Truffle hunting in Italy
Chico scurries about the paths in front of us, small sticks crunching under the brisk movement. Leaves float up into the air and then down again, awoken from their tranquil life on the forest floor. Suddenly she picks up a scent and she is gone, into the trees. When her owner Sauro Podestà catches up, she’s digging feverishly at the ground. Sauro bends down to see what she’s found. “It’s a false alarm”, he says, “perhaps there was a truffle here, but there’s not now”. Carefully, he replaces the soil and other organic matter that Chico has disturbed.
Truffles. They either make you go weak at the knees or you are completely indifferent about them. I wouldn’t say they are a polarising item but truffles are in that “love ’em or hate ’em” space. For those that love them, a sense of delirium overcomes them, simply upon seeing them. The excitement is heightened when truffles are accompanied by food.
En route to a morning of truffle hunting, I reflect on how I feel about these treasures of the turf. I’m definitely in the nonchalant category. I’ve never gone out of my way to eat them, quite possibly because I loathe mushrooms and well, truffles are like mushrooms, aren’t they? I am, however, extremely excited at the prospect of doing the actual hunting. Whether I like them or not, the age-old craft of truffle hunting is interesting and I am sure good fun. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.
What are truffles?
Firstly, they aren’t mushrooms. Given they are grown in the ground and exhibit an aroma not dissimilar from a mushroom, the connection can be considered a tangible one, but alas it isn’t so. A truffle is indeed a form of fungus. It is the fruiting body of a certain type of fungus that is found growing around the roots of many forest trees. They grow underground, maturing in late autumn and early winter. There are many varieties of truffles, however, here in the hills of Romagna, we’ll be searching for the black and the less common white truffle.
Truffles have a unique smell, one that I had trouble describing. It’s earthy and woody, not surprising seeing they spend all their life in the soil. It’s a strong, heady smell and not one that is going to convince me any time soon that I want to eat them. I’m still trying to make up my mind. The smell, whilst strong, is because I have my nose firmly attached to it. When we are out in the forest, walking through the trees on the hunt, all I can smell is the forest. Damp leaves, the mist of the morning still hanging on the leaves as we brush past the branches. I defy anyone to be able to smell a truffle out here.
Truffle hunting dogs
Truffle hunting dogs are integral to truffle hunting. Chico, Sauro’s spritely springer spaniel is a perfect match. A bundle of energy, Chico has been by Sauro’s side now for many years, working the land. As we head off down the trail, Sauro’s other dog is howling, devastated that he has been left home and unable to join the chase. For now, Chico is happy that she is the chosen one. We are on private land, but Sauro has permission to be here. Owner of a pizzeria in the local town of Sant’Agata Feltria, Sauro has been truffle hunting since he was a child.
With his loyal dog, they know this area like the back of their hands. Truffle hunting dogs must not only be able to sniff out the fungus but must be obedient and obey commands, especially as it relates to what they are digging up. They must also be able to keep their focus. Their playground is a large one, and failure to keep focus could see them heading off just about anywhere.
Whilst truffles aren’t considered rare, they aren’t easy to find. Whilst it is said they can be farmed, there is such a unique combination of factors that come together to provide the perfect living conditions for them that it’s not a mainstream process. This is why truffles are expensive.
Sauro explains to us the strict rules around truffle hunting, put in place to ensure that this craft will survive long into the future. There are certain times of the year when hunting is possible. Hunters must also be licensed. Sauro watches his dog carefully to ensure he is not creating an undue disturbance to the ground in which they grow. Pigs have also been used to hunt truffles but they are far more destructive and “once they find the truffle they are more likely to eat it”, says Sauro. Italy legislated against the use of pigs in truffle hunting in 1985.
We are hoping to find at least one truffle on our hunt, but it’s a lot like fishing. The hills could be full of truffles, but it’s hard to know exactly where they might be. Chico can smell a truffle up to one kilometre away, which is so amazing considering what I’ve already said about the dominant smells in the forest. I’ve always known a dog’s sense of smell is significant, but this will really put Chico to the test. As we walk along the paths, Chico is forever on the move. Darting sideways, back and forth, until Sauro sees her stop, followed by enthusiastic digging.
Sauro lets her only dig so far, careful not to disturb the root of the truffle, should she find one. It’s important to leave as much as possible intact, to promote further reproduction.
Despite the term of hunting that is frequently associated with finding truffles, there’s no heavy artillery involved. Armed with his vanghetto, a particular type of digging implement, Sauro has all the equipment necessary to perform the job. Not long into the hunt, the vanghetto is given a workout. Sauro finds the first black truffle of the day, pulling it up out of the soil and proudly raising it up. We are delighted and feeling proud too although we’ve done absolutely nothing to generate this piece of magic. Still, we’ll all share in the glory. They are not an attractive item, all bumpy and wart-like. It’s a good size though and I start thinking about how much it would be worth. For everyone but me, they are thinking about how they would like to eat it.
