Truffle Hunting in Italy: Part I
“Every day is a good day for truffle hunting,” says Giuseppe Lolli, winemaker, restaurant owner, and truffle hunter. Giuseppe hunts for truffles in the Puglia and Basilicata regions of Italy: two regions where few people know truffles exist. Giuseppe aims to change this. He is the lead organizer of the Salento Truffle Festival, now in its third year, and says that he primarily finds black truffles in Puglia, and black and white truffles in Basilicata. Giuseppe loads his truck with his two dogs Rot and Brioche, and we strike out for the country.
Italy’s best-known area for truffles is Piedmont in the north. The city of Alba, the white truffle capital of the world, draws hundreds of thousands of food and wine enthusiasts every year. Eating fresh truffles can be a costly endeavor—the most expensive truffle cost a man from Hong Kong $160,406—and the average mark up from Alba to foreign destinations is 1,000%. Truffles are sold for lower prices in Alba, and six months prior to meeting Giuseppe, I went to the region to indulge in the incredible mushroom. Unfortunately, I completely failed.
When I arrived in Alba in April, I learned that fresh white truffle is only available between September and December, and maybe January if you’re lucky. Hotels, B&Bs, rental cars, and restaurants need to be reserved months in advance. Certainly, this rarity adds to the truffle’s greatness. Scientists have yet to discover a way to farm truffles efficiently, and white truffles grow in only select locations on earth. They grow underground, often beneath large oak trees, and it takes a very good nose to find them. In the past, truffle farmers used pigs to find truffles, but the pigs often ended up eating the truffles themselves. Now dogs are primarily used.
Back in Puglia, after a fifteen minute drive, Giuseppe pulls off the quiet paved road, on to a dirt road. We bounce along the road–which seems more path than road at times–for another few minutes. We park and Giuseppe lets Brioche and Rot hit the trail. He pulls a pointed trowel from the back of his truck and we walk into the woods. The land is populated by olive and almond trees. Abandoned stone walls run everywhere. Giuseppe points to a stone trough that is barely discernible beneath our feet and says that it was once an aqueduct. This ancient land has always been known as a land of plenty.
It only takes a moment and the dogs paw a patch of dirt enthusiastically. When they dig deep enough to thrust their hungry snouts inside, Giuseppe utters a command and the dogs cease and desist immediately. Giuseppe, with a big smile, pulls out a medium-size black truffle. It smells incredible. Not as powerful as when it’s sliced or grated, but fresh; nutty. It has the character of fresh almond, porcini mushroom, and heavy summertime humidity all rolled into one.
Written by Mattie Bamman for EuropeUpClose.com