This week, Gilt Taste is proud to offer a spectacular opportunity to visit Blackberry Farm, one of the premier culinary and outdoors resorts in America; capping the visit is a dinner hosted by Ruth Reichl. Check back in through the week for recipes from Blackberry Farm’s chef, Joseph Lenn, and to meet some of the artisans who make it so special. – Ed.
Wander out just past the garden at Blackberry Farm, past where your nose meets the scent of compost, to a little stand of hazelnut trees. If you’re lucky, you’ll come across the most crushingly adorable dog named Tom. And if Blackberry Farm is lucky, Tom will be digging up the dirt around those trees, plucking out spectacularly expensive truffles for his trainer, Jim Sanford.
It hasn’t happened yet, and so they’ll wait and see. Waiting and seeing is a part of this game.
In 1999, a man named Tom Michaels showed up in eastern Tennessee, convinced that he’d found an environment so similar to France’s Perigord region that it could produce the same prized truffles. Everyone, of course, thought he was just dreaming and, when he started calling chefs to tell them what he had, he got a lot of clicks and dial tones. But, in 2007, he filled up a Tupperware with his truffles and drove them around hoping to make a sale. As Sam Beall, owner of Blackberry Farm, tells it, Michaels showed up, opened the lid, the scent wafted out, and the first words Sam could manage to say were, “How can I help you get more of these?”
Michaels said he needed dogs to help him hunt. So Beall flew to Alba, the truffle capital of Italy, and brought back a couple of Lagotto Romagnolo puppies, asking Jim Sanford to train them.
Sanford is tall, broad but lanky, and kind of looks like what you’d imagine a career animal trainer to look like: Forever in blue jeans with a calm disposition and a professorial air, but, like, a professor who spends time in the field, not an egghead. He showed me how, armed with a clicker and a piece of pipe stuffed with truffle-oil soaked cotton balls, he trained Tom (named after Tom Michaels, naturally). He rubbed the dog’s head, and said, “I have to brag on him a little bit. He harvested 200 pounds of truffles in one season.” (In return, Michaels helped Blackberry Farm inoculate and plant their own truffle grove.)
I asked Sanford if he trained these dogs in a traditional Italian manner. He laughed dryly. “I have no idea how they train them in Italy,” he said. “It’s not something they like to talk about. Truffle hunters, when they find their spots, they will not tell anyone, not even their wives. They might tell their children on their deathbed. So they love to talk truffles, but once you get to where or how, it’s like, ‘I don’t know you, gringo.’”
“So how did you figure out how to do this?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s just psychology,” he said, as if understanding canine psychology was the easiest thing in the world. But then again, maybe training dogs isn’t that hard, considering that Sanford’s first passion was training elephants. The stakes are a bit higher there.
“At birth, an elephant weighs 300 pounds, and grows to 10,000,” Sanford said. “You’re going to lose the physical battle from day one.” So you have to start teaching them how to behave pretty quick.
And he learned to teach them almost eerily well. At the Knoxville Zoo, when they were having budget problems, Sanford trained four elephants to paint; the Zoo sold the paintings in the gift shop. “There isn’t a joy in the world like teaching an animal like that to do something and watching it do it,” he said.
I listened to him talk. Even as he handled Tom with obvious love, I could sense a certain faraway-ness in his voice. Finally, I asked if he missed his elephants, if it hurt that he was now working with dogs instead.
Sanford explained that it didn’t matter what he wanted to do; he’d rather be a good parent and raise his son in one place, instead of jumping from city to city, zoo to zoo.
But there are pleasures in this life, too. “Tom can find a beautiful truffle the size of the tip of your finger,” he said, with real pride. “And I’m a simple guy. Before I started training these dogs, I don’t think I knew what a truffle was. But Tom Michaels gave me one and told me to put it in a cereal bowl with some eggs in the shell, cover it up in Saran wrap and open it the next day. I scrambled them, shaved a little of the truffle on top… Well, you see God when you do that.”