What it’s like to go truffle hunting in Tuscany

A crisp breeze sweeps over Tuscany’s storybook-like Forcoli woods where occasional dapples of sunlight enhance the cozy autumn hues. The leaves rustle in the wind as the earth crunches beneath our feet, composing a rhythm that nearly drowns out Birba’s hurried pants. The playful black beagle sniffs then circles a seemingly nondescript spot on the leaf-covered forest floor before scurrying off only to return again.

Sniff, circle, scurry off, return and repeat – until her delicate black paws start digging furiously and she’s concealed behind a poof of soil and leaves. We watch anxiously, pretty sure this isn’t another false alarm.

The dust settles to reveal Birba smiling broadly with a soil-caked nugget clenched between her little white teeth. Luca Campinotti, our designated truffle hunter, pries it from her mouth, holds it to his nose, smiles and rewards his trusted canine with a bone-shaped treat. Birba has found a truffle!

Fresh out of the earth — Photo courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

Luca passes the prize around, and though it’s just a little bit bigger than a board game pawn, the unmistakable musky aroma is as pronounced as an entire wheel of parmigiano reggiano. Keeping with good truffle-hunting practice, Luca puts the earth back in place, patting the dirt down gently with his bare hands before covering the spot with leaves.

This helps protect the forest’s ecosystem by preventing the tree roots from drying up. Once the truffle has made its rounds, Luca stows it in his pouch and on we go.

And so continues the Savini Truffle Experience. For the next hour or so, we let Birba and her pal Giotto, a fluffy brown and white lagotto Romagnolo, lead us around the idyllic Tuscan forest in the province of Pisa, about an hour outside of Florence. We watched in wonder as they unearthed three more of those precious edibles.

Luca with Giotto and BirbaLuca with Giotto and Birba — Photo courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

All truffle hunters require four essentials: a shoulder bag, a “vanghetto” (a spade designed especially for the trade), forest-friendly footwear and treats for rewarding their most indispensable necessity, the dogs. Once upon a time, pigs were the animal of choice in Italy. Yet, due to their propensity for eating, damaging and therefore devaluing the freshly extracted treasures, they’ve been prohibited since 1985, leaving the dirty work solely to the dogs.

To most, truffles are those fragrant, umami-rich (pricey) black or white shavings grated over, say, pasta or a fancy poached egg, or infused into products like butter, olive oil and sauces. But there’s more to them than meets the eye. Bragging rights were not the only reason I was looking forward to hunting for these elusive gems firsthand – I also wanted to better understand them.

Gems of the forestGems of the forest — Photo courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

The most common misconception about these foraged delights? That they grow only during autumn and winter. Yes, the prestigious white (tuber magnatum pico) and black ones (tuber melanosporum) peak during these times – the former sprout from late September to December, while the latter are in season from November to March.

But in reality, there are nine prominent truffle varieties, one being the summer truffle, so these intriguing buried treasures are sought year-round. These members of the mushroom family grow underground on the roots of a variety of different trees, from birch to oak to beech to hazelnut. Though ambitious “tartufai” have (unimpressively) aspired to cultivate the tuber, truffles are best au naturel.

The crisp Tuscan woodsThe crisp Tuscan woods — Photo courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

The Savini family has been in the business for nearly a century, making waves in 2007 when they extracted what, at the time, was the largest truffle ever discovered. It was a white one weighing in at a whopping 3.3 pounds and it sold for $340,000 at auction.

Zelindo Savini established Savini Tartufi in the 1920s, and today, his grandchildren run the show. The family business has expanded into an empire that includes a truffle museum at its Tuscany headquarters, as well as restaurants in major Italian cities like Florence and Milan.

Before heading into the woods, we visited the museum which explains how these funky fungi have been considered a luxurious delicacy since antiquity. In fact, the ancient Greeks believed that these delights were created when Zeus struck the earth with his thunderbolt.

In addition to being up against the elements, truffle hunting also stirs a range of emotions. While the sense of awe and excitement never once dwindles, the activity itself can be wearying and, weather depending, uncomfortable. Of course, it also requires a great deal of patience. Some might find keeping up with the dogs a bit frenetic, but, overall, it’s a downright mesmerizing experience.

Tagliolini with trufflesTagliolini with truffles — Photo courtesy of Jaclyn DeGiorgio

Following the hunt, we return to the museum for a dreamily indulgent lunch that includes a pasta prepared with a triple dose of truffles: a delightful towering swirl of truffle tagliolini doused in a buttery truffle sauce and finished with black truffle flakes. A divine trinity that should never be questioned. Ever.

Before leaving, we stop in the gift shop for some edible memorabilia: honey, potato chips, sauces, biscuits, panettone and more – the perfect way extend the life of that unmistakable flavor.

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