No, I’m not talking about chocolate truffles! Too bad, because I much prefer the chocolate kind, and I am always on the prowl for a good chocolatier. (By the way, chocolate “truffles” got their name, because they look similar to the real deal.)
The truffle I’m talkin’ about is the ridiculously priced fungus prized by chefs for Italian, French and other national haute cuisines. Because of their high price and strong aroma, truffles are used sparingly. They are served raw and shaved over warm, simple foods where their flavor will be highlighted, such as buttered pasta and eggs. Thinly sliced truffles are also inserted into meats or under the skins of roasted fowl. Truffles are also used in foie gras, pates, stuffings, specialty cheeses, salt, honey, and oil.
A word to the wise if you are in the market for truffles: Don’t buy truffle oil or truffles in jars. Chemicals are added to the oil to intensify the flavor and to make it last longer. Fresh truffles will only stay fresh for ten days.
So, why do chefs use truffle oil on their dishes and brag about it in their menu descriptions? Because customers expect it. But, you’re getting olive oil with a bunch of chemicals in it. Truffle oil is the biggest enemy of the truffle hunter. The Chinese are the biggest exporters of truffles; however, their truffles are flavorless, and chemicals are added to olive oil, and then added to the truffles for flavor.
And, another thing: size doesn’t matter. Big or small; they all taste the same.
I’ll be honest. There are several varieties of fungi I absolutely love, such as portabella and shiitake mushrooms; however, truffles aren’t one of them. They’re lost on me; I guess it’s an acquired taste. Perhaps it’s because they grow under the soil at the roots of trees. A bit too earthy-tasting for me.
I love dogs, though, and watching them in action on a truffle hunt is a hoot! Now, you probably thought pigs do that sort of work, right? Nope! It’s actually illegal to use pigs or hogs in Italy for truffle hunting, because they tear everything up! Besides, they’ll eat the darn things when they find them. It’s much easier to extract a truffle out of the jaws of a dog than a pig, since dogs won’t eat them anyway!
The Umbria region of Italy is where the best truffles are found, so Overseas Adventure Travel included a truffle hunt in our itinerary. When I first saw this, I was excited to see what it was all about.
We left Spoleto for a 45-minute twists-and-turns ride up to the mountain village of Pettino, located in the Apennine Mountains at an elevation of 3,300 feet. Upon our arrival, we met Mac and Francesca at their home/ farm. We gathered in their charming old-world kitchen to hear about the truffle industry from Mac, while we enjoyed (delicious) home-baked lemon cake.
(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)
Mac is from New Zealand and was previously an artist before his passion for truffles drew him to Umbria. He learned all about the truffle industry from Francesca’s father, which is how the two met. Ultimately, they fell in love, had two children, and live on a farm in the tiny village where the traditional way of life has endured through generations. The locals still grow crops, raise sheep, and gather truffles and mushrooms in the surrounding birch forest. Francesca is the first female president of the tiny community that comprises just fifteen full-time residents, increasing to 80 in the summer. The other residents are all descendants of the original family that settled in Pettino in 1486.
Only one person in each family is permitted by law to hunt truffles, and since they are so difficult to find, Mac and Francesca can’t survive on that income alone. The income from their merino wool sales pays the bills.
Truffles are worth a bunch of money when you do find them; however, the finder isn’t the keeper of most of that money. They can be worth anywhere from $30 per kg (2.2 pounds) to $5,000 per kg for prized white truffles. The large white truffles are in demand by restaurants, because they look cool. It gives them bragging rights. (Sheesh; big deal!)
Here’s the rub: The middlemen in the industry are the ones that make most of the money. The mark-up can be more than 50 times higher in the U.S. from what the farmer back in Umbria got paid. The price depends on the crop output; it’s supply and demand at work. And, the best truffles go to wholesalers for export, so they can make a ton of money. Later, I will show you a truffle that was found during our hunt. I asked what it will fetch when sold: a whopping $5. I can only imagine what it will be worth when it hits the U.S. market.
The truffle industry is also full of scandal; nighttime heists and sabotage are common, and there is a growing counterfeit trade stemming from Eastern Europe. These truffles are marketed to international distributors as Italian, which reduces the value and demand of authentic Italian truffles.
When Francesca’s father got too old to run the farm and business, Mac and Francesca took over. They now have 350 sheep (that were bred with rams) Mac’s cousin tends to, raised for the merino wool they sell and for milk to make their own pecorino cheese. Everything they raise is sustainable; good on them for that!
As Mac explained, truffles only grow a few months out of the year and require specific conditions to flourish, such as cool winters, damp springs, and hot summers with moderate rain. It can take up to seven years for a truffle to mature. No wonder why they rely on their sheep for most of their income…
The night before we arrived, it had snowed at a slightly higher elevation, and the morning was cold and blustery—39 degrees with the wind-chill factor bringing it down to 30. When we went on the hunt, we were invited to stay in the truck and keep warm if we preferred, but what fun would that have been? I hadn’t gone all the way to Umbria and up a steep and (scarily) windy road to Pettino just to sit in a truck! I bundled up in everything I had: A long sleeve shirt, puffy vest, puffy down jacket, rain jacket, gloves, thick socks, and waterproof shoes. The gloves didn’t cut it; I still got a Raynaud’s attack. (Note to self: Don’t forget the Hot Hands when I go to Iceland!)
Never mind the cold; the hunt was on!
Setters and Springer Spaniels are often used as truffle-hunting dogs. I followed the Italian Pointer that was on this hunt. Actually, mutts make better hunters, so the dogs were mixes. They train the dogs by putting truffles in Kinder Surprise plastic eggs with holes poked in them. This way, they can smell the truffles but won’t bite them.
Purchasing a trained truffle hunting dog can run you as much as $6,000 (averaging $3-4,000), so they trained their 22 dogs themselves. Ten of the dogs go with the sheep each day, and a couple of their dogs are just lazy and hang out around the property.
Since the working dogs are quite active, they need a high-protein diet. Francesca gives them the whey from the cheese she makes, for that good protein hit.
Out on the hunt, it was wild watching the dogs in action. It was a very hilly area, so trying to keep up with them was challenging, but it didn’t stop me! I got a pretty good workout trying to follow the dogs, so I could capture them in action. The funniest part was watching their excitement when they found a truffle, knowing that after they gave it up, they would get a treat. Those dogs were ALL about the treats! They live for a handout and a pat on the head.
Here they are in action:
After the hunt, we returned to the farm for a delicious spread—everything homemade– of fresh-baked bread, prosciutto, pecorino cheese, eggs with shaved black truffles, wine, and then another delicious cake. It was all prepared and served by Francesca and the truffle hunters, while we gathered around to nibble on whatever was ready and passed around. Their dogs (the lazy ones) just loved getting in on the action, hoping for either a handout or to be petted. One of them was a bit better behaved, though; he just watched from the doorway, hoping somebody would notice:
As we said our goodbyes, I gave Mac some of my photo notecards, and Bruce gave Francesca a pair of his fused glass earrings, which she promptly put on and modeled:
This was a day to remember! Upon reflection, this was one of the highlights of the entire trip. It was an authentically Italian— specifically Umbrian—experience. We left with what we knew would be fond memories for years to come.
Coming up next: WHEN IN ROME…