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Hunting for Truffles Is a Perilous Pursuit, Especially for the Dogs Who Dig

CAMERATA NUOVA — On a bright morning in the mountains above the sleepy central Italian town of Camerata Nuova, a small and curly coated dog named Bella raced among the birch trees. As her owner leaned on a long, harpoon-shaped spade and shouted encouragement, she darted toward a tree and dug under a frosted carpet of dead leaves.

“Black gold,” Renato Tomassetti, 80, said as Bella emerged with what looked like a scorched, deeply aromatic tennis ball. He and a group of other truffle hunters then followed Bella deeper into the woods of Simbruini mountains, where she picked up another scent by another tree. “Stop!” Mr. Tomassetti screamed. “Leave it! Leave it!”

The younger men ran ahead and shooed Bella from the corpse of a fox. The body bore the hallmarks of death by strychnine poisoning — bloodied eyes, canines bared in painful grimace, outstretched limbs. Mr. Tomassetti quickly put a muzzle on Bella, an energetic Lagotto Romagnolo (Italy’s “Truffle Dog”) as the truffle hunters hovered somberly over the dead fox. The local Carabinieri police brought out their measuring sticks and a freezer bag, treating the area as a crime scene.

“It could have been one of our dogs,” said Mr. Tomassetti, blaming unknown “assassins” for trying to kill off the competition to keep the truffle-rich woods “all to themselves.” The men around him nodded their heads, smoked their cigarettes and declared exasperation with Italy’s forever truffle wars.

“This massacre must end!” Belardo Bravi, 46, shouted in anguish.

Few things evoke as enchanting an Arcadian ideal — and as romantic a vision of the Italian old world — as the intense bond between truffle hunters and their dogs. The two work together through the autumn mists and winter snow to unearth the ambrosial tubers, treasures that are shaved onto pastas, grated into sauces or infused into oils for the most sophisticated, and wealthy, palates.

Truffle hunting is a tradition often imagined as an upper-class past time, Italy’s answer to fox hunting, and has inspired luxury tourism “experiences,” museums and films. (“If my dog dies I would die, too,” says one older man in the 2020 documentary “Truffle Hunters,” while another climbs in the bathtub to blow dry his dog.)

Renato Tomassetti and Bella after she found a truffle. “Black gold,” Mr. Tomassetti said.Credit…Stephanie Gengotti for The New York Times

But digging just below that surface reveals a sinister, murderous and money-hungry underside to truffle hunting that casts the fungi less as a fragrant Italian delicacy than as the bloodhound diamond of a secret, deadly and perpetual war.

To protect areas rich in lucrative truffles, territorial hunters have sought to scare off outsiders and knock out the competition by blowing up pickup trucks, shooting up cars and whacking one another with their vanghetto spades. In 2018, a Springer Spaniel named Willa became the sixth dog murdered in two years in Brignano Frascata, a small town in Piedmont, the Italian region renowned for its lavish white truffles.

“There are hundreds of dogs killed a year,” said Mr. Tomassetti, who is also the honorary president of the Lazio region’s truffle hunter association, which he said had angered locals by successfully fighting the town’s attempts to prevent outsiders from prospecting its hills for black gold. “It happens all over Italy.”

Much of the violence seems to have taken place in the central Italian region of Abruzzo, which borders Camerata Nuova, and where poisonings have been numerous enough to be mapped. Truffle hunters say that much of the violence, though, rarely emerges because dog owners do not want their secret truffle fields known. Instead, retribution is delivered through a poisoned water well or field. Sometimes there are civilian casualties.

“There are hundreds of dogs killed a year,” Mr. Tomassetti, 80, said.Credit…Stephanie Gengotti for The New York Times

On Jan. 7, Martina Ercoli and her family took a nature hike on Mount Simbruini with their year-and-a-half old Chocolate Labrador, Brando. He ate a poisoned hot dog and died in her brother’s arms. “The truffle hunters strike again,” she said locals had told her. Two days later, she mourned the loss on Facebook, blaming “these criminals, presumably people who hunt truffles and spread poisonous morsels to kill each others dogs in war,” drawing unwanted attention on the small town.

“It’s not right that the world knows us for this,” said Vincenzo Pelosi, 67, who owns the coffee bar in the quiet town’s square that bore a poster of the spaghetti westerns shot in the surrounding hills. “There were 54 Westerns filmed here!”

