The UK Truffle Festival & Truffle Dog Championships is not just an event, but a celebration of the intricate world of truffles and the incredible dogs trained to find them. I sat down with Melissa Waddingham, one of the masterminds behind the festival, to dive deeper into the significance of the championships, the role of truffle dogs in the industry, and what attendees can expect from this one-of-a-kind event. (Editor's Note: This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.)
The UK Truffle Festival & Truffle Dog Championships aim to educate enthusiasts on responsible truffle hunting, emphasizing the importance of understanding truffles' ecological significance and habitat conservation.
Truffle dogs play an invaluable role in sustainable truffle harvesting, ensuring minimal habitat disturbance. Winning the championship provides handlers recognition, aiding in professional opportunities within the truffle industry.
The event offers attendees a rich experience beyond the championship, including "wild talks" on truffles' science and health benefits, food demonstrations from top forager cooks, and interactive truffle dog scent sessions for curious newcomers.
Q: How did the idea for The UK Truffle Festival & Truffle Dog Championships come about?
A: The idea emerged from a collaboration between Ben Sweet and myself. I had previously expressed a wish to organize a truffle hound competition. Ben approached me, suggesting we not only organize the competition but also create a larger festival for the South coast.
Q: What is the main objective of the UK Truffle Festival & Truffle Dog Championships?
Our primary goal is to raise awareness about UK truffles, educate on responsible hunting within the law, and emphasize understanding their crucial place in our environment, respecting their ecology and rare habitat. While truffles are not rare, the habitats for some species are limited in the UK. The festival is a platform to share scientific insights and our passion in a community that's typically secretive about truffle hunting.
Q: The UK Truffle Dog Championships is a unique highlight of the festival. Can you share more about the significance of truffle dogs in the truffle industry and how the championships play a role in that?
A: You're correct it is one of the main features. We are proud to be the first to offer an industry-recognized certificate created by our team of professional and highly regarded judges within scent work and training.
Using dogs is the only sustainable way of harvesting truffles as the truffles are harvested with little impact to the habitat. Disturbance is not good for the mycelium.* Dogs indicate only where truffles are with precision, avoiding random hunting.
Winning the championship solidifies a handler's reputation, and professional orchard owners are more likely to hire them. The competition also serves as a measure of a handler's progress in training.
Q: Could you tell us more about the late Marrian Dean and how her vision influenced this competition?
Marion Dean pioneered truffle hound training in the UK. When I began over fifteen years ago, I attended one of her courses to gauge my dog's progress. Marion was one of very few people who were seemingly reawakening the subject in the UK, so it was a blessing to stumble upon her. She did a truffle hound competition for her training clients - not many in those days compared to today. It was a great event, novel and hugely useful, bringing together some of the UK’s next generation of truffle hunters.
Marion was the only one doing things like this so when she died, I wanted to continue that vision she started because it was a great idea!
Q: What can attendees expect from the "wild talks" on truffles and wild food?
A: Attendees can look forward to engaging demos on wild food. From the science of truffles to discussions on their potential medicinal properties, the sessions promise to be informative. We even have a speaker discussing the health benefits of a wild foraged diet. One of our local vineyard restaurants will showcase food, including wild food and truffles. More details about the participants can be found on our website.
Q: For newcomers, can you explain the "Have-a-go truffle dog scent sessions" and how they work?
A: Certainly! The "have a go" sessions allow attendees with dogs that are not participating to experience the thrill of truffle hunting. It's a chance for budding truffle hunters to gauge their dog's potential. I'll provide insights into training dogs and guide attendees on what to look for and what to do when their dogs recognize and accept the new scent.
Q: How do you ensure the safety and well-being of all the dogs participating in the championships?
A: All dogs at the event are required to be socialised and well-behaved. They must be on leads at all times within the event site unless competing. Our competition areas are secured to prevent any dogs from escaping during their turn. While we have first aiders on site, it's essential to note that by purchasing a ticket, attendees acknowledge that they are responsible for their own safety and that of their dogs.
Q: How does the competition differentiate between the bronze, silver, and gold categories? What can participants expect from each level?
A: The levels differ based on the number of hidden truffle baits, the time allocated to find them, and the type of baits (oil or fresh truffle) used.
Q: What are some highlights or memorable moments from past events that attendees still talk about?
A: Clearly the winners were delighted! The competition always generates good feedback, and the speakers were very popular as were the food and stands, all unique in every way, certainly for the UK. We were complimented about it as a whole and were very grateful it was so popular and expect to sell out again this year.
(*Editor's note: Mycelium refers to the mass of thread-like structures (hyphae) that form the vegetative part of fungi. It plays a crucial role in nutrient absorption and can be found extensively in soil and other substrates.)
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