Personal Journey: Truffle hunting in Tuscany

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Truffle Hunting in Tuscany, Italy. Nicolo's specially-trained lab-mix truffle hunters, Leia, Tommy and Zorro. PHOTO: Paul F. Bradley

As the old saying goes, "A thousand roads lead men forever to Rome." Those same roads can lead travelers away from the Eternal City toward off-the-beaten-path activities. One recent excursion led us from the crowds, ruins, and basilicas of Rome to the bucolic peace of Tuscany. We had arranged to join a hunt for the coveted trifola d'Alba Madonna - the white truffle. The most precious specimen can sell for $1,000 per ounce; a casino magnate once paid $330,000 for a single 3.3-pound white truffle.

First, we had to get there. Driving in Rome has a well-deserved reputation. After picking up a rented Fiat, we navigated Rome's asteroid belt of congested roadways, dodging streaking mopeds, buses, and other cars, and soon reached the Autostrada. Italy's national highway is much like I-95, without the complementary potholes, perpetual construction, and vistas of urban blight.

As a side note, the food is excellent everywhere in Italy (even at rest stops) and proves famed vacationer Clark Griswold wrong: It is possible to get a great sandwich from a gas station.

We met our guide, Nicolo, and his three specially trained lab-mix truffle hunters, Leia, Tommy, and Zorro, at his family's vineyard. All crammed into his two-door hatchback. Being a dog lover was clearly a prerequisite.

Truffle hunting is serious business. Picture private game lands in upstate Pennsylvania with restricted access. Warning signs were posted at Nicolo's family preserve. Trespassing could lead to a language lesson in profanity or worse: buckshot souvenirs.

White truffles are typically found in the soil around oak, poplar, and hazel trees from October to December. This was late November, and Nicolo reported that the harvest had been meager thus far, but he was hopeful for the day's hunt. He had barely finished his sentence when the dogs began furiously scratching at a site nearby.

Plying the dogs with treats, our guide quickly took over the excavation. With a special tool, he carefully loosened the surrounding dirt - damaging a truffle could render it worthless - and then brushed the remainder away by hand. As soon as it was clear of the soil, the truffle filled the air with its distinct aroma, which was in stark contrast to its appearance, like something that dropped from the backside of one of our canine partners.

Over the next two hours, there were more hectic chases, digging, evaluating, identification, and many more treats dispersed. The dogs were allowed to eat any black truffles they found, which, though aromatic, were of much lower value. Our haul at day's end was about one-third of a pound. Nicolo, and moreover the hardworking dogs, seemed pleased.

We traveled to the vineyard store for a tasting of some wine and a sampling of the truffles. Once washed, they could be mistaken for cauliflower or misshapen marshmallows. The taste is indescribably superb, instigating a battle for ownership between taste and smell. And like fresh-caught tuna or homemade apple pie, there is no comparison to enjoying the fruits of one's labor, especially when gained by man and man's best friend working in harmony.

Paul Bradley writes from Yardley.

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