Ian Henderson, The Daily Telegraph, October 04, 2013
I'm enjoying a breakfast of scrambled eggs with delicate shavings of ridiculously expensive white truffle. According to experts, it’s the perfect way to bring out the unmistakable but indefinable flavour.
I’m at a perfectly dressed table on the terrace of the luxuriously relaxed Villa La Massa hotel overlooking the River Arno, a few miles outside Florence. Below a kingfisher has just shot across the water, a brighter blue than the pale Tuscan sky. Ahead are the hills where I walked yesterday with Giulio the trifulau (truffle-hunter) and his lagotto dog, Edda. My breakfast is as delicious as it is thanks, in part, to them.
Decadent as it may sound, my morning feast is in fact being consumed as part of vital research in the British national interest. One of the relatively few benefits of our (generally) damper summers is that more truffles are now being found in the countryside of Britain; truffle-hunting, however, has not yet taken hold the way it has for centuries in Italy. So I’m here to ascertain the feasibility of bringing back the necessary skills, to blow away the cobwebby mycelia of mystery surrounding the truffle, perhaps add a new dimension to country walks and – maybe – add Britain to the countries producing what is, at up to £6,000 per kilo, one of the most expensive cooking ingredient known to man.
I can’t pretend to optimism regarding the success of this mission. Early investigation has revealed there’s quite a difference between the rare white truffle (Tuber magnatum, the record price for which stands at £165,000 for 1.5kg, paid by a Macau businessman) and the black aestivum truffle found in Britain, selling at a more modest £169 per kilo. In fact, there are hundreds of varieties of truffle and while Britain may be producing them in increasing quantity, my Tuscan advisers are fairly clear that they bear no comparison with Italian varieties. They say it’s a bit like comparing a rough roadside red with the world-beating “Supertuscan” wines now being produced in Chianti.
Local prejudice aside, even untutored taste buds like mine can tell they have a point. A fairly fundamental flaw in the plan; and then there’s the trouble of finding the things. My truffle-hunter companion Giulio Benuzzi has spent three years training Edda, a lagotto specially bred for the task. (Lagotti were brought to Florence by lumberjacks from Modena in the 17th century and look a bit like large, fluffy, brown and white poodles.)
Hunters and dogs form an inseparable team; the world record truffle was found by Luciano Savini and his dog Rocco. Each hunter has his own territory and will know every rock and root in it; secret truffle-rich locations are written down in the hunter’s notebook, kept under lock and key and handed from one generation to the next. There are around 1,400 licensed truffle hunters in Tuscany, and competition is fierce – around Alba, where the most valuable white truffles are found, there are stories of the best dogs being stolen or poisoned and hunters spying on their competitors’ high-yielding grounds.
Up in the hills overlooking the mist-filled Arno valley just after dawn, the Duomo and Campanile of Florence shining in the distance, Giulio had already chosen our route from his secret book of territories. As we left his jeep at the bottom of a track and walked up through oak and beech stands, Giulio dispensed more truffle lore. Truffles, he explained, are the fruit of underground mushrooms, the cobweb-like mycelia (branching strands) of which grow among the roots of a few very specific tree varieties such as oak, hornbeam and birch. Many attempts have been made to cultivate them commercially, with very little success.
The reason truffles taste so good is simple biology: to attract animals that dig them up and spread the spores after eating them – like pigs and, er, humans. Pigs were used to hunt truffle in Italy until the 1970s but had a strong tendency to gobble them before the hunter could intervene – to them, a truffle smells like the sexiest pig on Earth. Dogs are considerably less attracted and therefore less likely to snaffle several thousand pounds’ worth . Edda can catch the scent of a smallish black truffle from three or four yards away – the stronger white variety from three times as far. Giulio controls her with claps and shouts as she forages excitedly in the fallen leaves.
Despite being early in the season, it wasn’t too long before Giulio shouted “truffle!”, called Edda back, unslung his vanghetto (a cross between a hoe and a harpoon) and gently started turning the earth. While not the finest example, it was undeniably exciting to see (and more importantly, smell) a fresh truffle emerge from the ground. Once cut, it gave off the distinctive truffle aroma – hard to define even for experts, but wild garlic, hay and honey are often quoted. (For me there was also burned electrical insulation, which I quite like.)
However you describe it, the truffle is undeniably delicious; a scent that speaks to some of the more deeply buried parts of the brain.
