The thrill of the hunt for the elusive white truffle in Tuscany
We are in an oak forest in the Tuscan countryside on a beautiful fall day in November. Our truffle hunter Luigi Leto, his truffle hunting dog Mora and his son Simone are taking us on a truffle hunt outing in the woods. Following the hunt we are invited to a truffle lunch to be prepared by Luigi’s wife Giuseppina’s at her cooking school Cucina Giuseppina at Certaldo alto, the magnificent ancient town on top of the hill. I am excited about both prospects.
Truffle hunting is a serious affair. There is nothing glamorous or luxurious about it. This morning we are going on a nice walk in the woods but real truffle hunting is done by the hunter and his dog alone and often at night. The location is a closely guarded secret passed down the family line from generation to generation.
Truffle hunting requires a symbiotic relations between the dog and its owner / trainer, a relationship that they develop over years of working together. Dogs are trained from a young age and by the time they are about four they are ready to lead a hunt. Female are thought to be better truffle hunters and some breeds are more aggressive than others. Pigs are used in some cases but they known to devour the truffles before the hunter can get at them. Mora is a friendly dog, good natured and used to being with people. She greets us each individually with a jump, a lick and and sniff. She is also a star truffle hunter apparently. However, as good as the dog may be, foraging also requires expertise and intuition on part of the hunter. After all, he is the one in control of the hunt.
What is a white truffle? essentially, a fungus with a musky, earthy aroma, buried deep underground attached to the root of a tree. The best truffles, says Luigi, come from the roots of oak trees. There will only be one truffle to a tree-root at one time, they are a solitary species and do not grow in clusters like other mushrooms.The elusive, aromatic white truffle forms an integral part of regional cuisine and is worth its weight in gold. At Peck in Milan a kilogram of white truffles fetch “mere” 7,900 Euros (not a typo, see image below).
Simone drives us to the site where Luigi and his dog Mora are waiting. Simone, who has a philosophy degree from the University of Siena returned home to Certaldo to be near and work with his family. He is the one organizing the activities and translating for his Dad. He is passionate about local foods and ingredients and tells us that one day he wants to become a farmer and grow his own produce. He loves to cook and has been helping Giuseppina in the kitchen since he was a child. Simone will be your personal chef in your Tuscan villa if you are looking for one during your stay.
Luigi is tall and fit with silvery hair, wearing camouflage pants and jacket, multi pocketed hunters vest and well worn boots. He is carrying a truffle hunting stick with a blade attached to the end, to unearth the truffle from deep underground.
We are walking down a trail in the golden fall forest walking on a thick carpet of yellow leaves. We soon leave the trail and venture into the thicker woods, brushing away branches as we follow Luigi and Mora into the oak forest. Mora is running around excited and Luigi is talking to her constantly, focusing and motivating her to the task. “Che c’e lila, che c’e lila” (what’s there sweetheart), “piano Lila” (slow down sweetheart), “Dove lila” (where sweetheart), “brava lila”, “tot-tot-tot-tot-tot”. Mora listens and follows directions.
Mora is running around sniffing here and there, digging with her paw now and then, but Luigi knows when she finds something. Suddenly he see the signs that only he can see and quickly catches up with her. “ferma, ferma” he says to stop her and take control of the site.
He distracts Mora with a reward treat from his pocket and begins to clear the site with his blade, removing branches and rough ground foliage for access and chipping at the earth. The truffle is buried deep underground and he needs to ease it out with minimal disruption to the root and the earth and without damaging the truffle. Too rough a treatment and truffles won’t grow there again. He digs with his bare hand gently but expertly and all of a sudden, there it is, a crinkled brownish mass clinging to the root, its aroma rising to greet us before our eyes even see it. Our first truffle. Luigi releases it gently from the root, wipes it clean with the edge of his shirt and hands it over to us. I lift it to my nose, the aroma is strong and intoxicating, bringing visions of risotto and tagliatelli with truffle shavings to my culinary mind. Our first truffle, hunted in the Tuscan oak forest. It’s one of those moments you will never forget.
Luigi seems to know where the truffles are hiding and is directing Mora to look. When she finds another one he begins digging but this one is buried deep and he calls Mora back for help locate and dig. She stands over the site sniffing and digging, a fast stream of earth flying back from under her. It’s quite a sight. When he sees the truffle with his keen eye he stops her, if he is on time, and gently pulls the truffle out with his hand. Sometime Mora gets the best of him and he has to dig the truffle out of her mouth.
We kept following Luigi and Mora in the forest until they found 5, maybe 6 truffles. As we walked, Simone, who is very well informed, shared information about truffles and other local things. He told us that there are truffles for every season in Italy, it’s not only white truffles in the fall. black truffles are available from September to December, black winter truffles are foraged from November to March, whitish Bianchetto truffles from January to March and even the summer produces some truffles: black summer truffles you can hunt from June to November, depending where you are. That’ truffles for just about every month of the year.
Eventually it was time to end the hunt and go for lunch. We walked back up the path in the forest and filed to the car, then drove through olive groves and vineyards back into town.
Walking down an ancient street along the walled town we arrived at the arched entrance to Cucina Giuseppina, the cooking school where Giuseppina was working in the bright, open kitchen.
Giuseppina was born on market day and “grew up” in the kitchen. She learned to cook from the women in her family, especially her Sicilian mother and aunt. Working with them side by side she learned the secrets to traditional authentic dishes and slowly formalized the “quanta basta” (“as much as you need”) explanations into precise recipes that she published in her cookbook “Brus-Ketta and other truths about Tuscan cooking”. Giuseppina refined her culinary skills working in restaurants throughout Tuscany and studied medieval cooking to get a better grasp of the origin of Tuscan food and its seasoning. She nows operates a cooking school for both locals and tourists out of her profssional kitchen in ancient Certaldo on the hill.
When we arrived, a long table was set with chairs and dishes ready for our lunch. Giuseppina was putting the finishing touches on a few beautiful local dishes that were set on her oversized butcher block style table. My eyes were popping at all the beautiful food, dishes, pasta makers, truffle slicers, gorgeous unique bread cutting board and all the signs that someone who loves to cook works here.
With wine bottles opened, food and wine begun to flow. Ripe red tomatoes with fresh local mozzarella (divine) and basil drizzled with local olive oil, bruschetta with tomatoes and cannellini beans, antipasto plate with cheese and salami, mascarpone with olive oil and a light as cloud pile of finely grated, just foraged fresh white truffles. Homemade bread and foccacia with olive oil were passed around in abundance. The piece de resistance for me was the softly scrambled golden yolked eggs Giuseppina prepared in a huge skillet as we were standing around her kitchen, then served with abundance of thinly shaved white truffles. Truffles with eggs is a marriage made in culinary heaven. The creamy eggs soak up the truffle aroma and the textures melt in your mouth. More truffles were offered with a truffle slicer (I bought one) and we could add as much or as little as we wished to any of the foods we were enjoying.
Conversation flowed and time passed pleasantly until it was time to leave. We said our goodbyes and promised to try and connect again. In the meantime, I bought her cookbook, printed in English on one side and Italian on the other, and I am having fun reading about how she grew up and learned to cook from women in her family in her ancestral home in the country on the outskirts of Certaldo. She doesn’t live far from where she was born.
Arriverderci familia Pizzolato. Sepro ci incontreremo di nuovo.