I am crazy about any Tuscan dish graced by truffles. I see ‘tartufo’ on a menu, and my heart begins to race. To me, truffles are truly manna from heaven. Actually, they’re a fungus that grows underground belonging to the Tuber family. Foodies clamor for them. The Romans adored them for their alleged aphrodisiac qualities. Truffles cannot be cultivated, and are only found in the wild. A good year’s crop depends upon adequate rainfall. In Tuscany and the world over they are highly prized as food and finding them is akin to discovering gold.
Truffle hunts have been going on in Tuscany for ages, and in recent years they have become one of many delightful ways for tourists to spend time in Tuscany. In the early days, female pigs were used to help find the underground gems, rooting them out for their human handlers. The truffles had an appealing smell, exactly like boar testosterone, so the sows went crazy rooting in the dirt. That practice proved to be risky, as the sows delighted in munching on their finds before the humans could stop them. Truffle hunters had a hard time getting the sows to release the goods. They simply could not coax them into it. That proved to be an expensive loss, at about $1,000 a bite. The problem was solved by switching from pigs to dogs, with a preference for the breed, Lagotto Romagnolo.
Dogs are proven to be better truffle hunters than pigs, and are much easier to coax into a car for the trip to the woods. That’s not to say that the dogs don’t enjoy a little truffle snack if left unattended, they are just a bit less greedy than the pigs. Dog training begins in puppyhood. Cheese with a strong smell is buried underground and the puppies are taught to go and find the chunks of cheese. Eventually, the cheese is replaced with small truffles. It takes four years to graduate from canine truffle hunter school.
Truffle hunters, called “Trifolau”, keep close watch over their dogs. Most dogs are worth tens of thousands of dollars, and unfortunately, hunters have been known to poison the dogs of their rivals. Trifolau are known to stay mum about finding truffles and they wonder the woods at night discreetly. The truffle scent is believed to be stronger at night and easier for the dogs to find on a hunt. It is also better to hunt in the dark of night, so that the competition cannot see your chosen location.
Truffles can be hunted year-round in Tuscany. There is a long-standing debate on whether black or white truffles are tastier, but the white version is considered the more valuable of the two. Truffles may be found in many parts of Italy, but San Miniato, a small medieval town located in the heart of Tuscany, is the King of the white truffle. September is the magic month when the white truffle is harvested with numerous festivals to celebrate its arrival. “Tartufo bianco” are treasured by the locals as well as gourmands all over the globe.
Don’t miss the chance to savor a truffle dish whenever you are in Tuscany. The flavor is unlike any other. When you consider all the expense and work that has gone into getting the truffles onto your plate, it makes every bite even yummier!