Truffle Hunting in Italy: Searching Emilia Romagna for the World's Most Exquisite Food
When it comes to truffles there are two camps - those who don’t care for the taste or smell of them, and those in a love affair. Count me firmly in the second camp! Truffles are one of Italy's unique regional foods, although they’re also found in Tuscany and regions similar to Emilia Romagna in soil and topography like Istria in northern Croatia. and the earthy flavor and unique woodsy aroma make my mouth water. But like any love affair, too much of a good thing and things can go awry. Add a bit too many truffle shavings and truffle will be all you taste no matter what it’s added to. So it’s a delicate dance but one that’s well worth having.
Truffle Hunting in Italy
On our recent trip to Bologna, Italy we had the chance to go hunting with a local truffle hunter regarded as one of the best in the area. Truffle hunting in Italy is something I’ve always wanted to do — talk about a unique farm-to-table experience, right? We were here with our friends from Italian Days, a company we toured with on our first trip to Bologna. They specialize in unique food and wine tours and run some of the best food tours in Bologna. Late one afternoon we rode into the Valsamoggia area and met up with the truffle hunter, Adriano, and his friendly truffle dog Macchia to search for one of the world's most exquisite foods. This short excursion was a perfect day trip from Bologna to get out and see more of the countryside.
Mouthwatering Food Tours in Bologna
Culinary tours are a great way to experience Emilia Romagna, and if you're not yet familiar with this part of Italy, you're not alone. The region is known as one of the world's premier culinary destinations, and the food in Bologna is considered by many to be the best in the country. So if you're planning a trip to Italy and looking for unique things to do in Bologna, this experience is heaven for foodies!
The Truffle Hunter and His Dog
Macchia is an Italian Lagotto Dog (Lagotto Romagnolo), a medium sized old breed that was originally used as a water retriever. They’re intelligent and gentle dogs, with the energy to put in a full day. Today it’s more common for them to be used to hunt truffles, and only female dogs are used. Apparently males are a bit more difficult to train!
Like many people, we thought that truffle hunting pigs were still used, but in 1985 the Italian government outlawed their use, a direct effort to help protect the environment from the damage the pigs were doing. Truffles require a delicate environmental balance, and the hunters using pigs had upset that balance by over harvesting the wild truffles. While the pigs are like bulldozers tearing up large areas, the dogs do no damage by digging precisely where they smell a truffle.
From the hunter’s perspective, pigs may have been better at finding truffles, but walking around in the woods with a pig on a leash was a dead giveaway of their secret hunting grounds! The other downside for the hunter is they had to be quick, as pigs love to eat truffles. There’s no such problem with the dogs. But there is still an issue of having to compete with wild animals who have a taste for truffles like wild boar which are the most destructive.
Adriano is a long time veteran who, like all hunters, keeps his best harvest area a very guarded secret. Today we were in a not so secret area so this modern day truffle hunter and his dog could show us how to find truffles. Macchia led the way through the woods and undergrowth at a fast pace, passing a lot of trees, back and forth and back again, and then she stopped... and started to dig. Adriano with his digging tool finished the job and produced an irregularly shaped golf ball sized black truffle. Very cool! Macchia found three or four truffles of various sizes all of which went into the large pocket on Adriano’s field vest. After an hour or so it was time to go so we didn’t overheat Macchia. It was a fascinating experience and so nice being out in the beautiful countryside.
Types of Truffles
There are two types of truffles found here: the most common are several varieties of the black truffle, generally harvested between March and November. Macchia found the most common type, the black summer truffle. They can also be cultivated in orchards of oak or hazelnut trees grown for the express purpose of producing truffles but this is a serious commitment. It takes oak trees 10-12 years to mature before you can begin to harvest. Hazelnut trees mature in 5-7 years and will hopefully produce truffles sooner.
The sought after white truffles are harvested October through November, providing a higher return for the hunter and commanding a higher price at market. They’re generally larger than the black truffle with more flesh and are preferred by chefs for their intense flavor. Because they’re considered so precious, they are cleaned by hand, another reason behind their high cost.
How Do Truffles Taste?
Later we stopped at Appennino Food, a truffle processing plant in business for 30 years, and the only facility allowed to ship and sell truffles to the United States. Two of their biggest clients are Dean & DeLuca and Eataly, which are some of our favorite places to shop when we’re in New York City. The factory holds the record for the largest Truffle (tuber magnatum pico) ever harvested weighing 52.3323 oz (1,483.596 grams). The aroma of truffles was everywhere from the processing room to labeling and packaging. Fresh, frozen, and preserved truffles are all produced here. How do truffles taste? To my palate, truffles have the earthiness of a mushroom with a slight garlic taste. In small amounts - barely indiscernable - it's heavenly.
Throughout Italy, you'll find truffle oil, truffle salt, truffle sauce, truffle cream, truffle pasta - we even saw truffle infused honey - so many ways to enjoy one of nature’s most exquisite creations. And there’s no better way to begin than by taking a truffle hunting tour in Emilia Romagna.
IF YOU GO
If you want to have this farm-to-table experience and see an authentic side to Bologna and Emilia Romagna, we recommend going out with Italian Days. They offer an afternoon Truffle Hunting Experience which includes a tour of Appennino Foods, an hour long truffle hunt, a winetasting, followed by an exquisite dinner at Amergio 1934, a 1-star Michelin rated trattoria complete with a 5-course degustation menu of black truffles, mushrooms and vegetables of the season, and local wine pairings. Cost for this complete tour begins at 190 euro per person (minimum 2 people). If you're looking for a unique foodie experience, we believe it's an excellent value, considering the Michelin dinner alone. This experience was unparalleled!
Plan Ahead: Tartufo Savigno hosts the International White Truffle Festival the first 3 weekends in November every year, in Savigno di Valsamoggia, Bologna, Italy.
We we were guests of Italian Days on the truffle hunting part of the tour. The opinions and recommendations here are ours alone from this first hand experience.