If you’ve ever thought of doing something off the beaten ‘tourist’ track when you next visit Italy, you might want to consider having a truffle hunting experience. I was lucky enough to go a couple of weeks ago, and it was one of the highlights of my time working as tour manager for nine days. (You can read about that here ).
Truffles are underground versions of mushrooms. They rely on animals eating them to distribute their spores, instead of air currents like mushrooms. Truffles resemble small potatoes, often between the size of a marble and a golf ball. There are hundreds of different kinds of truffles, and while none are known to be poisonous, only a few of them are considered to be delicacies by humans.
We were lucky to have expert truffle hunter Giulio Benuzzi as our guide with his ever faithful and champion truffle dog, Eda. He is known as ‘Giulio the Truffle Hunter’ and is proud to be “pioneer of the truffle experience since 1999.” Giulio was accompanied with fellow truffle hunter Mauro, and his dog Nina and we divided into two groups for our truffle hunt. Before we started though, Giulio gave us an educational introduction to the world of truffles. We had an explanation of the origin of truffles in Tuscany, and learnt of the different varieties of truffles that can be found. Giulio’s passion and love for truffles was evident as soon as he started talking about them, and it isn’t any wonder he is one of Tuscany’s leading truffle hunters.
A man alone can’t find truffles though and although once apon a time pigs were used to find truffles, today dogs are used. (Female pigs were used because the scent of truffles resembles the odour of a male pig pheromone/sex hormone.) Pigs often eat the truffles when they find them and in fact, the use of pigs to hunt truffles has been prohibited since 1985 because they damage the terrain/truffle beds in their excitement to get to the scent. Dogs can be trained to find truffles and they are happy when rewarded even with just some dry bread for their efforts.
When Giulio and Mauro arrived, we all immediately fell in love with their dogs. Giulio’s dog Eda is a champion truffle dog, whereas Mauro’s dog Nina is only 18 months old, so she is still in training. The breed of these Italian dogs are Lagotto Romagnolo. The name means “lake dog from Romagna,” which is where they come from. Their name, ‘Lagotto’, originates from the Italian word lago, meaning lake. Traditionally the Lagotto was used for hunting, specifically a water retriever, however today they are commonly used as truffle dogs. They are friendly and docile, and very intelligent. The females make the best truffle hunting dogs, their highly developed noses makes them an excellent search dog. Giulio says that many factors are involved in a Lagotto becoming an excellent truffle dog, and although a lot of it is hereditary, he says you can usually tell if a dog will be a good truffle dog by the time they are 3-4 months old. Puppies are introduced to the odour of truffles early when truffles are rubbed onto their mother’s belly and nipples when they are feeding.
We showered Eda and Nina with cuddles and adoration during Giulio’s introductory talk, but once we started our actualy truffle search, Giulio told us that we must show them no attention. Once they were ‘working’, we had to ignore them and allow the interaction to be just dog and truffle hunter. The dog leads and the truffle hunter follows. We were to follow quietly and observe. I was with Mauro and Nina, and although still considered a puppy, she showed great potential and found six truffles in less than an hour. She did eat half of one, and had Mauro not grabbed the remaining piece from her mouth she would have eaten the whole thing. Mauro attributed this to the fact that she is still young and learning. He said that once his previous dog ate a small piece of a white truffle which was equivalent to eating €200!
So, after you’ve successfully found some truffles what should you do? Truffles are cleaned using a coarse brush under running cold water in order to remove all traces of dirt and soil. Truffles can be stored for several days wrapped in kitchen paper or in a paper bag (never in plastic) in the refrigerator. I asked a couple of chefs whether they can be frozen, and while one said yes, the other answered with a definite ‘No’! If you do freeze them though, apparently they should be frozen in a glass jar. They can be immersed in olive oil, and the oil will absorb the flavour. Some people will tell you to store truffles in dry white rice, but this is not recommended as the rice will draw the moisture and aroma away from the truffles, diffusing and diluting the aroma. Ideally, truffles should be used as fresh as possible.
Truffles can be found year round, except in May. Giulio told me that from mid September to mid December is the best time to find white truffles, whereas from November to February, you can find the ‘Nero Invernale’ – Black Winter truffle. If you wish to take home the truffles found during your walk with Giulio he will sell them to you at the current market price. I asked Giulio what are his favourite recipes for eating truffles, and although hesitant at first, saying he loves everything, he finally committed to saying that in Winter he loves a traditional Tuscan bean soup with truffles, whilst during the hot Summer months, he loves a classic, yet simple truffle recipe… that is truffles shaved on a couple of fried eggs on toast!
Another favourite way to enjoy truffles is to shave them onto pasta. Here I cooked fettucine, tossed it with butter, Pecorino Romano, and then shaved black truffle on top!