Good dog: Canine hits paydirt foraging for truffles

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Ilsa digs into the earth beneath the dense hazelnut forest, tossing dirt aloft with each pass of her paws.

"They all tend to start out a little fast," Kris Jacobson says as her Belgian malinois digs, "and then they kind of get into a rhythm and really start to focus. They've got to get the wiggles out and the smells out."

Ilsa isn't digging for a bone.

She's foraging for a rather dirty delicacy: truffles.

"They can grow anywhere from a foot to 2 feet deep," Jacobson said.

She took KVAL News to a secret truffle orchard in February, where Ilsa's snout was hot on the scent of a very rare truffle: the European Perigord.

To the average person, all truffles look the same - pretty much like a big clump of dirt.

After Ilsa struck paydirt, Jacobson had to scratch the surface to see just what she had in her hand.

"When the dog digs, sometimes their paws nick it and then break a piece off," she said.

If the scratch reveals the distinct black and white pattern beneath the dirty exterior, you've got something. These rare delicacies sell for $1,500 per pound.

"Economically, what that can mean to Oregon as a new crop is can be pretty significant," Jacobson said.

Beyond the techniques for foraging afield, scientists are getting involved in the hunt from their labs.

"It's an exciting thing to participate in," said Dan Luoma, a world market on this food delicacy."

Luoma is an Oregon State University professor of forest micology. He performed a DNA test on the truffle Ilsa found "to verify at the molecular level that it is indeed the right species of truffle," Luoma said.

The Perigords are an experiment in whether that particular truffle will grow in Oregon - and whether they will grow in commercial quantities.

But while the European Perigord rakes in the cash, Jacobson thinks Oregon truffles are tastier.

"An Oregon white truffle just makes me lightheaded when I smell a good one," she said. "It just sends you over the edge."