The day started like any ordinary day on our Italy adventure: Mr. T and I woke up early, grabbed some granola bars for breakfast, and dashed out of our hotel in Siena to make the hour drive south to San Giovanni d’Asso. This day, however, would turn out to be anything but ordinary.
We drove through the winding roads of the Tuscan countryside, passed vineyards and rows of sunflower fields. We arrived at San Giovanni d’Asso a few minutes late for our tour, but we were welcomed with wide smiles and a cup of coffee to start our tour.
Let me explain. I had booked this truffle hunting tour four months ago and didn’t know what to expect. All I knew was that Mr. T and I are big fans of truffles – so much so that we can’t resist any item on the menu if any part of the dish is truffled. The aromatic fungus instantly fancies up a dish and if I could afford to have them in every meal, I would. Heck, if they made truffle ice cream, I’d be the first to order it (and we did actually… except we learned quickly that truffle ice cream in Italy meant something else… but that’s another story). Truffles, in short, are like the holy grail of fine dining to me so when I discovered truffle hunting tours in Italy, I threw my budget out the door and jumped at this opportunity. Seriously, how could I pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity? I couldn’t. And that’s how we found ourselves at 9AM sipping coffee at a restaurant with a truffle hunter and our translator. To our surprise, we were also the only ones on this tour so I was doubly excited that we scored a private tour (insert happy dance here).
Soon we were on our way. After a short five minute drive, we arrived at a small parking lot next to the truffle reserve. There are only a few dozen truffle hunters in Italy’s truffle hunting association and everyone gets his own reserve where only he’s permitted to hunt.
The hunter was accompanied by his secret hunting weapon: his dog, Topa.
He had trained Topa since she was a pup to hunt truffles. Initially, he’d hide them around the house, she’d find them and be rewarded with eating the truffle (expensive treat, huh?). Over time, he switched to giving her doggie biscuits instead. Today, he has three truffle hunting dogs and rotates the dogs with each hunt.
As we walked to the gate to the truffle reserve, the hunter explained that there are three types of truffles, but given the season in which we were visiting, we would be hunting for the black truffle today. The white truffles are the most prized truffles of all but their season doesn’t start until Autumn – darn it! We also learned about the symbiotic relationship the truffle has with the trees in the area and the special soil conditions that make truffles bloom which is why you can’t simply farm the fungus. This must explain their high price tag, too.
While Topa does most of the “exciting” work in locating the truffles, the hunter actually spends most of his time tending to this reserve to ensure the conditions are ripe for truffle growth. He often spends time clearing the grass and pulling the weeds so that there’s a clearing suitable for truffles to sprout in. When he hunts, he tends to hunt in the morning when the truffle scents are stronger. Who knew there was so much science to this?!
After all this chatting, I was eager to see Topa in action. How long does it take to find a truffle? What does she do when she finds one? I was sure we’d be walking for a while before I’d see anything so I tried to be patient – not exactly one of my virtues.
Right after we past the gate, we found ourselves at a shaded clearing with little patches of grass and some dried leaves that covered the soil underneath.
Next thing I knew the hunter let Topa off her leash and said excitedly in Italian, “Where is it, Topa Where Where, Topa? Where is it, Topa?” Topa darted for a spot ten yards away and started digging.
When the hunter saw her dig, he stopped her, reached into the soil, and immediately pulled out the first truffle of the day.
While Topa doesn’t get to eat the truffles she finds, she always gets the first sniff after they are in the hunter’s hands.
I couldn’t believe how fast it all happened! In fact since I was conversing with our translator, I almost missed it! Holy smokes, this was exciting. Here I was thinking I had to be patient, but Topa was a friggin’ expert at finding truffles. Every time she found something, she began digging and the truffle hunter stepped in and grabbed the truffle. These truffles were literally just an inch or so under the soil – sometimes less. This process repeated itself over and over again for the next 45-60 minutes. If there was ever a time I wished I had the olfactory abilities of a dog, now was it since this patch of clearing must have been super fragrant.
Before I knew it, we had a handful of truffles.
Topa’s energy level also started waning as she ran towards the outskirts of the clearing we were in. The hunter informed us that Topa’s found everything in this area and surmised that she must be tired now. One look at the dog and we could tell her concentration level was down so we agreed it was time to leave. After all, the best part of the tour was still coming – our four course truffled lunch – and Mr. T and I were starving at this point.
The truffled lunch consisted of four courses and wine. Here are the courses:
Truffled potato croquet
Truffled ricotta desert
Being as hungry as we were, we scarfed down all of it – even the truffle shavings that topped each course. It was all delicious and the portions were generous. By the fourth course, we were already stuffed but after just one bite of the truffled ricotta I quickly made room for more. The ricotta dessert was melt-in-your-mouth soft and fluffy (reminded me of homemade whipped cream) and the truffle flavor was present but not overpowering. Sigh. I wish they had this dessert in California!
Still on a high from the excitement of truffle hunting, tummies happily filled, and a few glasses of wine later, we purchased a white truffle cream to bring home so that we could continue our truffled meals at home.
The lady at the restaurant (who arranged this tour for us) even threw in an extra bottle of truffle oil on the house! Suffice it to say, we were very happy campers… so happy that this experience tops all the others ones from my world trip.
If you’re planning to go:
- It’s possible to hunt truffles year-round but if you’re after the white truffle, plan your trip in September and double check with your guide to make sure it’s the season for tartufo bianco (white truffle).
- You can easily google for truffle hunting tours in Tuscany. Some companies offer pick up and drop off service from Siena but most charge over 200 Euro per person for the excursion and a meal.
- Rumor has it that the Association of Truffle Hunters in Siena offers free tours in order to share this “art” with the public, but you’ll have to pay for a translator if you don’t understand Italian.
- I went through Oesteria Della Crete, which is a restaurant in San Giovanni d’Asso. I paid 170 Euro for two, including the lunch and a translator. That said, this would be out of the way for someone who doesn’t have transportation since you have to get to the meeting location on your own.
- On the day of the hunt, wear comfortable clothes and hiking shoes. Bring bottled water.
- Unfortunately, you don’t get to bring home the truffles that are found that day; the hunter keeps those.
- Tuscany is not the only place to go on a truffle hunt. Piedmont, Italy, is another region that is famous for its white truffles. I also saw truffle hunting tours in Istria, Croatia as well. If you’re planning to go hunt in one of the other areas, check to make sure they actually hunt for truffles when you’re planning to be there as it may not be available year round there.