Our search for truffles today is a rewarding one, with two black truffles uncovered and an elusive white one too. The truffle gods were surely smiling on us. They will all fetch a pretty penny, especially the white one, although it seems Sauro is going to savour some of this for himself and his family.
With the truffle hunting whetting our appetite, it was time to go into the nearby town of Sant’Agata Feltria. Home to Sauro’s pizzeria and also a small shop packed full of truffle goodies. Here we are treated to some truffle inspired goodies at Sant’ Agata Feltria Tartufi.
Smooth spreads of both the black and white truffle were mixed with a little oil sitting atop some fresh bread. This was going to be my first taste of the local delicacy. The pungent smell came before anything else, wafting up from the table.
The shop owner, the perfect host, thought it necessary to pour a glass of bubbles. Perhaps I could get used to truffle eating after all? The white one tasted like garlic to me, although I couldn’t get anyone else to agree. Even after eating this, I’m still unconvinced of all the hype. The taste doesn’t match the smell, which is quite possibly a good thing.
We leave the shop with a bottle of truffle oil and some of the tartufi spread in our possession. While we were in town, we visited the Fregoso fortress and the famous, wooden theatre of Angelo Mariani. You can read all about it plus other great things to do in the Romagna hills here : >>
A truffle lunch
The truffle=fest continued with a long lunch of you guessed it, truffles. Never have I seen such a celebration of these earthy creatures. Amongst other truffle aficionados, we had plate after plate. delivered onto the red and white checked tablecloths. As the owner of Food in Tour, Bruno poured us a glass of local Sangiovese, we tucked into our first dish. Lightly cooked egg with shaved black truffle. A crack of pepper was all it needed. Simplicity at its best. The eggs were creamy and the truffle flavour definitely stood out here. I was also amazed at the vein-like pattern of the truffle. I couldn’t help but think once again how liberal the serving of truffle was and how much this would cost back home.
A palate cleanser of sorts came next. Rich, creamy pumpkin soup with popcorn a strange yet tasty combination.
Passatelli with broth and black truffle came next. I love homemade broth and this was beautiful, as was the passatelli. Passatelli is known as a poor man’s pasta as it was once made using leftover, stale bread. Today, it is still made with breadcrumbs, eggs and Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. It’s a different texture to pasta, but absolutely delicious and perfect for soaking up the broth.
Even the sides cames with truffles!
The Italians also love to eat, lots. The dishes continued to come and we continued to eat. Next up was spinach tortellini, complete with shaved truffle.
The dish of carpaccio veal with cheese and truffle was delicious, although by now, I was happy to let the truffle lovers eat my share. Our guide Francesca looked at me as only an Italian could. I could see the thought of “how could you possibly give away your truffles? go through her mind. It’s almost sacrilegious to do so.
Another glass of Sangiovese was going down a treat with all of this. Truffles aside, which I understand from those around the table, including Stirling, were delicious, the rest of the food was excellent. Fresh, simple Italian cooking at its best. I would be happy to return to eat here.
The truffle verdict
The jury is still out for me. I honestly couldn’t care if I never ate another truffle again. As I admit to them being ok, I can hear the screams of horror of every truffle lover in the world. I do, however, feel thankful for the existence of truffles. Without them, I would have never been able to do something as fantastic as truffle hunting. This was the absolute highlight of my day and I now know so much more about this ugly little fungus that craves so much attention. Combining it with truffle tastings and a truffle-inspired lunch also takes the hunting to a whole different level, and it’s a tour I highly recommend.
Truffle experience tour
We joined Food in Tour a local business specialising in group tours in Emilia Romagna, Marche and Tuscany. The tour involved the following:
- Truffle hunting
- Visit Sant’ Agata Feltria – the Fregoso Fortress and Angelo Mariani Theatre
- Truffle tasting at a local gourmet shop – Sant ‘Agata Feltria Tartufi
- Lunch at De Marchesi Restaurant
- Visit Santarcangelo di Romagna – underground caves and Stamperia Artigiana Marchi
The tour includes all activities, food and transport for the day.
Where to stay
There are many amazing places to stay in the Romagna hills. For luxury, boutique accommodation, try Casa Mara at Tenuta Mara Biodynamic Winery. We stayed in Verucchio, another beautiful hill-top city. You can read the reviews, check prices and availability for L’Oste del Castello on Trip Advisor.
Kerri now travels regularly with her husband, Stirling, where eating great food, drinking quality beer and wine, and cooking international foods are integral to their adventures.