For Seattle truffle harvester Dawn Meiklejohn, a truffle hunting leader with the Oregon Truffle Festival, her favorite things all come together when she’s truffle hunting: the woods, her dog, and fabulous food.
“How could I not be a truffle forager?” she says. “I grew up in Vermont and was always out in the woods. Being in nature has always been a part of my life and when I got Lidia she’s made it all the better.”
Lidia is Dawn’s truffle hunting partner, a Lagotto Romagnolo dog who learned to find her first truffle in Dawn’s yard within two days of training. Before getting Lidia as a puppy, Dawn knew nothing about Oregon’s native truffles. “I got her and it changed my life,” Dawn says. “Lidia would find the target truffles in the woods but she took a while before she found her own real truffle. The first time she found her own truffle she was going for the target truffle and all of a sudden turned 45 degrees and walked over and dug up a real truffle. It’s just so fun. And so now during the season we go out three days a week.”
Dawn didn’t get a truffle dog specifically to do truffle hunting, she says she just wanted a dog. But then she met some breeders of Lagotto Romagnolo dogs who told her that their family activity was taking their dogs out truffle hunting. “That’s how I learned about it and when I picked up my puppy I started teaching her lots of tricks and I thought, well, I can teach her to find truffles too,” Dawn says. “When people get their first whiff of a ripe Oregon truffle, their eyes light up because nothing else compares.”
Now that Oregon native truffle hunting is an activity that Dawn and Lidia enjoy, she’s more than happy to share her experiences and knowledge as a foray leader for Oregon Truffle Festival and as a book author. She wrote the book “Oregon Truffle Feasts,” featuring more than 75 recipes along with how to care for truffles, and stories about how Lidia learned how to find truffles.
When Dawn finds truffles she often donates them to charities or nonprofits who use them in fundraising auctions or she gives what she doesn’t use herself to her lucky neighbors.
There aren’t enough working dogs to supply the Oregon Truffle Festival with all of the truffles that are in demand, but training dogs to harvest in a natural way like Lidia does is crucial for the long-term success of Oregon’s native truffles. Truffle hunting dogs are trained to point out only the ripe truffles, which leaves the unripe ones for a later harvest. It takes a long time for a truffle to mature to its ripest state, and it is only then that the Oregon truffle has true culinary value. Truffles found by dogs are reliably ripe and aromatic.
In 2006, unaware of any working truffle dogs in the United States, the Oregon Truffle Festival founders began investigating training dogs to find truffles. It took three years, but in 2009, the Oregon Truffle Festival finally found some dog trainers who were willing to try training their dogs and provide demos for the festival. By the summer of 2013, festival founders estimated that there were around 1,000 truffle dogs in the Pacific Northwest, enough to launch the Joriad: North American Truffle Dog Championships. The inaugural Joriad event was held as part of the Oregon Truffle Festival in January 2014 and is now six years strong.