The Tuscan countryside has long been prized for its fertile land and beautiful scenery. The soil here produces some of the world’s favorite produce—vineyards filled with ripe grapes, olive trees laden with fruit, figs bursting with flavor, the list goes on. Yet one of the region’s most famous exports is extremely hard to find, grows in darkness and must be eaten within just a few days of being harvested; the elusive white truffle.
The Diamond of the Forest
The white truffle–tuber magnatum pico—is a type of mushroom. At the annual truffle fairs, the most famous of which is in Alba in Piedmont, prices can reach an incredible $7,000 per kilo (2lb), depending on the quality of the mushroom and the quantity available in any given season. For many chefs worldwide, they are the ultimate luxury extra—restaurants often buy just one per season, which is kept on display in the dining room and shaved over dishes at table by a waiter wearing white gloves.
Various varieties of Italian truffles can be found all year round here (seven different types grow in Tuscany), but the months of October and November mark prime white truffle season in the hills around San Miniato. The so-called “diamond of the forest”, the white truffle only grows in Italy, and within Italy is only found in three places—Piedmont, Tuscany, and Le Marche. It cannot be cultivated by farmers like other types of truffle, and so must be hunted down by individual man-and-dog trifulau (truffle hunter) teams scouring the countryside for this delicious white gold.
Originally, farmers used pigs to hunt truffles (their sensitive snouts made them excellent helpers), but there was a serious problem—the pigs would often eat the bounty or spoil it before it could be harvested. As Luca Campinotti of renowned exporters Savini Tartufi explains, truffle hunters these days use a particular breed of dog called Lagotto as their trusty companions.
Savini Tartufi has an impeccable pedigree in the world of truffles. It has been in operation for close to 100 years, and Luciano Savini and his son Christiano have the distinct honor of having found the most expensive white truffle ever, with the help of their dog Rocco. It was sold for a staggering $330,000 at auction. As Luca says, “Savini is not just a brand, it’s a family. The current owners are the 3rd and 4th generation truffle hunters.”
How to Harvest a White Truffle
No-one knows how long it takes for a truffle to grow, as while they are growing they don’t have any scent (the sole way for them to be detected). Only once they are mature do they start to smell—and from that moment you have 5 days tops to pick the truffle before it spoils and starts to turn spongy. Found up to two feet deep in the ground, you can begin to understand what makes this mushroom so hard to locate.
As Luca says, “You can pass through the same section of forest for days without finding anything, and then suddenly one appears”. Once a truffle is located (with the help of your trusty canine) it must be carefully extracted with a long-handled spade. Once brushed clean, the truffle must then be stored in the right way—wrapped in kitchen paper and placed it in a glass jar in the fridge. In chef circles, a tale is told of a £28,000 ($37,000) truffle bought by a group reportedly including Gwyneth Paltrow and Roman Abramovich that was ruined by being stored incorrectly before it could be eaten. Some people store their truffles in rice by Luca advises against it, as he says it can leach the flavor from the fungus.
Go Truffle Hunting
To experience the earthly magic of hunting truffles for yourself, companies like Savini and others offer small group excursions into the forest. The trip starts with an explanation of the terroir and why the white truffle is so hard to find and so exclusive. Then you lace up your boots and head out into the wild in the company of your trifulau and his trusty sidekick. The Savini family currently have 8 different dogs trained in the art of truffle hunting. All that remains is to cross your fingers and hope to find something special. Whatever you do, don’t tell others exactly where you’ve been on your quest; truffle hunters’ favorite locations are a closely guarded secret. Luca says it’s like being a fisherman—you never watch to share your secret spots for the best catch.
If you don’t find anything, don’t worry—when you return to the property Carla Savini (the matriarch of the family) will be waiting, with a dish of deliciously fresh tagliolini pasta garnished with truffle shavings for your lunch.
How to Serve White Truffles
If you get the opportunity to buy your own white truffle to take home, make sure you learn to serve it in the proper way. Simplicity is key, says Luca. The traditional Tuscan way is to enjoy white truffle shaved over a bed of fresh tagliolini which has been tossed in butter or olive oil, but Luca says you can even shave it over a fried eggs for a truly decadent breakfast. “So you see, you can enjoy truffle for breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” he says with a laugh. As long as you can find one, that is.
Where to stay in Tuscany
To stay in the heart of Tuscan truffle country, look for properties near San Miniato, on the road between Pisa and Florence. Home of one of the biggest annual truffle markets (held in November each year), here you’ll be close to Savini and their experts as well as staying in some of the most beautiful countryside around. Our properties in the region have panoramic views, swimming pools and state of the art kitchens ready for you to take the plunge and create your very own tagliolini con tartufo. We can even organize for a cooking class to help you along the way.
Photos: c/o Savnini Tartufi