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Truffle-hunting in Tuscany | About the The Trifolau (Truffle Hunter)

  • Hunting Truffles in Italy

    Tuscany’s 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.

    The Romans adored truffles for their aphrodisiac qualities. Today, cooks across the world use their distinctive 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 most famous white truffle is most 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 and sold at the truffle markets during the International White Truffle Festival of Alba. It is partly thanks to this festival – and partly due to clever marketing – that Alba truffle has become the most revered truffle worldwide.

    However, many believe the Tuscan white truffle, found around Siena and Pisa, is just as flavoursome and much better value for money. For this reason, an increasing number of truffle lovers make a beeline for Tuscany during the autumn months for a truffle experience in a more intimate and less commercial atmosphere, to try, buy and even hunt for truffles.

    The truffle hunters, or Trifolau, keep their finds and locations a closely guarded secret and generally hunt for truffles at night. But these covert operations aren’t just timed to cover the hunter’s movements, it’s said the scent of the truffle is stronger at night, making it easier for the truffle dogs to find.

    Originally, truffles were hunted with female pigs because it was thought that the scent from the truffles resembled the pheromone of the male pig. Unfortunately, pigs are partial to truffles, so many of these fungi never got as far as the kitchen. Also, as one hunter told us: “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 for them to find. Eventually, the cheese is swapped for small truffles to sniff out. Alternatively, a promising dog will be sent to truffle-hunting school. It’s a long process, taking around four years for a dog to become fully trained.

    A good hunting dog is invaluable, and each year there are reports of experienced hounds 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.

    The dedicated hunt for truffles almost all year round. From January to March, they seek out the dark winter truffles,. From March to April they hunt for the tan truffle or bianchetto (which have been known to fool the inexperienced into thinking they are the more expensive prized white truffles). From June to November the more common black or summer truffle can be unearthed, 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 in Tuscany that celebrate this expensive delicacy. Among the most important are the festivals at San Giovanni d’Asso and San Miniato, where the quality of the truffles is on a par with those sold in Alba but the prices are not as high. San Giovanni d’Asso also has a museum dedicated to the truffle.
    To get a sense of the atmosphere, take a look at Adrian Fletcher’s terrific pictures of a truffle hunt in San Giovanni d’Asso at paradoxplace  and this video by Graeme Robertson of The Guardian:

    We recently hosted CNN journalist Maureen O’Hare on a truffle-hunt in San Miniato. She and To Tuscany’s proprietor Sean Caulfield were offered a glimpse of the truffle-hunter’s skill by Massimo Cucchiara, whose family has been involved with the precious tuber for many years. You can read Maureen’s article here. If you want to meet Massimo and try this ancient and fascinating hunt for yourself, visit Truffle in TuscanyAnd one of the best places to taste this delicacy is at chef and TV personality Gilberto Rossi’s restaurant, Pepenero, in San Miniato. Check out Truffle in Tuscany for special packages combining the hunt, a cooking class and the tasting experience with Gilberto and his team.

    To Tuscany has plenty of accommodation ideally located to make the most of the truffle season, such as cosy Il Gallo,  which has two properties, suitable for couples and small families, or Il Rattoppo, a charming house sleeping two with private pool. There is also the small hamlet of Fattoria Armena, which has three apartments for four to seven people, each with its own private garden set in beautiful grounds surrounded by forest and olive groves. Alternatively, take a look at To Tuscany’s villas in Pisa.
    Having bought your truffle, what to do with it?
    If you have purchased a tartufo blanco (white truffle), eat it as soon as possible because it won’t keep for very long. Slice it very finely or grate it over baked or fried eggs, or plain pasta. Avoid cooking a white truffle, which will dull its taste. However, the opposite is true of the black truffle, which needs to be sautéed in butter to bring out the flavour. It’s best served with plain pasta.bring out the best flavour, again this is best served with plain pasta.

    Finally, if you find a truffle but are not entirely sure it is one, check with someone who knows. Remember it is also the mushroom season and f you’re inexperienced it’s easy to get them confused.

    For further information about truffle hunters and truffle hunting, contact:

    Association of Truffle Hunters of Siena
    Via XX Settembre 17, 53024 San Giovanni d’Asso (SI)
    Tel: +39 0577 803213

    Associazione Tartufai delle Colline Sanminiatesi 
    Piazza del Popolo, 19, 56028 San Miniato (PI)
    Tel. +39 0571 42014

    Truffle in Tuscany
    Via Covina, 44/C, 56028 San Miniato (PI)
    Tel. +39 3479030371