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In a Drowsy Tuscan Village, It's Truffles That Arouse Interest

By Denny Lee: Published: July 10, 2005

SNIFFING through the dank woods of Tuscany, Ugo, a truffle-hunting dog, paused before a pine tree, dug his paws into the crunchy soil and darted off. "Vieni! Vieni!" Luciano Tognazzi shouted. But it was too late. The truffle had become the world's most expensive doggy treat. Not to worry, said Mr. Tognazzi, 45, a stocky truffle hunter with dark curly hair and a broad nose. He pointed to a dark forest in the distance. "There are plenty of truffles there."

 

Chris Warde-Jones for The New York Times

Simone Francini with his truffle-hunting Lagotto dog, Susi.

Chris Warde-Jones for The New York Times

The object of desire, unearthed in San Giovanni d'Asso.

They are plentiful, yes, but hard to find. Truffles, which resemble knobby potatoes and taste like fermented mushrooms, are often buried under a foot of dirt, masking their pungent, knock-your-socks-off aroma. Some have likened the smell to primal musk, with hints of garlic, overripe cheese and ozone. To others, they smell like gold: truffles can fetch upward of $4,000 a pound in the global gourmet market.

That heady scent, however, proved elusive on this hot afternoon in late March. There were no truffles in the oak forest, none by the sheep farm and the broom shrubs were picked clean. Unearthing a truffle, it turns out, takes plenty of patience, not to mention luck and comfortable hiking shoes.

It wasn't the hoped-for gastronomic bonanza, but at least it wasn't a touristy affair. In Alba, Italy's truffle capital, in the northwestern province of Piedmont, demand for the fungi has spawned a cottage industry of package tours, food festivals and a strip mall of truffle-themed shops. (Truffle ice cream, anyone?)

Meanwhile, the cognoscenti are converging on the less-trampled truffle paths around the sleepy village of San Giovanni d'Asso, about 25 miles southeast of Siena in the cypress-studded hills of Tuscany. While Tuscan truffles lack the brand-name recognition of those from Alba, San Giovanni d'Asso also lacks the circus atmosphere that can result in overpricing and overhunting. And the quality, some say, is just as odoriferous.

"The truffles here are very, very, very good," said Leonardo Terzigli, a truffle trader from Florence, who goes door to door buying truffles in San Giovanni d'Asso for several high-end restaurants in London, including Locanda Locatelli. "Truffles don't like pollution and, as you can see, there's nothing here."

Nothing, that is, except for luscious wheat fields, crumpled clay hills and the ribboned vineyards of the Sangiovese grape, which is used to make two of Italy's finest wines: Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Perched on a craggy hilltop, San Giovanni d'Asso is also nothing like Cortona, the Tuscan village lovingly chronicled - some say ruined - by the writer Frances Mayes. There are no postcard or craft stores, just a butcher shop that keeps irregular hours, a tobacco store and a hole-in-the-wall cafe that offers half-day truffle excursions. The trifolau (truffle hunter) will sometimes plant a tuber to ensure an entertaining hunt.

Last November, in a bid to elevate its truffle stature, the village of 940 opened the country's first museum dedicated to the food. "Nobody heard of us before," said Michele Boscaglia, the town's 35-year-old mayor. "Now we have more beds for tourists than for residents."

Mr. Boscaglia gave a tour of the trattoria-sized museum, housed in a 13th-century castle overlooking the rustic valley. He had a firm grasp of the contents, which included three fist-sized replicas of truffles cast from resin and a device that emits a synthetic truffle perfume. Like most able-bodied men in the village, he goes hunting in his spare time, just as his father did, and his grandfather before that.

But fungi foraging can easily graduate into a full-time pursuit. The season lasts 11 months, from June to April. The summer black truffle appears on menus in early June. The prized white truffle, sometimes called the white diamond of Italy, grows from September to December. And the late spring saw the waning days of the bianchetti truffle, a milder cousin of the white truffle that is found widely in Tuscany.

Regardless of the season, skillful hunters keep their mental treasure maps up to date. They also learn to worship the waxing moon, which supposedly draws out the truffle's scent, and ignore the lightning storms, which, according to myth, trigger the growth of the spores. And they become intimate with their hounds.

"The most important thing is the relationship with the dog," said Mr. Tognazzi, the truffle hunter, who has four Lagotto Romagnolos, the preferred breed in the area. Rivalry for top dog is fierce: every few years, several Lagottos are poisoned by strychnine-laced sausages, presumably left by unsportsmanlike hunters. "For the truffle dogs to be exceptional," Mr. Tognazzi continued, "you have to hunt everyday."

