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Jul 12, 2018

The Art of Truffle Hunting

What I learned about the decadent ingredient when I went to the source in Tuscany.

Last month while staying at the Four Seasons in Florence, I was fortunate enough to try something I’ve always wanted to do. Being that I have a lot of experience in the culinary world, I took the opportunity to go hunting for the delicious diamonds of the forest known as truffles.

About an hour and 20 minutes outside of Florence I arrived at Savini Tartufi in Tuscany to begin the hunt. Both black and white truffles are a well-known luxury ingredient because of how difficult they are to find. What makes truffles so in demand and pricey is the fact that you cannot cultivate them. They’re incredibly difficult to find, particularly the white ones, because they only grow in moist conditions in certain areas that require you to forage for them in the woods. The best time to do so is in the morning or the late afternoon.

An added obstacle is that they grow beneath the surface of the earth, so a person looking for truffles can’t find them without the help of an animal. One option is to rely on a pig, although they must be muzzled in order to prevent them from eating the truffles on sight. Most popularly, trained dogs are used to track the truffles down.

What I realized immediately is that the relationship between the dog and the master is absolutely incredible. The way the master has to rely on the dog and the system they have created is remarkable. Needless to say, the dogs are extremely dedicated and obedient. They are equipped with a bell around their neck before taking off to track down the elusive truffles.

Truffle hunting dogs in Italy. Photo courtesy of Colin Cowie

Once they pick up the scent they begin digging lightly until the master taps the dog’s head, signaling it to move aside. As the dog waits quietly the master digs for the rest of the truffles, making sure they are not damaged or destroyed in the process. Once uncovered the dog gets a little pinch of the truffle, both as a reward and to ensure that it understands exactly what it’s looking for.

Another point of interest I learned is that the truffle only releases its wonderful earthy fragrance once it’s ready to be eaten, which is truly a miracle of nature. One could walk back and forth over a buried truffle for weeks at a time, but only once they are ready will the dogs be able to sniff them out.

White truffles at Savini Tartufi. Photo courtesy of Colin Cowie

From a seasonal perspective, we get the black truffles in the wintertime and the white truffles in the summertime. What I found is that depending on the climate, Bordeaux and truffles have opposite yields as imposed by changes in nature. If the truffles have a bad season, the wine has a good season, and vice versa. Everything is about supply and demand, so with this year being a particularly low-yielding one for truffles it pushes the cost up exponentially. At the moment truffles are anywhere between $2,500 and $3,000 per pound, which is incredibly expensive. In an indication of just how sought out this delicacy is, the world’s largest truffle, which was found in the Umbria region in Italy, sold at auction at Sotheby’s in 2014 for a whopping $61,250, weighing in at 4.16 lbs.

Simple pasta with truffles. Photo courtesy of Colin Cowie

When it comes to cooking with truffles, there are very few ways you can go wrong. I’ve had the joy of working with them for many years. Personally, I prefer the white truffle to the black—it’s truly the most decadent and one of the most exquisite additions to dishes as simple as plain pasta. All it takes is some added cream or butter with sliced truffle, and it makes for an excellent meal. I would also highly recommend truffle with mashed potatoes and a quail egg, and I love having dinner parties end with vanilla ice cream topped with truffled honey.

The best thing about all of this? I’ve already begun counting down the days until next truffle season!

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