I knew of truffle hunting, but not much. Growing up, I can recall reading clips in the library about an incredibly expensive mushroom-like fungus and thinking, “THEY PAID HOW MUCH FOR THAT?” This was immediately followed by searching every corner of the backyard for buried treasures…Indiana Jones-style, of course. But, as it turns out, I wasn’t an expert truffle hunter, nor did truffles grow in Southern California.
However, when I arrived in Florence, I knew I wanted to venture out and do things a little differently…get to know locals and see parts of Tuscany that aren’t on a typical agenda. I wanted to visit the countryside, meet the people of the land, experience their Italian culture—and that’s where Massimo, Stella, and their family step in.
*Side note: The Uffizi Gallery is actually really cool, so if you have time it’s worth the visit. 😉
Massimo, of Truffle in Tuscany, is an expert truffle hunter, hailing from San Miniato (in the region of Tuscany) and his family is known all around the countryside as legendary treasure hunters. What his great-grandfather started as a hobby, soon blossomed into a full-throttle family business. Massimo was quick to warn that without the passion for truffle hunting, there is no use in the hunt. He explained that some enter into the ‘sport or hobby’ as a business venture, but soon lose interest after a month or so, when they realize that it takes countless hours and is truly a labor of love.
Massimo explained how he and his family raised their dogs to become expert truffle hunters, hiding truffles in their garden and making it a game for the puppies. He also tells me that the dogs aren’t just the family dogs, but rather they are like brothers and sisters.
It’s a busy morning in Florence, I hot-footed it to the Santa Maria Novella train station to catch the 2:54 train to San Miniato. The station was bustling with commuters and tourists alike; there’s a cacophony of Italian, French, English and other unidentifiable languages all being mashed together. I found the train to San Miniato, hopped on, and waited for it to leave the station. Now a quarter past 3, I shot Massimo an email letting him know that the train had yet to leave the station, but I’d be there as soon as possible. He quickly replied: “No worries, I will be waiting in the green Panda outside the station in San Miniato. See you soon!”
Thirty or so minutes later, the train came to a halt at the San Miniato station, and there Massimo was—patiently waiting next to his Panda. (I was thoroughly confused when he mentioned Panda in the initial e-mail, but I have now learned that this is a VERY popular and economical car to have in Italy). Massimo greeted me with a warm handshake and a huge grin, ushering me in to the car, before speeding off through the sun-dappled Tuscan hills.
We arrived at a clearing in the woods, and he first checked to make sure that no other truffle hunters were there. Truffle hunting is a serious business and you never want to step on the toes of another hunter, in order to keep the peace. Massimo explained it’s important to always respect those that are there before you and ultimately respect the truffle (meaning take care of the land and it will take care of you). Seeing no sign of others, we entered into the verdant forest, and the hunt began. Stella took off immediately and in my head I kept wanting to call out “STELLLLLLAAAAAAA” in my best Marlon Brando voice, yet I refrained as Massimo cooed to her in Italian.
“Dov’è? Dove Stella? Dove è il tartufo?”
Where? Where Stella? Where is the truffle?
His words became a game to her as she dashed up and down the hill, sniffing and searching for the buried treasure. Along the way, Massimo explained to me the importance of real truffles versus false sprays and butters, which destroy the integrity of the trade.
Then, Stella pounced on the ground, wagging her tail and she began to prod at the dirt with her paws. We rushed over, Massimo just as excited as I was, and he began to sift through the dirt. Taking a handful and sniffing it, he nodded his head and urged Stella to keep digging. An inch or so in, he pulled her back and carefully started thumbing through the dirt. He pointed and then placed my hand on top of a mass, urging me to pull up, and before I knew it, I was holding a little black truffle!
Ecstatic and enthused, even though it looked a bit like something a dog had deposited, I immediately wanted more. Massimo was quick to cover the hole and put the dirt back into place, explaining that a year from now the same hole will spur another truffle. “It is always important to take care of the land,” he reminded me.
In order to commence truffle hunting—you have to have the dog, the license, the tool (a small spade), and most importantly, a passion for the land and the hunt. Massimo tells me that sometimes he spends hours in the morning without finding a single thing, but the real treasure is being able to spend those hours with his dog. Surrounded by lush nature with uninterrupted silence, the forest becomes his sanctuary and encourages him to get lost in its enchanting magic.
After a little while, we find ourselves digging again, with such excitement and anxiousness, akin to that of a child unwrapping a gift on Christmas morning.
Stella sniffed out two black truffles that day and Massimo educated me on the nuances of the truffle hunt. He also debunked my former belief that truffles were sought out by trained pigs. He stated that pigs hunting for truffles is actually a common misconception and though they are used some places, it is not as typical as they are messy and oftentimes eat the unearthed truffle. Dogs it is!
Truffles rank as the most expensive food in the world, with the highest quality white truffles fetching up to $170,000 a kilo at auction but even the cheapest, frozen, black summer truffles bring in $400 a kilo. The little treasures, known as white and black gold, are costly as they are typically only found in Italy, France and Croatia. And, since they grow underground, they’re not the easiest things to locate.
The marvelous odor is what makes truffles so desirable. When the spores of the truffle mature, the fungus produces an aromatic compound that attracts animals. The ones we prefer to eat have evolved to attract swine (this is where the tradition of putting pigs to work comes from). However, in truth, the truffle doesn’t taste like all that much—it’s simply the odorous gas that gives truffles their distinct flavor.
The smell: earthy, woodsy, a bit like dirt…yet dirt that you want to eat… Descriptions do not begin to cover the irresistible aroma that it gives off.
We hopped back in the Panda and headed to Massimo’s home for a cooking lesson with his sister, Letizia. I mentioned before that this was a family business, but truly—this is a family affair. At their home, I met Salvatore, their father, who served as the President of the Truffle Hunting Association for over a decade. Letizia was quick to show me the photo of her prized truffle, claiming that neither Massimo nor Salvatore believed her when she found it—and proved them wrong, claiming, “Girls can do anything guys can do, only better.” (You know it, girl! How I adored her spirit!)
Entering into the kitchen, the countertop was a spread of quail eggs, chickpeas, local flowers, and the beginning stages of tortellini. Letizia carefully explained her process as she mixed up a ricotta and herb filling, then dotingly placing a dollop of the filling into each of the tortellini.
The air was fragrant with the warm chickpeas and the smell of the fresh truffles wafting through the air. Letizia cracked a small quail egg, creating another dish, for which truffle shavings are the perfect companion. Three prepared dishes and two glasses of wine later, we sat in their dining room, discussing the delectable bites and the art of truffle hunting. Such vibrant people with warm hearts and a passion for the sport, the hobby, the lifestyle—Massimo & Letizia welcomed me into their family with open arms and even declared me as an “Ambassador of Truffle Hunting” (certificate and all).
Want to book your truffle hunting experience while visiting Florence? Find all the info on the Truffle in Tuscany site!
What’s a “hidden gem” in Italy that you’d like to visit or experience? Have you ever tried truffles? If so, how did you have them prepared? Was it in an oil, a pasta, on eggs? While I don’t add truffles to my grocery list every day, they’re definitely worth the splurge every once in a while!
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