For many years everything I knew about truffle hunting came from an episode of TaleSpin – a cartoon that aired on the Disney Channel back in 1990. From what I gathered, it was a lucrative business involving a pig snuffing out ugly mushrooms in the forest. The concept was so odd, the memory stuck; the animation stills clearly preserved in my mind to this day. Today, dear Reader, we’re off to experience the real deal. Though Northern Italy is the hot spot for tartufi (the Piedmont region especially), we’re staying a bit closer to home. Two hours north of Pozzuoli, in the charming town of Alvito, we’ll be able to get a taste of the action.
Man’s Best Business Plan
As foodies worldwide know, truffles are the ultimate delicacy. Here in Italy, truffle-mania abounds from October through December when the best (read: most valuable) truffles can be found. At least, that’s what our guide Armando tells us as we prepare for our excursion. Though I’m interested in learning about the hunt, my attention is drawn instead to the beauty around me: rolling vineyards aglow in the warm tones of autumn, mountains on all sides, the smell of grass, and even adorable dogs frolicking at my feet.
Today we’re looking for black and white truffles. The highly sought after white truffles are worth $3,600 a pound making them the most expensive food in the world! Armando also informs us that dogs have recently replaced pigs as the truffle hunting companion of choice. Though pigs have a natural affinity for tartufi, they prove more aggressive once the truffle is found. And that’s precisely where “old faithful” comes in: easier to train, far more agile, and less likely to feast on the spoils. I bend down to pet a fluffy brown dog as Armando describes the intensive training required for these animals. He tells us the cost of a good truffle hunting dog can be as much as 25,000€. Say whaaat? I straighten up. Moretta, he says, is the best dog they have and she will be accompanying us today on our hunt.
My eyes scan the field for a million dollar dog. I overlook small pups jumping for attention in anticipation of a handsome golden retriever running in slow motion through windswept blades of grass. Someone in our group finally asks, “which one is Moretta?” To my surprise, Armando points to the brown dog I had been petting moments before. Moretta, for all of her esteemed training, is unassuming and seems to play well with the others. I think it quite ladylike!
Follow Your Nose!
Our group is instructed to hang back while Moretta and Samuel, the expert truffle extractor, go on up ahead. While today our hosts are kind enough to have us along, true truffle hunting occurs with a just a man and his dog deep in the woods. Since a successful hunt can be lucrative, hunting strategies are kept close to the vest and competition between truffle hunters is common. In some regions, Calabria for one, “poisonous meatballs” are placed on a rival’s property with the intent of making the hunting dog ill. Heartless, no?!
We cut through the vineyards and Billy stops to sample a grape or two as Moretta eagerly sniffs around. Maybe this could be my new job… strolling outside during the best time of year, having a puppy pal with nearly as much professional training as I do… My thoughts are cut off when I notice Moretta sniffing excitedly around the base of a tree. She begins to dig and Samuel, with his truffle spade at the ready, watches her carefully. Pulling Moretta back just as she seems to reach a kind of frenzy, Samuel methodically begins to dig and finally presents us with our first find: a black truffle! It is small but potent; I can’t help but think it resembles a burnt brain. In any case, it generates some good momentum and Moretta is able to find several more truffles – coveted white truffles!
We return to the hill where our hunt began to enjoy wine from the vineyard, homemade jams, and truffle products. I make myself comfortable on one of the wooden palettes scattered throughout the field for our informal picnic. The kids are running around. The dogs are begging for my attention. Life is good.