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Another bucket list item ticked off, although I’m not sure once is enough.
We have some time to while away in Tuscany of all places, as our motorhome, affectionately known as Betsy, is placed into the hands of a Rimor repair workshop in Poggibonsi.
What a place to be delayed before making our way further north towards Hungary and Poland.
“So what is there to do in this region?” we wondered.
Visit castles and towns around the area are on the list and there’s the world famous culinary treat of going truffle hunting in Tuscany.
So as self-confessed foodies we partook in this regional pastime.
Here’s How Our Day Unfolded
We turned up early to Tenuta Toscanini (a proudly family-run winery established in 1720), for an 11am truffle hunt.
So what happens when one arrives at a winery early in Tuscany? They’re rewarded with a friendly welcome by an Italian chap who speaks good English. “Buongiorno, como sta” I said (good day, how are you?). ‘Oh, you speak Italian? was his enthusiastic reply. “No” was my sad return. “Solo un piccolo”, (only a little). I guess it was enough to impress.
“Please sit, (said our new friend), while I find you a wine, do you drink white or red?” “Bianco, grazie” (white, thanks) was my eager reply while looking down at my watch which said 10.45am. Gosh I love this civilised country.
Two giant glasses and a full bottle of Torciano Vernaccia Di, their signature in-house white wine arrived in front of us. Our truffle hunters turned up at 11.20am, twenty minutes late. I’m not sure if that was to give us time to make a serious dent on the wine bottle, or if they were just running late. Oh well, no harm no foul.
Early Morning Truffle Hunting Wine!
Learning About Truffles
Truffles, which are affectionately known as ‘diamonds of the kitchen’ or ‘golden mushrooms’, come in two main types, white and black. Within these two types there are about 30 different varieties, however, only a handful are edible. They lurk under the ground at varying depths and even the trained dogs sometimes get it wrong.
White truffles are found anywhere up to half a metre below the ground and are hunted from September through to December. The season is regulated by the Italian Government to ensure the long-term sustainability and quality of these diamonds (and no doubt keep the price up).
In 2016 only one kilogram of white truffle was found in the area of San Gimignano near where we are today, while in 2018 eight kilos were discovered. Thinking back to my university economics class of supply and demand it’s pretty obvious to guess what’s about to come next.
White truffles typically sell for €7,000 per kilo. A lack of viable truffles increases the demand and a low supply equals, you guessed it, a high price tag.
In 2018 a single truffle was unearthed weighing in at 2.1 kilos and fetched a price of €40,000. The exceptional price was apparently due to the quality and the unusually large size.
The white truffles do not need to be cooked first before eating them but can simply be shaved thinly on top of the food. Our lovely guide and English translator Andriano is the nephew of the current winery owner. He excitedly told us that the addition of truffle to the food turns the worst chef in the world into the best chef.
The government manages the short white truffle season, from September to December. The season, for black truffles in this region, is from April to May and lasting through to August. There are some other varieties which can be found all year round.
The most discerning of foodies appear to prefer the scent and flavour of the white truffle. That’s why Tuscany is flooded with buyers from all around the world during the winter truffle festival, happy to part with their euros for these elusive morsels.
Today’s Black Truffles
Thankfully today our hunting is a lot friendlier than the serious business of white truffle hunting. We’re in pursuit of black truffles and the conditions are near perfect. A cool period with a lot of rain makes for good growing conditions because after all, truffles are a species of fungus and they like the same conditions as mushrooms. The last few days of warm weather encourages the aroma of the truffles to permeate up through the ground, which makes them easier for the dogs to sniff out.
The variety we expect to find is called a summer truffle or scorzone which has a black rind and yellowish (bordering on white) pulp. We could see the white colour when one of the dogs bit into a truffle exposing the white inside.
The Use Of Pigs
We had heard of pigs being used for truffle hunting and just assumed that dogs were now used as an alternative or personal preference.
Although pigs can smell out a truffle at far greater depths than a dog, they root up a much large area of ground when digging down to it and cause serious damage to the fragile ecosystem that supports truffle growth and reproduction. The increased demand for truffles in the late 1970’s led to a greater use of hunting pigs. This almost collapsed the industry. In 1985, a law was passed banning the use of pigs outside of specific competitions and demonstrations.
We are also told that using pigs is dangerous for the hunters because pigs really, really like to eat truffles. When the hunters try to remove their find from the pig’s mouth they may extract their hand minus a finger or two. Dogs also love eating truffles but can be persuaded or trained to give them up for a small reward.
