Truffle, .a.k.a. Tuber Magnatum Pico. And I’m not talking about the chocolate one. I’m talking about the one that emanates a smell similar to methane, which looks like a potato with bubonic plague that only dogs and pigs can find. I’m talking about one of the most expensive and rarest food on the planet.
I literally grew up around truffles. I was raised in Florence but I spent most weekends and summer of my Italian life in the small town of Balconevisi, municipality of San Miniato. Located right between Florence and Pisa, this tiny “borgo” (about 100 souls and shrinking) in the still virgin heart of Tuscany is where my parents are from and where I still have a home. My area is one of the few around Italy (and the world) where truffles are found, and I mean the prestigious white truffles. Current price averages around $300 per ounce. The price is dictated by supply, size and quality (no, not demand…truffles are ALWAYS in demand).
To me the most fascinating side of truffles is how they are found: you need either a dog or a pig. You can train a dog; good luck really training a pig! Good dog: medium size healthy mutt, preferably from a truffle hunting lineage; he’ll roam the woods, smell the truffle, go to the spot, dig until he finds it and stop for the owner to finish digging it out. Bad dog: large, pure bred; usually gets lost in the woods, maybe chasing game; IF he does find truffles he’ll destroy it while digging it out, and ultimately eat it. Now, I’ll tell you about “Nerino”, my childhood neighbor Aurelio’s “blind” dog. Yes, Nerino was blind; he bumped into parked cars, trees, corners and things, but to balance this major handicap his sense of smell was out of the ordinary making him, together with his mellow disposition, one of the best truffle dogs around.
Let’s talk about the truffle “hunter” (person, not dog). He doesn’t make a living out of it, it’s his hobby! That doesn’t mean he doesn’t take his hobby seriously, on the contrary! The stereotype: burly, secluded and introverted, older farmer type, in love with his dog, or more often dogs. He livesby a Mafia-like code of “Omertà” (silence); a ”don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of thing: another big draw to the truffle world! Don’t ask the truffle hunter WHERE he found it, he won’t tell you. Everything is down played in order to not reveal important info, like place, time and condition. If he shows you what he found is going to be the crumbs, not the big catch, unless he scored seriously BIG!! Truffle season in Tuscany goes from mid to late September until January with a little spurt of low quality “Marzolino” (from Marzo-Italian for March) during the rainy part of the month. Truffles follow the same weather rules of mushrooms as they are in reality, well, mushrooms! Enough for now, I could go on and on about this topic but I’ll get back to it soon.