Forcoli Wood in Tuscany is resounding with the calls of the truffle hunter, who is following his dog Giotto, a young and quick-witted Lagotto Romagnolo, with quick steps. He is being followed – with much slower steps – by a mixed group of Portuguese, Americans and Spaniards, plus the author of this article.
We are taking part in Savini Tartufi’s Truffle Experience: four hours of immersion in the Tuscan countryside in a search for the most valued mushroom, the truffle. To be more precise, we are not searching for anything. All the dirty work – in the literal sense – is being done by Giotto. But tramping through oaks and hazelnut trees is fun enough, especially when we think about the lunch that awaits us.
A Question of Territory
‘We are in the middle of nowhere, but this nowhere is all we need’ our guide Luca Campinotti, truffle hunter for the Savini family, stated incisively. And it is true: the countryside around the Savini Museum, a place that brings together the story of the family with a space for tasting the products, is as pleasant as it is secluded. And yet the Savinis have managed to build up a business here focusing only on the truffle, with about 3500 truffle hunters who carry out the harvesting for them.
The work of a truffle hunter is 'not like picking apples': up at dawn, hours spent in the woods following the dog, and never ever sure that they will not return empty-handed. There are certainly true moments of satisfaction every now and then. Like the time - fully documented on the walls of the museum - when the biggest and most expensive truffle ever was found. ‘1497 grams of pure emotion’ that was found at a depth of 70 centimetres: it had taken two hours to pull it out, using only hands and not the digger, for fear of spoiling it. And the price at which it was sold? 340,000 dollars (the proceeds went to charity).
A Family Affair
In Italy you cannot talk about truffles without mentioning the name of the Savini family. The story of the family is interwoven with that of the hunt for the truffle since 1920, when young Zelindo started his job as gamekeeper in the reserves of the Villa Saletta estate in Palaia, in the province of Pistoia. Zelindo started as the intermediary between the gentlemen who wanted to acquire truffles and the truffle hunters who could procure them. He was so successful in this activity that his employer took a dim view of this sudden rash action and dismissed him. This dismissal made Zelindo’s fortune; he set up his own business with the sale of truffles.
At first the trade was only in fresh truffles, but when he brought his son Luciano into the business – now guiding the farm, together with his wife Carla – they began to specialise also in manufactured articles. Truffle butter, sauces, honey, fresh pasta, mushroom cream: today the Savinis export to over 42 countries. There is a good market for manufactured products in Europe, the USA and Australia, while most of fresh products go to Asia and especially to Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan. A question of taste, but above all of spending power.
White or Black?
When someone mentions truffles, what immediately comes to mind is the very fine white truffle of Alba, in Piedmont. ‘You also find them in Tuscany’, Campinotti tells us. ‘But Alba has been much smarter in selling itself. Until the 1940s and 1950s in Tuscany truffle was food for pigs. It was just rubbish’. In short, no substantial differences of classification; just great marketing skills.
The white truffle is found all along the so-called ‘truffle belt’ from Piedmont to the Appennines to the Marche up to Acqualagna. It is found only in winter and this explains the difference in price: white truffles cost about 3000 euros per kilo, black truffles only 300. And the white is more difficult to dig out, since it can be 40-50 centimetres under the ground, whereas the black is near the surface. But how does the dog sniff them out? ‘The smell of the white one is much stronger than that of the black’.
So the white truffle is rarer, because its season is very limited, and it is also more difficult to use: the black stays fresh for two weeks, the white for only five days. How to keep them fresh? ‘Wrap them in a cloth. Don’t believe anyone who tells you to put them in a jar with rice. Truffles are more than 70% water and the rice will spoil them.’
The Importance of the Truffle-Hunting Dog
The truffles are not the only luxury possession: a truffle-hunting dog can cost between 5000 and 8000 euros. Giotto is in fact Giotto Junior, the son of the faithful Giotto who followed Savini’s truffle collectors for so many years. But genetics per se are not a guarantee: of Giotto’s six offspring only Junior has turned out to be clever; the others prefer the sofa and the courtyard at home.
Obviously good training is essential. At the beginning the dog’s mother is used as an intermediary by rubbing ripe truffle on her teats. ‘Dogs are not born with a taste for truffle’, Campinotti explains. ‘After weaning the puppy we give him little pieces of truffle so that he learns to appreciate it. Later we put the bits of truffle inside a small perforated plastic container, which we hide first under the leaves and then deeper and deeper in the ground. When the dog finds it we congratulate him and above all give him biscuits. Thus he grasps that he mustn’t eat the truffle if he wants to have the prize.’
Giotto stops and starts walking round a spot in the ground. We stop with him, holding our breath. Our guide incites him, he starts to dig, dig and dig again until ‘Stop, Giotto!’: there is the truffle, ready for us to pass it round and admire its globular beauty. ‘We know the season, the soil, the weather, but as soon as we arrive in the forest everything depends on the dog’ says our guide, as he strokes the dog and gives him some biscuits. He is very satisfied and so are we, thinking of the tagliolini with three forms of truffle – in the pasta, in the butter and freshly-grated on top of the dish – that awaits us at the Savini Museum.