In the hours before Bella found the fox, Mr. Tomassetti, who lives in Rome, joined other truffle hunters wearing camouflage and Italian National Truffle Hunter Association coats outside Mr. Pelosi’s bar. They were going to help the local Carabinieri give a last sweep of the area where Brando had eaten the bad hot dog. Among them stood Antonio Morasca, 62, whose dog Thor also ate a poisoned hot dog, rolled under Mr. Morasca’s car, on the morning of Jan. 6. “The Epiphany,” he said.

“I took it out of his mouth, but he ran off — he loved to run off — and got another one in his mouth,” Mr. Morasca said. “He started trembling. We got him back to the town, and he started foaming. We made him eat salt to vomit, but the whites of his eyes had turned red. His legs stretched out, and he became rigid. He was dead before we got to the clinic. A half an hour.”

Camerata Nuova, known for the Westerns shot there, and now, the dogs poisoned there.Credit…Stephanie Gengotti for The New York Times

The men shook their heads.

“For us the dog is like a child,” Mr. Tomassetti said. “Actually, more than a child.”

Mr. Tomassetti spoke with reverie of his deceased dog, Tom, aka, “the Gladiator,” Bella’s father, with whom he won Italian and European truffle hunting competitions. “Renato and Tom — A Winning Couple” read the inscription emblazoned on his spade. Tom, he said, had survived a poisoning attempt and spent years siring a generation of truffle dogs before dying in Mr. Tomassetti’s arms.

“I’m not ashamed to say I cried the entire drive from Terni to Rome,” he said.

That closeness — but also the earning potential of an expertly trained truffle dog — led truffle hunters to exercise extreme caution in disclosing their home addresses or where they kept their dogs, for fear of dognapping or murder, as saboteurs toss poisoned hot dogs into yards or sprinkle them along favorite paths. Some put up surveillance systems. Others, including a friend of Mr. Tomassetti who worked for the church, have withdrawn behind walls.

“He has five dogs inside the Vatican,” he said.

Daniele Formichetti, the head of the local Carabinieri’s forest and canine division led the hunt, after earlier in the week finding a suspicious hot dog, which the authorities had sent to the lab.

He had a hunch that the culprit was a truffle hunter who knew where not to let his dogs sniff. His colleague, Ettore Maceroni, theorized that a hunter had worked the area for a few days and then dropped poison to kill off the competition. They mulled stopping cars on the mountain road to search glove compartments and trunks for poison hot dogs. Neither was optimistic about catching the killer.

“Nobody talks,” Mr. Maceroni said.

Carabinieri inspecting the corpse of a fox thought to have died from poisoning.Credit…Stephanie Gengotti for The New York Times

The Carabinieri and the men traversed a bumpy country road dividing the high plains used as sets for the spaghetti westerns.

“This is the truffle hunter’s battlefield,” Mr. Tomassetti said as he climbed out of the car near the scene of the chocolate lab’s demise. A specially trained Belgian Shepherd, Asia, leaped out of the Carabinieri’s van.

“Search,” said Mr. Formichetti.

As Asia investigated, Mr. Tomassetti and his friends complained that there was an “omerta” or Mafioso code of silence among truffle hunters.

“Maybe it is one of us,” he said.

“Don’t look at me when you say that!” his friend Mario Morganti, 62, said.

Some suspected a local who drank coffee in the town bar.

“I’ll hide in the woods,” Mr. Bravi said. He nearly lost his own dog, also named Bella, a dozen years ago, to poison. He had already installed a video camera in his jeep to see who approached while he was out with his dogs. “It’s running now. And then when I catch him and see him in the piazza, I’ll break his little hands.”

Asia finished her sweep without finding any evidence. Mr. Tomassetti then let his Bella out the back of his jeep, but prudently kept her on a leash. As they walked deeper into the woods, he let her free. She found truffles and then she found the fox’s body.

After the Carabinieri took the corpse back to the lab, Mr. Tomassetti and the others returned to their jeeps. As Bella scratched in her crate, he looked at the woods and lamented that the local truffle hunters wanted it all to themselves. The jeep headed back to Rome, and he walked Bella in front of the maximum-security prison near his house.

“It was where,” he said, “these murderers belong.”

Bella looking for truffles.Credit…Stephanie Gengotti for The New York Times

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