Most people who live in Italy for any period of time eventually become curious about truffles. It's not so much that Italian truffles, with their pungent smell and earthy flavor, are an acquired taste; they are simply hard to acquire, appearing on menus only at certain times of year and in certain regions. Unlike French black truffles, which are far more common, the Italian Precious Whites are a rare delicacy, worth as much as €4,000 a kilo, and surrounded by colorful folklore. Personally, I always imagined graying men with woven baskets and funny hats roaming the Tuscan countryside behind pigs, in pursuit of a mysterious fungus. A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to go on a truffle hunt and found most of the myths shattered.
Truffle hunting has been part of the Italian lifestyle for generations, but it is only now becoming a popular niche travel adventure as Italians focus on reinventing ancient traditions. In the 16th century, when truffles were a staple among aristocrats, they were rooted out by pigs, which were often starved as motivation to find the valuable loot. Modern trufflers, or tartufai, use dogs because even the smartest pigs could not resist eating the booty. And today's hunters need to know much more than where to look; they must qualify for a license to dig up truffles. Only nine out of 20 truffle species can be harvested and sold in Italy, so hunters have to be able to identify the various types by their scientific genome. They also have to take an oath that includes promising minimal disturbance to the environment and using the traditional vanghetto digging tool. "It takes about 20 days to get the license," says Tuscan truffler Giacomo Bombardi. "But it takes about 20 years to become a true tartufai."
Like other forms of hunting, truffling involves as much patience as practice. Part of the fungus family, truffles are like mushrooms that grow underground. It is impossible to know exactly where they grow, but they are most often found in clay-heavy soil under oak, poplar, hazelnut, and willow trees. Truffles reveal themselves only by aroma, so hunters rely entirely on their dogs to sniff out the buried treasure. The whole experience is intensely thrilling, from the moment the dog starts barking wildly to the hunter's gentle tapping around the truffle to excavate it without puncturing or breaking it. When Bombardi's dog, Rosa, caught the scent near a riverbed outside Siena on a recent muddy Sunday morning, she yelped and started digging frantically until Bombardi playfully pushed her away. She was as excited as he was to see what was underground. Maybe, Bombardi teased, it will be as big as the 1.5 kilogram truffle found near here two years ago, which sold at auction for €220,600. "This might just be the tip of it," he said with a wink, tapping the tiny dark gray mass with his trowel. "Most people never get to see a truffle like this."
The truffle Rosa found was only about 8cm in diameter and weighed just a few grams. But Bombardi was right about one thing: most people never get to see a real truffle at all, let alone in situ. Instead, they end up with tiny shards on pasta or the mere essence infused into oil. Anything less than fresh is fake, goes the saying in Italy, and it is better to wait a whole year for the season to come again than to suffer through an inferior truffle. "An Italian white truffle has to be born here," explains Giselle Oberti, the producer of Italy's annual international white-truffle auction. "It represents the essence of the region where it formed."
In recent years, white truffles have become exceptionally scarce because of hotter, drier weather. Precious Whites are most common in the Alba region of Piedmont and throughout northern Tuscany. A more common version, considered inferior in taste and quality, is known as the Whitish or marzuolo truffle and is worth just €150 a kilo. The demand for the Precious Whites has created a black market for those who harvest them without a license and has inspired fraudsters to try to pass off the Whitish truffles as the real thing. "Fraud is an enormous problem in this industry," says Moreno Moroni, president of the local Tartufai Association near Siena. "It is like selling gold filament instead of the real thing."
During the hunt I was on, Bombardi, Moroni, and their dogs found six white truffles of varying shapes and sizes, and gave us each one as a souvenir. The gloves I was wearing that day still have a slight hint of the unique truffle aroma—rotting fungus intermingled with clean air and cypress trees—leaving an unforgettable memory that takes me immediately back to the hunt.