For some reason, I have been infatuated with truffles since the first time I tried them. Eric goes along with my fascination, but is not as obsessed as I am. There is just something about the smell of them that sends me into a little bit of a tizzy.
Before visiting Emilia Romagna, Italy, I knew truffles were expensive and rare. I knew they grew in forests. I knew they were hunted by dogs. And I knew they smelled tasty. That was about all I knew.
So, when Yummy Italy offered us a chance to go truffle hunting, I exclaimed (well, through email) “Sign me up!” After all, I had been trying to recreate Anthony Bourdain style experiences, and this is one of them. In fact, he went truffle hunting in Croatia, a No Reservations episode which we were far from recreating during our visit to Croatia.
In Emilia Romagna, though, we were offered a fantastic truffle hunting experience, without being a fancy celebrity chef with a TV show. All I have is my little YouTube channel.
We met Gianluca and his lovely dog, Nera, in the tiny town of Savigno, and made our way into the countryside from there. He explained in detail how truffles are grown, how they train the dogs, and what is involved in truffle hunting.
This was, honestly, the only way you could get Eric and I out hiking in the woods. We are not outdoorsy people, but suggest I follow a cute dog through the hills in search of truffles, and my interest is piqued.
Now, I am not an expert on truffles, so this is what I learned that day in the forest, as I was mucking around trying not to make a fool of myself by falling down a small ravine. So, this might not be 100% truffle accurate. It was enough, though, to make me appreciate truffles a heck of a lot more.
Learning About Truffles
Truffles are not really a fungus in the same way as a mushroom is. Instead, truffles are “grown” from spores, and remain subterranean under the soil. These spores tend to pollinate areas surrounding particular trees (chestnut and oak, for example), leading to a “where there’s one, there’s more” method to truffle hunting. The tree works in symbiosis with the truffle, they each need one another. As truffles are hunted, the spores from the truffles continue to spread and pollinate around the tree.
We visited Emilia Romagna at the start of autumn, which is the beginning of prime season for the esteemed white truffle. It thrives in more humid climates, whereas the black truffle in more dry climates. The area we were hunting in can produce both types of truffles, but we were after the white, in the more dark and humid areas.
It was said that this year would be good for white truffles because Emilia Romagna had so much rain. Because the truffle crop, for lack of a better word, has been generous this season, the price has decreased a significant amount in comparison to two years ago. Now, a white truffle will sell for about €80 per 100 grams (still yikes!)
Gianluca had pointed out that recently, some prime truffle trees had been cut down for deforestation. Tragic. The deforestation policy is a point of contention within the region. From this year onwards, the region is establishing a new policy. Developers will need to receive authorization from a panel whose goal it is to protect the truffle hunters.
Learning About Truffle Hunting
One of the keys to successful truffle hunting is to head towards the trees that have already produced truffles. Where there’s one, there’s more. Because the truffle starts to give off its smell as it ripens, the truffle hunting dog might not smell anything one day, and might find a great truffle the following day, or even later that same day. That, to me, was fascinating.
As the spores develop into truffles, they start to produce an odor that is recognized by the trained truffle hunting dogs. They are only edible for a period of time, and then they can go past their prime. These are inedible. They won’t kill you, but might be slightly toxic. The key is to find the truffle in its prime – when it starts to give off the odor, but before it goes bad.
To me, it seemed that the most important key to truffle hunting success was a well-trained dog, and a good relationship between that dog and the truffle hunter, the tartufaio.
One of the reasons why puppies are good to train is that the truffle hunters teach them about non-edible truffles first. Then they move on to the distinction between the edible and non-edible truffles. As the dogs grow up, they are taught to seek out the three types of truffles (white, black and spring truffles). They are rewarded for good behavior, when they find the truffle.
The Result of Our Truffle Hunting Excursion
It was fun to watch Nera sprint into the trees, listening to Gianluca’s commands. Apparently some truffle hunters might not be as nice to their dogs. It was a pleasure to listen to the exchange between Nera and Gianluca, even without understanding the Italian. The best part was when Nera did well and Gianluca exclaimed “Brava Nera!”
We were told that many of the truffle hunters don’t like taking tourists out, or if they do, they don’t share a lot about the process. It seems they are concerned about competition. I loved that Gianluca shared as much as he did. I think it became pretty clear, pretty quickly, that we are not going to become truffle hunters ourselves. There can be big rewards, but it is not easy work. It is a long term project – training puppies, caring for dogs, walking out in the woods in all kinds of weather. Some days are very successful, whereas it is just as likely that they are unsuccessful.
On our truffle hunting journey, Nera did the best she could. She found some small, edible truffles, along with one that was past its prime – inedible and smelly. We did not strike gold, possibly due to how much Nera was distracted by our presence, and the fact that so many hunters, including Gianluca, had already gone out that day.
Despite the lack of a white truffle bounty, it was a fun learning experience. It got Eric and I outdoors (that alone is a success), and made me truly appreciate what goes into truffle hunting – and why the truffles are so expensive.
Planning a Trip to Emilia Romagna?
Looking for more travel tips on Emilia Romagna, and how to eat the best food in Italy? My book The Food Traveler’s Guide to Emilia Romagna: How to taste the history and tradition of Italy, is available on Amazon now. If you are a NOOK reader, it is also available for download on Barnes and Noble.
More About Our Trip
We were hosted by Yummy Italy for this truffle hunting experience, but you can spend an afternoon truffle hunting in Italy on one of their tours, and can learn even more about the complicated process. For more information, click here.
For more about the food in Emilia Romagna, check out our Emilia Romagna Food Travel Guide.