You pull the leather strap of a two-centuries-old truffle bag across your chest and step into the mist-filled Umbrian forest.
Emma, a truffle-foraging canine, is running energetically ahead. The farmer’s throaty Italian commands to her are muffled by the birdsong overhead and the rustle of leaves underfoot as Emma scratches furiously beneath a tree. She has smelled the day’s first truffle. She claws at the pungent earth, until her master bribes her off with a small cookie so that he can use his spade to unearth the precious tuber, which often fetches as much as $300/ounce on the culinary market.
The prize is retrieved. It is a gnarly black golf-ball size nugget whose musky scent is obscured–at least to you–by the forest earth. Still, you carefully place it in your truffle bag and hurry to catch up with Emma as she roots about. Trained alongside cadaver and drug dogs, Emma has learned to differentiate the subtle scents that make each species of truffle unique. Dogs have advantages over traditional foraging pigs – they don’t destroy the truffle and are compact enough to fit in the backseat of a Fiat.
The morning slips by. At one point, you hear a holler and turn to see a wizened, smiling, rotund farmer standing at a fence, gesturing to you. He has his vino nuovo, or new wine of the season, in a glass fishball in his lean-to up the hill, and he wants to share it. That is how you find yourself sipping red wine out of plastic Dixie cups within a circle of complete strangers at 9:15 in the morning in the Umbrian woods.
By noon, your bag is full so you head back to the farmhouse. The weight of this morning’s booty will fetch more than $1000. While you won’t take it back to the US, you will cook with some of it!
On the wood-fired white enamel stove, under the tutelage of Gabriella, the farmer’s wife, you slice, sauté, stuff, and sample the truffles for hours. You are armed with only a rolling pin and rudimentary pasta-making skills (and glasses of Prosecco), but Gabriella’s panache creates a banquet that you will savor at the farmhouse table.
Over a delicious, albeit late, lunch, farmer Bianconi regales you with stories of his truffle business. You hear of his favorite dogs and his museum full of trophies, and even about the heists – local crimes that are inevitably spawned by such a precious commodity. By the time you rise, the Umbrian sun is setting. Sated by complex flavors and comforted by new friends, you pat Emma goodbye and slowly drive west to Siena for the night.
“That was a trip of a lifetime”, you say. “Let’s do it again next year.”
Sharing the love of travel, Melanie