Truffle hunt: Foraging for black gold
A truffle hunt in the hills surrounding Florence, guided by one of Italy's best truffle hunters, is a great primer in harvesting this valuable fungus
Perched upon the mist-shrouded hills, a little south of Florence, is a beige limestone home in the tiny region of Bagno a Ripoli. It’s filled with character and embellished by the patina of time. Its inhabitants, Eda and Giulio Benuzzi, are a dynamic, truffle-hunting duo blessed with unsurmountable amounts of vim and vigour, along with the appropriately heightened olfactory senses one would expect from them. And, as I was soon to discover that cold May morning, they are sticklers for routines as well. Up at 5.45 every morning, they set out for their morning walk, all bleary-eyed and tousled salt and pepper hair, ready to eke out their existence in the undulating hills they both so love. With some of the “greatest hits" of the Renaissance in full view on most days, they have very little to complain about. Vista-wise, that is. But today seems to be an aberration.
The fog is so thick that one can barely see the glistening concave top of Filippo Brunelleschi’s Duomo in Florence below. “Let’s hope the truffle gods aren’t colluding with the weather gods today!" laughs Giulio, as Eda walks ahead. “She’s upset with me today because I’ve started limiting her coffee intake to a few drops in her bowl, instead of the usual half cup."
As you might have gathered by now, Eda is Giulio’s six-year-old Lagotto Romagnolo breed of truffle-hunting dog, with a predilection for coffee and the occasional sliver of truffle. As for me, I was at the very early morning start of a 4-hour truffle hunt with Giulio—often regarded as one of Florence’s…nay, Italy’s, greatest truffle hunters—as part of the recently launched Airbnb Trips initiative that offers local experiential-based tours and trips on its website. It helps pair travellers like myself with people like Giulio for curated, immersive experiences.
“Even dogs trained for work, like Eda, can tell you that truffles—or tartufo, as we call them in Italian—are an expensive delicacy and love to eat them," says Giulio, debunking the myth that dogs have an aversion to truffles—this, in fact, was believed to be the reason they replaced pigs as the animals sniffing out truffles. “It’s just that pigs are extremely unyielding when it comes to trying to retrieve the freshly dug-up truffles from their mouths. In fact, you often come across older truffle hunters with missing fingers that have been bitten off by their pigs. In the case of the Lagotto Romagnolo breed of dogs, being retrievers, they are perfect for foraging, and more so the females, as they have better concentration powers."
And just like that our hunt begins, with Eda suddenly picking up a scent and dashing towards a thickly wooded area behind the house. Rich, as Giulio points out, with lime-saturated, well-drained soil that he then goes on to pick up and sniff. “This area is known for its black summer truffles called scorzone, whose spores prefer to anchor themselves in soil such as this, where the underlying geology is chalk or limestone. You will find truffles near the roots of shady trees like oak, hazelnut, chestnut, elm and poplar," he says, as Eda starts furiously digging the loose soil under a juvenile oak tree that seems to have been foraged recently. “More often than not, newly grown truffles are found in spots which were last foraged. This is because the new truffle spores from the previous ones. But there’s no guaranteeing that. Which is why it is very hard to grow or cultivate truffles. They are the masters of their own whim and fancy."
As if on cue, Eda’s forepaws make contact with a knobbly, coal-like black truffle that Giulio is quick to dig up with his bare hands, blowing away the errant specks of dirt that cling to it. Heavier than it seems, the truffle’s aroma, or “noble funk" as Giulio calls it, permeates the air.
This brings things back to the now redundant truffle-hunting pigs. Interestingly, when truffles are ripe, I’m told, they produce a chemical almost identical to a type of pheromone found in a male pig’s saliva. And that is also why right up until 1970, sows, more than pigs, were used to hunt the stuff. It’s nuggets of information like this that are part of the curriculum one needs to cram in order to obtain the Italian truffle (hunting) licence that Giulio got in 2003. This, four years after he gave up his managerial job in Milan at the famed Le Api restaurant on a sudden whim to become a truffle hunter.
“These ones are similar to the French Périgord truffle—the most expensive truffle variety along with our very own Italian white specimen called Piedmont or Alba truffles. Though these black ones don’t smell as strong as the Périgord truffle, as we age them for a few days the aroma does get intensified," says Giulio, fishing out a tissue paper to put the truffle in.
Back home at Casa Benuzzi, this time with a neat little cache of five, decent-sized tartufi nestled in the front pocket of Giulio’s fishing vest, both man and dog settle down for a well-earned meal.
Giulio deftly slices some cheese from a block. But in keeping with the truffle-centric leitmotif of the morning, this is no ordinary cheese. The pale yellow Sottocenere is a semi-soft cow’s milk cheese to which slices of truffle are added when setting. When close to maturity, the cheese is rubbed with various herbs and spices and then covered with a light layer of ash which is what gives it its rather mellifluous name, Sottocenere—“under ash" in Italian.
Suitably al dente spaghetti carbonara made with an unctuous emulsion of heavy cream, egg yolks, pancetta lardons and olive oil (truffle-infused, of course) is our pasta course. Quickly anointed with a halo of black truffle shavings that cascade on to the plate, the humble dish, made in the cucina rustica homestyle of Italian cooking, is elevated to the gastronomic equivalent of high heaven. And it’s the indescribable allure of the truffle that has made it so very prized and sought after for centuries. Truly worth risking early morning wake-up calls for.
One truffle at a time
While white truffles are mainly found in northern and central Italy, especially Piedmont, Tuscany and Le Marche, one can also find white truffles in Croatia.
■There are two types of Asian truffle, the Chinese black truffle and the Mid-Eastern Terfez. The Chinese black truffle is found in Tibet, Bhutan, Nepal and the Szechwan and Yunnan provinces in China, while the Terfez truffle is found in the semi-arid regions of North Africa and Middle East, from Morocco to Iraq.
■ Though truffles are best eaten shaved over pasta, risotto or even scrambled eggs, they can be used in desserts such as panna cotta.
■ A fresh truffle can last for up to two weeks wrapped in absorbent paper napkins. However, truffles preserved in olive oil can last up to three months.
■ Most bottled varieties of truffle oil are merely oils to which a truffle-identical flavouring agent such as 2,4-dithiapentane has been added.
■ While people have been eating truffles for almost 4,000 years, their value went up after World War II, when truffle groves planted in the 19th century stopped being productive, owing to depletion in soil nutrients.