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Finding truffles, recovery in Italian town struck by earthquake

Albert Stumm, FOR THE INQUIRER

Updated: Friday, September 22, 2017, 3:26 PM

Truffle-hunter Nicola Berardi with his dog Lulu.

NORCIA, Italy — Lulu was slacking off at first, rolling in the leaves or bounding around in circles as 4-year-olds do, while letting Nina do all the work.

Albert Stumm Truffle hunter Nicola Berardi holds the day's haul of summer truffles.

At 12, Nina had enough experience to lead by example. The copper-colored spaniel mix lifted her wizened gray face to sniff the air, then kept her nose to the ground until she chuffed her way over to the day’s first truffle, buried a few inches below the rocky soil among the Sibillini Mountains of central Italy.

Nina dutifully traded the prize for a treat from her owner, Nicola Berardi, a third-generation truffle hunter with tortoiseshell sunglasses tipped up above his fresh haircut.

“Training, this is the most difficult part,” Berardi said of Lulu, whose ringlets of silky black fur were quickly tangled with debris. “It’s like having a 2-year-old boy and trying to teach him how to eat like a proper gentleman.”

His land covers a handful of steep slopes near Norcia, an ancient village in southern Umbria that until last year was best known for delicious cured meats and for being the fifth-century birthplace of St. Benedict. Then in October, an earthquake toppled most of the saint’s basilica and the monastery he founded, displacing about 30 monks who are still black-robed fixtures in town.

Berardi’s friend Giulia Crippa had invited me to go truffle hunting with them, and she picked me up earlier that day around the corner from the remains of the basilica, which were held up by a skeleton of aluminum scaffolding.

“Forgive my driving. I’m Italian and I’m a woman,” Crippa said as we got into the car, owning one stereotype and lightly tossing out another I would never dare say.

We lunged forward from the opulent Palazzo Seneca hotel, where Crippa works in event planning, and wound through the tight alleys of the compact historical center. It was mostly intact, but one empty lot was filled with rubble and two crushed cars. A Romanesque church was all but destroyed except for one marble statue cordoned off by metal barricades.

Much repair work has been completed, but total recovery will take a long time, hampered by lack of funding and Italian bureaucracy, Crippa said. Projects are still awaiting money for the painstaking and expensive process of rebuilding according to Italy’s strict regulations for antiquities. Still, she stressed that many of the shopkeepers who left town after the earthquake had returned. And the shops along the main drag of Corso Sertorio had been freshly painted, welcoming tourists with overflowing flower boxes.

On our way out of town, we slowed at a pile of sand-colored bricks next to the damaged 14th-century city wall, then zipped through a stone archway and almost immediately into countryside. Fields speckled with tiny white, blue, and purple flowers — the blossoms of cultivated spelt and different varieties of lentils — formed a patchwork quilt with the adjacent yellow pastures.

“Aw, look at the sheep! I love them,” Crippa said, explaining that pecorino cheese is made from the milk of those pecora.

We stopped briefly in Savelli to link up with Berardi and followed him up the bumpy road to land he inherited from his grandfather. At the top of the hill, we parked next to 10-foot stacks of freshly cut pine logs, surrounded by wilderness. The stripe of land where the logs had come from was plainly visible one hill over.

Nina and Lulu shot out of Berardi’s car and trotted back downhill along a dirt road. We followed the dogs through a patch of oak trees, and Berardi stooped to pick up some loose porcupine quills on the ground. They were little tan spears with brown rings. One was six inches long.

“It’s like they’re an unfair competitor, because they can eat truffles all day and night,” Berardi said of the porcupines, half-joking. “They don’t need a license to hunt. They don’t have to pay taxes to the government.”

He directed the dogs to one area with trees spaced out enough to let sunlight warm the ground. Truffles grow on tree roots, feeding off their nutrients and providing minerals in return, but they give off a chemical that kills vegetation above. Veins of dry lines in the grass tip off the hunters.

Sometimes the dogs would lead Berardi to a spot where he would use a flat spade with a worn wooden handle to scrape back the dirt. But more often, a dog would emerge from the brush with a truffle in her mouth. Berardi would reward her with a treat from his stained suede satchel and a good scratching behind the ears.

Nina lumbered around deliberately as she searched while Lulu leaped ahead to cast a wider net. The veteran found half a dozen cherry-size truffles before Lulu even started paying attention. “Brava, Nina. Brava!” Berardi said. “Lulu, you haven’t found anything!”

Lulu almost caught a lizard before finding anything else, but the critter got away by leaving behind its twitching tail, squirming on the ground like an animatronic movie prop. She soon caught up, suddenly fetching one golf-ball-size truffle after another. These were summer truffles, with a mocha, alligator-rough skin and light-beige flesh inside. That variety is less aromatic and less valuable than the black truffle that’s foraged in winter, though the summer ones still were going for about $70 a pound wholesale.

Nowhere to be found during the hunt was a pig, which I had always heard were the real truffle hunters. Berardi said that’s true in rare cases, but dogs are easier to train and less likely to eat what they find.

Our feet slipped on the rocky slopes as we walked through the woods for another hour, praising the dogs, cheering them on, and making sure they didn’t wander too far off. Poisonous snakes are a concern, which is one reason Berardi goes out in early morning or early evening. The air is cooler, so it’s less likely something might be slithering around.

As the sun began to go down, rays of light streamed in sideways from behind thick clouds, and our group stopped for a moment at the chopped trunk of a gigantic oak tree. Upright logs that Berardi had chain-sawed into chairs surround the trunk, and we sat down to assess our haul: about a dozen brown nuggets ranging in size from a pea to a plum. Individually, they didn’t smell like much, with a vaguely vegetable aroma like tree bark or a potato. But together, they gave off much more of that pungent truffle funk that people pay so much money for.

On the way back to town, we stopped at a bar in Savelli to share a large beer among the three of us. It had to be quick because early the next morning, the national TV network Rai was coming to do a segment on Berardi. Crippa planned to be a spectator who pretends not to know him.

He would have stayed out much later any other night because, as he said, he has his priorities in order.

“When your stomach grumbles, you eat,” he said. “When you’re thirsty, you drink. When you’re tired, you sleep, and that’s it. This is a great life without a watch.”

Albert Stumm, FOR THE INQUIRER

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