business.

“My husband and I vacationed in Italy in the summer of 2010. Rick Steves said try truffles, so we did,” she said.

That fall, she needed an activity to keep Callie, her border collie, busy, and hit on the truffle idea. She learned about the fungi from an expert in Oregon, then took that information to a friend who trains search and rescue and explosives-detection dogs. Rosenbach has four dogs now, led by Callie, who is 12 and still going strong.

The value of truffles raises the possibility of poaching by trespassers. One Snohomish County landowner who has worked with Rosenbach says the location of his truffle-bearing property is a closely guarded secret.

“Otherwise you’ll get the tweakers out there ripping the hell out of your property,” he said.

Rosenbach says she hasn’t heard any reports of poaching here, but she knows it’s a problem elsewhere. Law-enforcement officials in western Oregon say truffle theft is a growing problem, particularly on tree farms in the Coast Range.

Rosenbach hunts on private land, with permission.

“If I see a property that seems likely, I approach the landowner for permission to take a look,” she said. “If I find truffles, we come up with some sort of arrangement with the landowner. Either it’s a fee, or I give them some of the truffles.”

Her students must sign nondisclosure agreements to keep the truffles’ source a secret.

“Protecting (landowners’) privacy is paramount with me,” she said.

Rosenbach says poachers would be disappointed, anyway. Pacific Northwest truffles aren’t as valuable as European ones.

“There’s a misconception that you’ll get rich,” she said. “You won’t.”

What about cooking with truffles?

“I like to create dishes that play to the earthy aromas of the truffle itself,” said Andy Nguyen, a chef in Lynden who buys truffles from Rosenbach. “It could be a simple pasta dish or robust smoked dishes.”

One of Nguyen’s most memorable truffle dishes was one he created in the field while on a foraging trip with Rosenbach.

“I had the opportunity to go on a hunt with Kristin and her pet friends and … we made a dish literally in the middle of the woods after freshly foraging some truffles,” he said. “(It was) a toasted crostini point with sauteed mushrooms, foraged sea beans and fresh-churned butter. That dish was literally created on a whim and in sub-freezing temperatures.”

Truffles must be handled with care, Nguyen said. They can’t be kept much longer than a week. Truffles’ flavor comes from their earthy, musky aroma, which begins to fade as soon as they’re removed from the ground.

“The second they come out of the ground, they start aging and decaying,” he said. “We (delay this) by gently wrapping them in loose towels to help them breathe.”

Andrew Culp, owner of Salt & Vine in Anacortes, said home cooks can use truffles — but advises restraint.

“Truffles, being fungi, are a great addition to any dish that calls for mushrooms,” he said. “Notice I said addition, not substitution. Truffles are intense in flavor and aroma, so a little goes a long way.

“Because of their depths of flavor and expense, they are typically shaved to garnish anything from pasta, to risotto, and even burgers,” he said.

Rosenbach enjoys eating the pungent fruit of her labors.

“I love them. By the time truffle season starts, I’m usually craving them,” she said. “My husband (Josh Rosenbach, principal at Centennial Middle School in Snohomish) makes an amazing venison black truffle burger.”

But for Rosenbach, eating truffles takes a back seat to finding them.

“For me, it’s never about the truffle. It’s always about the partnership and relationship with the dog,” she said. “It’s such a beautiful experience … to watch the dog problem-solve and find the truffle and show you where it is. It’s an amazing conversation with your dog.

“The truffle is a delicious byproduct.”

Washington North Coast Magazine

This article is featured in the fall issue of Washington North Coast Magazine, a supplement of The Daily Herald. Explore Snohomish and Island counties with each quarterly magazine. Each issue is $3.99. Subscribe to receive all four editions for $14 per year. Call 425-339-3200 or go to www.washingtonnorthcoast.com for more information.

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