Truffle Hunting in Umbria: A Symbiotic Relationship

18 Nov Truffle Hunting in Umbria: A Symbiotic Relationship

One of my best life experiences was towards the end of our vacation, this past summer, when my family and a few friends went truffle hunting in Italy. Traveling on the Intercity train, we trekked nearly 100 miles north of Rome to Spoleto, Italy. Following this, a van ride, nearly 45 minutes, had us further climbing, putting us in a “Sound of Music” type of mountain setting. Umbria’s Apennine Mountains, specifically The Village of Pettino, has its rich history dating back to 1486. Old stone buildings, ploughed fields, herds of sheep and cows and huge hay bales all helped paint this gorgeous Umbrian picture.

    “Truffles have been mentioned throughout history cropping up in fourth century BC writings by Theophrastus, an ancient Greek botanist” (canterburytruffles.com). Umbria produces the highest number of black truffles in Italy, world renown and an integral part of the Umbrian culture.  A truffle is “a strong-smelling underground fungus that resembles an irregular, rough-skinned potato, growing chiefly in broadleaved woodland on calcareous soils. It is considered a culinary delicacy and found, especially in France, with the aid of trained dogs or pigs” (Google). Not to be confused with the “soft candy made of a chocolate mixture, typically flavored with rum and covered with cocoa” (Google). Belonging to the genus Tuber, truffles are ectomycorrhizal fungi typically found near or at a tree’s roots.

    My misconception, and many others for that matter, believed that pigs still hunt truffles. In fact, I was told, this has been prohibited since 1985. Female pigs, attracted to a sort of testosterone-like smell of the truffle, damaged the fungus/mushroom and seldom gave up the treasure. Going forward, talented dog breeds like Springer Spaniel, English Setter, Lagotto Romagnolo and Belgian Malinois are some of the more talented “truffle hunters” that have replaced the resourceful female swine.

    Truffle hunting in The Village of Pettino is an age old tradition. From its mountaintops you can see the entire Spoleto Valley, Montefalco and Perugia. However, for me, it was all about the trees and which types forge this “Symbiotic Relationship.” “The fungus helps the tree extract nutrients from the ground and the tree provides the truffle fungus with carbohydrates to grow” (Canterburytruffles.com). Traversing the mountainside, with our “hunter”, his dogs, or employees as he liked to refer to them, and our small group, we made our way through the forest. A forest steeped with various oaks, hornbeam, birch, cottonwood and beech, all of these tree types accommodating, offering their roots to these gastronomic fungi. And while fir, pine and hemlocks exist in this part of the world too, able to support truffles, the deciduous trees mentioned, seem to provide the more coveted, perfumed black truffle prize.  At nearly 4,000 feet above sea level, 2,500 acres of farmland exists here, half of which is communal, with limestone soil supporting this vast forest. I was told it takes nearly 7 years, after new trees are planted, to expect to see a return on the investment… harvesting your first truffle. Fortunately for these native Italians, their history and plants go back to the 1400’s.

    Like any other highly sought after product, cost comes to mind quickly. Black truffles have the reputation of being very expensive. When you consider that these highly trained “employees” seek out and retrieve these underground hypogeal mushrooms, are then delivered to restaurants and distributors in less than two days from the time they were mined from their underground habitat, that is remarkable in itself. Truffles are truly a “wild product” that appear to be out of anyone’s control. Bound by roots and in the hands of Mother Nature, these ping pong sized “goodies” are in no rush to meet your taste buds. These factors alone, and I’m sure many others, contribute to their cost. “And while recent attempts in the U.S. and Australia to recreate truffle-conducive habitats by planting chestnut, oak, and hazelnut trees have shown modest success, the crop has been insubstantial and rarely are full truffles salvageable” (mentalfloss.com/article/60539/why-are-truffles-so-expensive).

    More than 200 truffle species appear to exist. However, only a handful are cultivated. Two prized black truffles, that we were fortunate to savor from the dogs’ efforts were Tuber melanosporum Vittadini and Tuber aestivum Vitt. These Spoleto truffles, embedded and plentiful, were among the holm-oak; Quercus ilex, beech and chestnut trees. One European Beech, Fagus sylvatica, I encountered had a trunk that was more than 6 feet across. These truly precious fungi went extraordinarily well with our homemade pasta, but not before our daughter Olivia had a chance to scrub our truffles clean among a herd of sheep. Our guides for the day, a local family whose heritage dates back more than a few hundred years, are custodians of this land, shared by a community, and committed to its preservation. Clearly there is respect for the land and their village nestled in this mountainous area. The appreciation of “the truffle” continues in Pettino, tirelessly working towards a demand that seems impossible to meet.