Hunting Truffles in Italy

Of all the pleasures unique to Italy in the fall—the soft, golden light, the balmy days and crisp nights, the relative post-summer calm of many of the cities and towns—perhaps the most memorable comes in the form of the deceptively humble yet truly divine truffle.

black-truffles-patrico-umbria-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

One of the world’s most expensive delicacies, truffles can be found all year round depending upon their type and terrain, but the most abundant season is the late autumn when the wood-covered slopes of the central Italian Apennines of Umbria and Tuscany and the Alps in northern Piedmont become treasure troves for local foragers and their faithful trained assistants.

truffle-reserve-umbria-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

One would expect, given the market price of the largest and best quality truffles (which can run into the hundreds of thousands of euros), that truffle hunters’ indispensable assistants—many trained for years and from historic, prestigious families—would earn a formidable cut of the profits. On the contrary, these hard workers take home little more than a few biscuits and a pat on the head.

Literally.

truffle-hunt-patrico-umbria-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Yes, we’ve put man on the moon and our computers in our glasses, but we haven’t yet come up with a better way to locate the rich, aromatic truffle under the layer of loam and leaves that covers its forest habitat than the sensitive nose of a specialized canine.

truffle-dogs-bartoli-umbria-cr-brian-dore (Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

One of the most enjoyable outings in rural Umbria, Tuscany, or Piedmont is spending a day with a local truffle hunter and his dogs, leisurely wandering the woods while the real workers zig zag between the trees and brush, yipping and digging when they locate their prize, and happily exchanging the rough, dirt-covered tuber with the much more precious doggy treat as a reward.

truffle-hunt-patrico-umbria-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

If you have any qualms about putting these dogs to work, it takes only minutes out in the field on a truffle hunt to assuage any animal rights indignation you may be harboring. They love their job, visibly trembling with delight when it’s time to head to the hills for a few hours of foraging, and enjoy a close, affectionate relationship with their “padrone”, who has often spent years training successive generations.

bartoli-patrico-umbria-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

agriturismo-bartoli-patrico-umbria-italy-cr-brian-dore(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

One of our favorite spots to join in on a hunt is at a family farm in Patrico, high in the hills above Spoleto in Umbria, where the Bartoli family owns one of the oldest agriturismos in Italy. Here, three generations farm, raise livestock, welcome guests to their rustic farmhouse, and, when the urge strikes, strike out for the surrounding hills where, alongside a rotating roster of trained pups, they harvest that day’s bounty.

bartoli-patrico-umbria-cr-rebecca-winke(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

truffle-hunt-umbria-cr-brian-dore (Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

As fun as a romp in the woods with the pups may be, it is overshadowed by what comes next: a multi-course meal prepared by the Bartoli women with what you (ok, what the dogs) have managed to forage from the forest floor. You’ll be hard-pressed not to overindulge in the basket of warm focaccia directly from the oven, house prosciutto, and aged pecorino set out to nibble on, but try to limit yourself because you have a memorable meal on its way.

bartoli-patrico-umbria-cr-rebecca-winke(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

bartoli-patrico-umbria-cr-rebecca-winke
(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Beginning with a simple bruschetta topped with grated truffles and the Bartoli’s own olive oil and a truffle-specked frittata, you will be treated to the family recipe of tagliatelle in truffle sauce, truffle-covered local beef, a truffle-dressed soft-boiled egg, and an endless series of vegetable dishes directly from their kitchen garden...all paired with their house red, and much talk and laughter.

bartoli-patrico-umbria-cr-rebecca-winke (Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

This is one of the most authentic days one can spend in rural Italy, where life is not about high art or chic design, but about food, family, and a fondness for their land that is palpable in everything from the dogs to the dishes.

bartoli-patrico-umbria-cr-rebecca-winke
(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)

Note: A visit organized by us to Agriturismo Bartoli was featured in the October 2014 Town & Country Travel magazine.

Related Posts:
Autumn Treasures: Alba’s White Truffle Festival
In Season: Five Italian Fall Foods
Bringing Food and Wine Souvenirs Back From Italy


Contributor: Rebecca Winke

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Condé Nast Traveler Top Travel Specialist: Italy