It was at this point I began to realise my quest to start digging up truffles back home may be futile – as well as higher-quality crops, it looked like I’d need a vanghetto (not too difficult), highly trained dog (harder) and an encyclopedic knowledge of a productive bit of countryside (very hard indeed). Then, of course, I’d have to learn what to do with the truffles I’d found – and for that, I turned to the Villa La Massa’s chef, Andreas Quagliarella.
Andreas looks like a chef should – big, jolly and with a passionate eye undimmed by his years of experience. He’s been at the hotel and its famous sister Villa d’Este for more than two decades and is one of the leading exponents of Tuscan cooking.
Around his kitchen table he introduces local ingredients like members of his band – his own olive oil, perfect Parmesan, vast Chianina beef fillets. Without any apparent effort, he places perfectly executed crostini before us – carpaccio, chicken liver, tartare. We try Andrea Fracassini’s pecorino cheeses alongside the tar and roses of a huge Barolo. During our truffle-themed dinner, the sommelier introduced us to more of the local winemakers’ art.
One of the most exciting wineries in the region is Querciabella, owned by the charismatic Sebastiano Cossia Castiglioni. He is out to prove that strict vegan, biodynamic farming (no fertilisers, no irrigation, not even composts) can reliably produce world-class wines, albeit at low volume; the utterly delicious Batar white is among Italy’s finest and Camartina may be the ultimate Supertuscan red. Producing perfection the hard way means nothing is left to chance; down to the correct glasses to go with the wine (Riedel Vinum Extreme 4444/0) and music (Bach).
I’d been for a run up the hills behind Villa La Massa before my truffle-scented breakfast. I’d seen the tracks of boar and deer, heard the hunters’ guns, smelled the soft loam of the forests where the truffles await Edda and Giulio. Looking back over the Arno towards Florence as the sun picked out the palazzos of the Medici, I thought about the richness and complexity of cultivation that, over centuries, has produced some of the most delicious food and drink on Earth. I decided that after all, it may be best not to try to bring the secrets of Tuscany back home. But just to enjoy them the way they’ve always been.
British Airways ( ba.com ) flies to Pisa from London Gatwick. One-way flights from £39.
Where to stay
Relais Villa Belpoggio £
Farther out of Florence (22 miles) in the countryside, a secluded smaller villa with pool and good rooms (Villa Belpoggio, Via Setteponti Ponente 40/A 52024 Malva; 0039 055 969 4411; villabelpoggio.it ; from £125).
Villa La Massa ££
Relaxed and very civilised 15th-century villa overlooking the River Arno, owned by legendary Villa d’Este. David Bowie got married in the picturesque chapel (055 62611; villalamassa.it ; from £230).
Il Salviatino £££
Fourteenth-century palazzo on a hill overlooking Florence, just below Fiesole. Ultra cool and chic staff and interior (055 90411; salviatino.com ; from £260).
Where to eat
Decent, generous Tuscan cooking in a 14th-century chapel setting, right in the middle of Florence (Via de’ Tavolini, 12R, Florence; 055 216215).
La Leggenda dei Frati ££
Filippo Saporito does some of the most inventive Tuscan cooking in Tuscany, using local ingredients in a beautiful rustic setting (La Leggenda dei Frati, Localita’ Casina Dei Ponti, Castellina in Chianti; 0577 301222; laleggendadeifrati.it ).
Il Verrocchio £££
Stunning terrace overlooking the Arno and the Chianti hills. Great service and outstanding traditional Tuscan cooking (Villa La Massa, Via della Massa 24, Candeli; 055 62611; [email protected] ).
The inside track
If you’re after truffles, remember they are entirely dependent on conditions; check carefully before you go. Best times are October for white, February for black and March or even April for Giulio’s favourite, the Florentine bianchetto.
Dress for a country walk with a bit of scrambling; main essentials are a waterproof coat and shoes with good grip. Get up early (most hunters start at dawn) and be ready for four hours or so in the woods.
You can probably book a truffle hunting trip through your hotel, or go direct to Giulio at [email protected] .
Work out what you’re going to do with the truffles if you find them – they won’t keep long, and are best enjoyed fresh. Truffles shaved on fried eggs is a proper Tuscan breakfast, and they go well with cream, cheese and meat. (So a bit of exercise afterwards might be in order too.)
Read Lee Marshall's Tuscany travel guide