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It was a dark and stormy day (it really was) the kind of day in late spring that makes you wonder if summer will ever come. The wind was whipping across the hill, sending the chilling rain horizontally into our faces. Umbrellas were inverted with every gust. Our feet were muddy and cold. Yet we were having fun. We were the few, the proud and the slightly deranged: we were the truffle hunters.
A group of us had been invited to a farm in northern Umbria to attend “Truffle School.” We survived a dozen hairpin turns up into the hills to arrive at Ca’Solare. An agriturismo (working farm with lodging) run by Matteo Bartolini and his wife Elisa, Ca’Solare specializes in harvesting the world’s most expensive fungi. Matteo is a self-admitted “truffle geek”: he grew up in this region, which supplies 90% of the world’s truffles. Partnered with Solé, the truffle hunting wonder-dog, he spends his days scouring the woods on his farm in search of these elusive treats.
In the cozy farmhouse, Matteo described the different varieties of truffles: their unique characteristics, growing season, and market value (depending on the variety they fetch from $130-$3,000/kilo.) While truffles can be “encouraged to grow” they can’t be cultivated completely. Therefore, harvesting them is a combination of science and experience mixed with a dose of luck.
Since truffle tubers grow underground a strong sense of smell is required to find them. Traditionally pigs were used for this task; unfortunately pigs also like to eat truffles so when they find them they act like, well, pigs. Thus dogs were introduced; they like to eat truffles too, but can be more easily trained to move aside once they’ve identified a “hot spot.”
Armed with our newfound knowledge, we set out toward the woods for the “practical” part of our lesson. By this time the weather had turned nasty and the ground muddy. Determined not to let a little rain deter us, we created improvised truffle hunting shoes by putting plastic bags over our feet—not very fashionable but certainly functional. About half of our group decided to stay behind in the warmth of the farmhouse (including a certain husband who shall remain unnamed.) Editor’s note from unnamed husband: It was really, really cold and I wanted to warm my tootsies by the fire.
Five of us dutifully trudged behind Matteo and Solé as our truffle-hound bounded and sniffed under bushes, beside mossy rocks and at the base of trees. Solé’s rambles were periodically interrupted with a mad dash to a seemingly random spot where he would frantically begin digging. Like mad dogs, we truffle students descended as well, armed with cameras big and small to capture the magic moment.
The wind and wet weather did not lend itself to “good sniffing” on Solé’s part. Nevertheless, he did manage to unearth three small white beauties about the size of chickpeas. They didn’t look like much, but a simple scrape across the surface with a fingernail released an aroma so tantalizing that the rain and mud faded into obscurity. The promise of savoring this taste at lunch was enough to convince us that our meager harvest was enough for the day.
Back at the farmhouse our “classroom” had been converted to a dining room with a large communal table. We placed our sodden shoes by the fire to dry and became honorary family members as we joined the meal in our stocking feet. Papa Carlo sat in his customary spot and smiled benevolently. Elisa described the menu for our traditional “Sunday Lunch/Truffle Style” as Matteo went back to do double duty in the kitchen.
Because of their intense flavor, truffles are used simply and sparingly to showcase their earthy richness: an antipasto of crostini with two types of truffle paste, and fresh tagliatelle pasta with butter and chopped truffles. Forgetting that a meat course was to follow, many of us had second helpings. Too bad we hadn’t made arrangements to take naps at Ca’Solare’s lodgings.
After participating in the truffle school and the hunt, it is easy to understand why these tasty tubers cost so much. Matteo and Elisa are passionate about educating consumers about all that goes into getting that tiny bit of truffle onto a plate—so much so that they have earned a commendation from the Italian Ministry of Agriculture. That passion is infectious—now that we were educated amateurs the truffles tasted even better.
For more information, contact the Truffle School at Ca’Solare.
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