Everything you need to know about these earthy fragranced and pungent tasting gems!
October is a rich harvest month for delicious olives and sweet chestnuts. It’s time for comfort food, warm socks and a hot mug on hand by the fireplace. But most of all, it’s the perfect time to go truffle hunting, for the king of them all: the precious white truffle! That is if you’re not a comfortable warm-socks-hot-mug type of person, because truffle hunting is no easy job!
When should you go searching for truffles?
We must say that there is no such thing as a “truffle season”, it’s only a matter of following nature’s course and knowing where to look and what to search for, during a year’s long different periods. So if we got you curious on this one, continue reading as we’re going to reveal all there is to know about truffles!
As we were saying, following nature’s course is a good starting point if you’re out looking for truffles, because first of all, you need to know what exactly you’re looking for! Truffle is a distant relative of common mushrooms, in fact it’s a subterranean Ascomycete fungus, and more precisely one of the Tuber species, which grows in symbioses with some trees’ roots, spreading its spores mostly due to the fungivore animals who have a taste for truffles as well as mushrooms and other fungi. Truffles grow on their own, and you’ll never see more than one in a single hole, but chances are very high that you may find others around the same tree. Another interesting fact about truffles is that they actually start growing 5 months previous to when you find them, which means that if you find one truffle in winter, it probably was formed during summer time. However, truffles grow and ripen in different times, and when they do, their smell only lasts for 8 hours and they actually only ‘live’ for 10-15 days before turning into organic substance for small animals and wood’s soil.
What should you be looking for?
There are mainly two types of truffles, divided in other categories: the black truffle and the white truffle. Here in Tuscany we have the black ‘summer’ truffle (Tuber aestivum) or ‘scorzone’, which has a hard skin and dark aromatic flesh; this one can be found just under the topside of the ground. We harvest the black summer truffle from the beginning of June til late autumn and it has a very appreciated culinary value, together with the burgundy black truffle (Tuber uncinatum), which is part of the same species, but it’s called this way for its crocheted-like skin. Starting from late September there is a transition period, in which it’s likely we find the last of black truffles, as well as the first ripe white ones. This marks the beginning of the eagerly awaited white truffle period, which lasts until mid-January more or less.
The white truffle (Tuber Magnatum) can be found under the roots of oaks, hazels, poplar or beeches and has a pale light brown flesh with white marbling. It grows deeper into the ground than the black one, (up to 160 ft. underground) and that’s what makes it more difficult to be found. Since it forms during summer time, when there is less (to none) humidity in the soil, white truffle originates deeper underground, taking advantage of the more humid part of it. A less known and used type is a kind of ‘wild’ truffle called Tuber Macrosporum, which has a strong garlic taste and it’s hardly ever used in the kitchen.
How do you actually find truffles?
So what about the ‘hunting’ part? Well actually that is just the final stage of a long process which starts with a puppy! Yes, that’s right: you can’t go searching sniffing and digging for truffles in the woods on your own, unless you have a dog’s nose, so the first thing you’ll need to do, is train a dog to do it for you! In our family, the truffle hunter is Luigi, Giuseppina’s husband, together with his trusted trained dogs.
The main breed used for truffle hunting is Lagotto Romagnolo, but actually none of Luigi’s dogs are purebred. In his words, it’s mostly the medium size, a good nose, a low-speed chase and a deep feeling with the owner that makes the perfect truffle hunting dog. Luigi cares about his dogs as if they were his children and trains them everyday so they don’t loose their interest in truffles! It takes a lot of effort, devotion and of course money to train a dog for truffles, and it all starts with newborn cubs. First they are being fed with little pieces of real truffle mixed to their usual dog food (no truffle oil or similar is ever being used). The puppy grows familiar with the taste and the smell of truffles and that makes him greedy with it. Later on, truffle becomes part of the fun for the dog, as small pieces of it are hidden in treats that he has to find, in order to receive a tasty reward.
Actually, for Luigi’s dogs, going truffle hunting is more of a fun activity rather than ‘work’, as some may think. They enjoy sniffing the woods in search of the truffles, because they know there’s a big tasty reward waiting for them if they do, plus they’re greedy of those earthy little treats too… who’s not?!
However, what’s most important is the feeling that’s being built between the dog and his owner… you can’t just simply buy or rent a trained dog and expect him to do the dirty job for you! You need to know, feel and love your dog, in order to understand his behavior and read the signs of his body movements, otherwise you may end up with your truffles eaten by the dog before you know it, or even worse: no truffles at all!
One last – but not less important – thing you should know, is that besides the dog, the passion and the camouflage dress up, first of all you’ll need a state license. Hunters achieve a special permit (which allows them to search for truffles and mushrooms in any forest throughout Italy), by following a special course where they are taught many different aspects regarding the hunting, such as legislation, guidance, knowing the woods and preserving the forest ground and undergrowth.
Now we may have discouraged you a little bit on that last one, but don’t worry: if you feel like going hunting but don’t have the time to attend a class and train your own dog while in Italy for vacation, you can still join Luigi for a fun hunting activity in the Tuscan woods around Certaldo, and end up tasting the booty over a generous four-course lunch at Cucina Giuseppina, where it’s all about good Chianti wine and home made Tuscan delicacies.