A heart-warming experience, a burst of passionate energy and a delectable meal — truffle hunting in Tuscany was the icing on the cake.
I knew of truffle hunting, but not much. Growing up I can remember reading clippings in the library about an incredibly expensive mushroom like fungus and thinking, “THEY PAID HOW MUCH FOR THAT?” and immediately proceeded to search my backyard for these buried treasures after school. As it turns out, I wasn’t an expert truffle hunter, nor did truffles grow in good ol’ Valencia, California.
However, when I arrived in Florence, I knew I wanted to go outside the norm and venture out to do things a little differently. I wanted to really see the countryside, to meet the people that make this land, to experience the hearty Italian culture — and that’s where Massimo, Stella and his family step in.
Massimo, of Truffle in Tuscany, is an expert truffle hunter, hailing from San Miniato (in the region of Tuscany) and his family is known all around the countryside for being legends in the game. What his great-grandfather started as a hobby, a mere passion, soon blossomed into a full-throttle family business, but Massimo is quick to warn that without the passion for truffle hunting, there is no use in the hunt. He explains that some enter into the ‘sport or hobby’ as a business venture, but soon lose interest after a month or so, when they realize that it takes countless hours and is truly a labor of love.
Massimo explains how he and his family have raised their dogs to become expert truffle hunters since they were puppies, hiding truffles in their garden and making it a game for the dogs. The dogs aren’t just the family dogs, but rather like brothers and sisters.
To set the scene: A busy morning in Florence, I hot-footed it to the Santa Maria Novella train station to catch the 2:54 train to San Miniato. The station was bustling and busy with the commuters and tourists alike, with a cacaphony of Italian, French, English and other unidentifiable languages all being mashed together. I found the train to San Miniato, hopped on and waited for it to leave the station. Now a quarter past 3, I shot Massimo an email letting him know that the train had yet to leave the station, but I’d be there as soon as possible. He quickly replied with a “No worries, I will be waiting in the green Panda outside the station in San Miniato. See you soon!”
Thirty or so minutes later, the train came to a hault at the San Miniato station, and there Massimo was – patiently waiting next to his Panda. (I was thoroughly confused when he mentioned Panda in the initial e-mail, but I have now learned that this is a VERY popular and economical car to have in Italy). Massimo greeted me with a warm handshake and a huge grin, ushering me into the car and then immediately speeding off through the sun-dappled Tuscan hills.
We arrived at a clearing in the woods, and he first checked to make sure that no other truffle hunters were here — he noted that this is serious business and you never want to step on the toes of another hunter, in order to keep the peace. Always respect those that are there before you and ultimately respect the truffle (meaning take care of the land and it will take care of you). Seeing no sign of others, we entered into the verdant forest for an exciting hunt. Stella took off immediately and in my head I kept wanting to call out “STELLLLLLAAAAAAA” in my best Marlon Brando voice, yet I refrained as Massimo cooed to her in Italian.
“Dov’è? Dove Stella? Dove è il tartufo?”
Where? Where Stella? Where is the truffle?
His words became a game to her as she dashed up and down the hill, sniffing and searching for the buried treasure. Along the way, Massimo explained to me the importance of real truffles versus false sprays and butters, that truly destroy the integrity of the trade.
Then, Stella pounced on the ground, wagging her tail and began to ferociously dig into the earth. We rushed over, Massimo just as excited as I was, and he began to prod at the dug up dirt. Taking a handful and sniffing it, he nodded his head and urged Stella to keep digging. An inch or so in, he pulled her back and carefully started fingering the dirt. He pointed and then placed my hand on top of a mass, urging me to pull up, and before I knew it, I was holding a little black truffle!
Ecstatic and enthused, even though it looked a bit like something a dog had deposited, I immediately wanted more. Massimo was quick to cover the hole and put the dirt back into place, explaining that a year from now the same hole will spur another truffle – but it is important to take care of the land. In order to commence truffle hunting – one, you have to have the dog, two the license, and three, the tool (a small spade) and most importantly, a passion for the land and the hunt.
Massimo tells me that sometimes he spends hours in the morning without finding a single thing, but the real treasure is being able to spend those hours with his dog. Surrounded by lush nature with uninterrupted silence, the forest becomes his sanctuary and encourages him to get lost in its enchanting magic.
After a little while, we find ourselves digging again, with such excitement and anxiousness, akin to that of a child unwrapping a gift on Christmas morning.
Stella sniffed out two black truffles that day and Massimo educated me on the nuances of the truffle hunt. He also debunked my former belief that truffles were sought out by trained pigs. He stated that pigs hunting for truffles is actually a common misconception and though they are used some places, it is not as typical as they are messy and oftentimes eat the unearthed truffle. Dogs it is!
So what’s all the fuss about truffles?
Truffles rank as the most expensive food in the world, with the highest quality white truffles fetching up to $170,000 a kilo at auction but even the cheapest, frozen, black summer truffles bring in $400 a kilo. The little treasures, known as white and black gold, are costly as they are typically only found in Italy, France and Croatia. And, since they grow underground, they’re not the easiest things to locate.
The marvelous odor is what makes truffles so desirable. When the spores of the truffle mature, the fungus produces an aromatic compound that attracts animals. The ones in which we prefer to eat have evolved to attract swine (this is where the tradition of putting pigs to work comes from). However, in truth, the truffle doesn’t taste like all that much — it’s simply the odorous gas that gives truffles their distinct flavor.
The smell – earthy, woodsy, a bit like dirt… yet dirt that you want to eat on the spot. Descriptions do not begin to cover the irresistible aroma that is given off.
We hopped back in the Panda and headed to Massimo’s home for a cooking lesson with his sister, Letizia. I had mentioned before that this was a family business, but truly – this is a family affair. At their home, I met Salvatore, their father, who served as the President of the Truffle Hunting Association for over a decade. Letizia was quick to show me the photo of her prized truffle, claiming that neither Massimo nor Salvatore believed her when she found it – and proved them wrong, claiming “girls can do anything guys can do, only better” (I adored her spirit!) Entering into the kitchen, the countertop was spread with quail eggs, chickpeas, a bunch of flowers and the beginning stages of tortellini. Letizia carefully explained her process as she mixed up a ricotta and herb filling, then dotingly placing a dollop of the filling into each of the tortellini.
The air was fragrant with the warm chickpeas, the smell of the fresh truffles wafting through the air. Letizia cracked a small quail egg, creating another dish in which truffle shavings are the perfect companion. Three prepared dishes and two glasses of wine later, we sat in their dining room, discussing the delectable bites and the art of truffle hunting. Such vibrant people with warm hearts and a passion for the sport, the hobby, the lifestyle — Massimo & Letizia welcomed me into their family with open arms and even declared me as an “Ambassador of Truffle Hunting” (certificate and all).