Hunting Truffles in Italy
Tuscany’s rolling landscape of lush green hills interlaced with vineyards, olive groves and pine forests bears many culinary fruits. The most treasured of all is the truffle and we’re not talking about the chocolate variety here! The Romans adored them for their aphrodisiac qualities. Today cooks all over the world use them for their strong flavours and to add a touch of class to their dishes. These gourmet delicacies are so precious some are even worth their weight in gold.
The white truffle is most famously found in the Piedmont region of Italy, near the city of Alba. Every autumn the warty treats are plucked from between the roots of oak, hazel, poplar and beech trees. They are sold at the truffle markets during the International White Truffle Festival of Alba. It is partly this festival and partly clever marketing that has resulted in the Alba truffle becoming the most revered truffle world-wide. However, many believe the Tuscan white truffle found mainly in Siena and Pisa is just as flavoursome and much better value for money. For this reason more and more truffle lovers are starting to flock to Tuscany during the autumn months for a truffle experience with more of an intimate and less commercialised atmosphere. It is the perfect place and time to try, buy and even hunt truffles.
The Trifolau are serious about keeping their truffle finds and locations secret and generally hunt for truffles at night. Aside from the secrecy it is said that the scent of the truffle is stronger at night, and is therefore easier for the truffle dogs to find. Originally truffles were hunted with female pigs as it was thought that the scent from the truffles resembled that of the male pig pheromone. Unfortunately truffles were also considered a delicious treat by the pigs, and many a truffle never got as far as the kitchen! Also, as one hunter commented “It’s much easier to get a dog in the back of the car!”
The dogs are trained from a young age with pieces of strong smelling cheese which are buried and the dogs are sent to find them. Eventually small truffles are buried for the dogs to find. Alternatively, it is possible to send a promising dog to truffle-hunting school. In all it takes around four years for a dog to become fully trained. A good hunting dog is invaluable, and each year there are reports of experienced hunting dogs being poisoned by rival hunters. Once the dog indicates a possible find the trifolau uses a narrow spade to dig up the truffle without damaging it, and then returns the earth to the hole so that truffles can regrow for another year. All attempts to grow truffles in artificial environments or from seed have so far failed. It would seem Mother Nature knows her stuff and is not prepared to give up her secrets so easily.
For the serious Trifolau – truffle hunter, it is possible to hunt for truffles virtually all year round; starting in January to March with the dark winter truffles, March to April for the tan truffle or bianchetto (which have been known to fool the inexperienced into thinking they are the more expensive prized white truffles!) June to November sees the more common black or summer truffle and in September the first of the prized tartufo bianco or white truffles can be found. This is the high point in the truffle hunters’ year, and there are a number of festivals to celebrate this expensive delicacy. The largest and most popular of these is the Tartufo Bianco di Alba – you can check the website for more information and dates for each year. There is also a festival at San Giovanni d’Asso (25 miles south east of Siena) held over two weekends in November. The quality of the truffles is on par with those sold in Alba and San Miniato - but the prices are not nearly so high! San Giovanni d’Asso also has a museum dedicated to the truffle. Please take a look at some terrific pictures of a truffle hunt in San Giovanni d’Asso with Adrian Fletcher on his website paradoxplace and this video by Graeme Robertson of Guardian Newspaper:
Another very popular place for truffles in Tuscany is San Miniato, a beautiful hamlet located in the province of Pisa. To Tuscany have personally visited and enjoyed the experience of a truffle hunt with a local trifolau…
Massimo Cucchiara is not only a truffle expert and a skilful hunter, he comes from a family which has dealt with the precious tuber over many years. His father has been the president of Associazione Tartufai in San Miniato and can tell you any secret of the art of hunting down these treasures. Massimo agreed to meet To Tuscany proprietor, Sean Caulfield and CNN journalist, Maureen O’Hare on a wet foggy morning near San Miniato. Here is the article Maureen wrote following her experience. If you want to try this ancient and fascinating hunt for yourself and meet Massimo, please visit his website Truffle in Tuscany or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Whilst you are in San Miniato, there is no better way to taste this expensive delicacy than at chef and TV personality Gilberto Rossi’s restaurant Pepenero. Information on special packages combining both the hunt, a cooking class and the tasting experience with him and his staff can again be found at Truffle in Tuscany.
To Tuscany have a range of accommodation ideally located to make the most of the truffle season, such as lovely and cosy Il Gallo a two villa accommodation: romantic retreat for two or for a small family or Il Rattoppo a charming house with private pool for two persons. There is also a small hamlet of Fattoria Armena which has three apartments accommodating from 4 to 7 persons, each with its own private garden set in beautiful grounds surrounded by forest and olive groves. Please have a look at our other villas in Pisa.
Having bought your truffle – what to do with it?
If you have purchased a tartufo blanco (white truffle) it is best to consume it as soon as possible as they do not keep for very long. With a white truffle all you need to do is slice it very finely or grate it over baked or fried eggs, or plain pasta. Cooking a white truffle will actually lessen the flavour. However, the opposite is true of the black truffle which needs to be sautéed in butter to bring out the best flavour, again this is best served with plain pasta.
For further information on truffle hunters and truffle hunting, contact the office of the Association of Truffle Hunters of Siena, Via XX Settembre, 41, 53020 San Giovanni d’Asso (SI). Telephone +39 0577/803213.
On a final and important note, if you do find a truffle but are not entirely sure – please do get someone to confirm that what you have found is indeed a delicacy – remember it is also the mushroom season and the inexperienced can easily get confused.