Italian truffles are a well-known delicacy worldwide. With their pungent, almost sulphurous and sharp flavour, they are an acquired taste. Not every person can develop an affinity to them…unlike chocolates! These are found under the ground as opposed to other mushrooms that grow over ground and require special expertise for retrieval. They come in the white as well as the black variants. The white ones are the more pricier ones and are extremely delicate in their flavour.
Having been exposed to a world of food and travel shows exploring Italy, I considered it an absolute sin to miss out on any truffle exploration during my debut visit to Italy.
I started planning for my truffle expedition about a month before I was scheduled to travel to Florence. Scouring through websites of truffle hunters, online reviews, discussion forums – I shortlisted one such hunter – Giulio and got it touch with him. A few email exchanges and the tour was finalised. He was good enough to offer us a good discount as well.
Florence was my base destination for my Italian sojourn. While it is most famously known for its art galleries and statuettes, my itinerary was principally aimed at exploring the food culture and specialities around. Visiting the vineyards in Chianti, exploring an Organic cheese farm, the local food markets were some of the other items on the to-do list. I hope to elaborate more of them in my forthcoming write-ups. I had my German friend for company who I sort of forced into sharing my food interests but I am happy to say, I did leave her in a happy state after our food trips.
Giulio – The Truffle Hunter, as so he is famously called resides in a small town on the outskirts of Florence. It is pretty easy to get there by bus, which takes barely a half hour. We had co-ordinated with him prior to leaving Florence and he was there at the other end to receive us. He comes across as a person extremely passionate about two things, first – truffles and second – his dog, Edna who is the principal character in the picture of truffle hunting with Gulio.
As the history of truffle hunting goes, pigs were traditionally trained and used by truffle hunters owing to their keen sense of smell for these smelly fungi. However, it turns out, the pigs were quite messy at their job and used to leave the woods in shambles when hunting. Norms were changed and dogs started featuring as truffle hunting animals. They could be better trained and were considerably well behaved. Edna is once such special dog. In fact, we were told that Truffle hunting trained dogs could almost be valued at anything between $20,000 – &30,000. Quite a price for a dog but then again, the price of a single truffle are such that the trained dogs would make quite a fruitful investment. Another fascinating fact about truffle hunting is that you need to be licensed to hunt and sell truffles.
Giulio accompanied us to a small hill where we were to understand more about these delicacies and hunt for them with Edna. Giulio left Edna to follow her instincts and her sense of smell. She wandered off in the woods with the rest of us following her slowly. She wasn’t to be disturbed. It wasn’t long before she stopped at a place covered with moss and started a digging movement. Swiftly, we saw Giulio pull her away from that spot and start digging with his spade. He dug out a small black charcoal like thing from the ground and behold – was the first ever Truffle hunted by us. He explained that if he had let Edna dig it out, she would have eaten it up as apparently, dogs and pigs like Truffles. Edna found 5 more truffles in succession and also ate up one of them in the process. Well, she did
deserve the treat. After all, she did help us find the truffles.
After a couple of hours in the woods and understanding a bit more of the flora in the woods, we headed back to Gulio’s place where we were taught the intricacies of cleaning, storing and selling truffles. It may seem like a hobby to some but truffles is serious business. There are quite a few varieties and depending on the season, climate and location, these are found in the region. The inner veins when the truffles are sectioned help their identification. Gulio’s knowledge was like a Science lesson in truffles.
As promised by Giulio, we were treated to lunch at his home with almost everything (except the wine) having truffles. We gobbled up warm, handmade bread with shavings of truffles followed by pasta with truffles.
For dessert, we were offered Ice cream with shavings of truffles, something that I would not have even considered as a food pairing. I chose to try the rather conservative alternative of a wedge of Pecorino cheese drizzled with Truffle infused honey. The combination was an instant blast of flavours. The sweet honey combined with the strong truffle was something unimaginable but intensely flavoursome. I even bought a bottle from him to take back home.
It was time for us to bid goodbye to Giulio, his wife, Edna and a cat that he had rescued. As a parting present, we were handed two small truffles as takeaway gifts, something that we were absolutely delighted about.
While I am not sure when will I get to try my food experiments on truffles again (as they aren’t that commonly available in India), I do hope to taste them again soon maybe on my future travels.