About the Dogs
The bred primarily used in Italy is called Lagotto Romagnolo, which means “little lakes of northern Italy”. Originally this breed was used to retrieve hunters’ kill from the water. They are known as being fun, friendly dogs and good pets. Their coat is normally as woolly as a sheep but ours had recently been shorn smooth.
The Italians will tell you this is the only breed to use, but according to the English and French truffle hunters, any dog can be trained.
How Are The Dogs Trained?
From the moment the dogs are born truffle oil is placed on their mum’s teats and they are also fed truffles. I wonder if that’s where the expression lucky dog comes from. This ensures that the smell and taste are ingrained from day one. It takes four to five intensive months to train a puppy and they hunt with their mums during this time.
A game is played with the puppies as they grow. A small truffle is placed in a scent container, which is perforated with tiny holes to allow the scent to escape. This is hidden around the grounds and the dogs are encouraged to hunt it out. The reward for their find comes in the form of a doggie treat. Our dogs also received small truffles as rewards, leaving us salivating and thinking lucky dogs.
The container used to train the dogs
Where to Find Truffles in Tuscany
There are many options for where to go truffle hunting, however, be warned as the price can be steep and you don’t get to keep the bounty. Typically, you join the hunters and their dogs for an hour or more of foraging then enjoy a lunch or dinner that (as you would expect) shows off the flavour of the truffle.
Truffles are known to grow in and around certain trees, the main ones being poplar and oak trees. However, lime, chestnut, willow and pine trees can also support truffles. The truffle, is actually the fruit of the fungi which grows on the roots of the trees in a mutualistic relationship, meaning that both the truffles and the trees benefit from them growing there.
Hunting for black truffles today was not in an open forest as we expected but instead in a cultivated and neatly planted oak grove in Ulignano, in the Province of Siena. This plantation was at the back of the Torciano Winery’s vineyard. growing on a large flat paddock where one would typically expect to see grapevines. The oak trees were planted in neat rows evenly spaced apart and watered with truffle-spore-infused water to give the precious earthly diamonds a helping hand.
Aiding the truffle hunters, apart from the trained dogs, is a small hoe with a short thin handle called a vanghetto. This helps to dig the truffles out from the ground once the dogs have located them. However I noticed when a large truffle was found the hands were the instrument of choice.
Wine Tasting & Delicious Lunch
After an enjoyable hour of hunting and gathering, which I could have continued for much longer, it was time to indulge in some wine tasting and food pairing.
Walking into the restaurant we were greeted by a table filled with umpteen glasses and bottles of wines all lined up waiting to be enjoyed.
This vineyard specialises in red wines, and we were presented with seven different wines and told about how each was made. There was so much passion from Andriano about the wines. He tenderly held each bottle while sharing their story as if they were his own creation.
All of the red wines made here use the Sangiovese grape as their main component. This is then blended with other varieties such as Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon to produce their liquid masterpieces. The Sangiovese is an ancient grape with its origins dating back to Roman times. Andriano called it the ‘mother grape’ from which all other grape varieties were bred.
Other Culinary Delights
Apart from wine, Toricano Winery also sells their own balsamic vinegar. Their grapes are sent away to the Modena region of Italy to be made into this delectable black liquid, and then returned to the cellar door for selling. The truffle oil we enjoyed with our meal was also available for purchasing.
By acquiring a bottle of truffle oil and balsamic vinegar we thought this would give us a great deal of culinary pleasure and last much longer than a bottle of wine.
Other Interesting Facts
1. A truffle needs to be at least five months old before it is ready for harvest
2. If the truffle is too young, they are returned to the ground however the dogs will usually only smell out ones that are ripe
3. The white truffles are typically sold to Italian buyers, whereas the black truffles are sold worldwide
4. For more information including how to become a truffle hunter, which is no small feat, click here.
5. DOCG means Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita and this highest classification on a wine bottle label guarantees the source of the grapes, the controlled production methods and wine quality of each bottle.
6. Tenuta Toscanini makes three of their wines under the IGT (Indicazione Geografica Tipica) classification which allows the winemaker more freedom in how they blend and produce the wines. These wines are delicious and can only be purchased directly from the winery.
7. If you are keen to try your hand at truffle hunting then enjoy a delicious lunch, including truffles and truffle oil, the place to go is Toricano Winery. All details including pricing can be found here.
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