 

Sniffing through the dank woods of Tuscany, Ugo, a truffle-hunting dog, paused before a pine tree, dug his paws into the crunchy soil and darted off. ''Vieni! Vieni!'' Luciano Tognazzi shouted. But it was too late. The truffle had become the world's most expensive doggy treat. Not to worry, said Mr. Tognazzi, 45, a stocky truffle hunter with dark curly hair and a broad nose. He pointed to a dark forest in the distance. ''There are plenty of truffles there.''

They are plentiful, yes, but hard to find. Truffles, which resemble knobby potatoes and taste like fermented mushrooms, are often buried under a foot of dirt, masking their pungent, knock-your-socks-off aroma. Some have likened the smell to primal musk, with hints of garlic, overripe cheese and ozone. To others, they smell like gold: truffles can fetch upward of $4,000 a pound in the global gourmet market.

That heady scent, however, proved elusive on this hot afternoon in late March. There were no truffles in the oak forest, none by the sheep farm and the broom shrubs were picked clean. Unearthing a truffle, it turns out, takes plenty of patience, not to mention luck and comfortable hiking shoes.

It wasn't the hoped-for gastronomic bonanza, but at least it wasn't a touristy affair. In Alba, Italy's truffle capital, in the northwestern province of Piedmont, demand for the fungi has spawned a cottage industry of package tours, food festivals and a strip mall of truffle-themed shops. (Truffle ice cream, anyone?)

Meanwhile, the cognoscenti are converging on the less-trampled truffle paths around the sleepy village of San Giovanni d'Asso, about 25 miles southeast of Siena in the cypress-studded hills of Tuscany. While Tuscan truffles lack the brand-name recognition of those from Alba, San Giovanni d'Asso also lacks the circus atmosphere that can result in overpricing and overhunting. And the quality, some say, is just as odoriferous.

''The truffles here are very, very, very good,'' said Leonardo Terzigli, a truffle trader from Florence, who goes door to door buying truffles in San Giovanni d'Asso for several high-end restaurants in London, including Locanda Locatelli. ''Truffles don't like pollution and, as you can see, there's nothing here.''

Nothing, that is, except for luscious wheat fields, crumpled clay hills and the ribboned vineyards of the Sangiovese grape, which is used to make two of Italy's finest wines: Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.

Perched on a craggy hilltop, San Giovanni d'Asso is also nothing like Cortona, the Tuscan village lovingly chronicled -- some say ruined -- by the writer Frances Mayes. There are no postcard or craft stores, just a butcher shop that keeps irregular hours, a tobacco store and a hole-in-the-wall cafe that offers half-day truffle excursions. The trifolau (truffle hunter) will sometimes plant a tuber to ensure an entertaining hunt.

Last November, in a bid to elevate its truffle stature, the village of 940 opened the country's first museum dedicated to the food. ''Nobody heard of us before,'' said Michele Boscaglia, the town's 35-year-old mayor. ''Now we have more beds for tourists than for residents.''

Mr. Boscaglia gave a tour of the trattoria-sized museum, housed in a 13th-century castle overlooking the rustic valley. He had a firm grasp of the contents, which included three fist-sized replicas of truffles cast from resin and a device that emits a synthetic truffle perfume. Like most able-bodied men in the village, he goes hunting in his spare time, just as his father did, and his grandfather before that.

But fungi foraging can easily graduate into a full-time pursuit. The season lasts 11 months, from June to April. The summer black truffle appears on menus in early June. The prized white truffle, sometimes called the white diamond of Italy, grows from September to December. And the late spring saw the waning days of the bianchetti truffle, a milder cousin of the white truffle that is found widely in Tuscany.

Regardless of the season, skillful hunters keep their mental treasure maps up to date. They also learn to worship the waxing moon, which supposedly draws out the truffle's scent, and ignore the lightning storms, which, according to myth, trigger the growth of the spores. And they become intimate with their hounds.

''The most important thing is the relationship with the dog,'' said Mr. Tognazzi, the truffle hunter, who has four Lagotto Romagnolos, the preferred breed in the area. Rivalry for top dog is fierce: every few years, several Lagottos are poisoned by strychnine-laced sausages, presumably left by unsportsmanlike hunters. ''For the truffle dogs to be exceptional,'' Mr. Tognazzi continued, ''you have to hunt everyday.''

Ugo, a shaggy white five-year-old, clearly needed a refresher on another Saturday. After scouring a hillside, Ugo led three visitors down a muddy path, before running away at the sight of a wild boar track. It had been a disappointing season, Mr. Tognazzi said.

Then again, truffle hunters are the alter egos of fishermen: instead of telling fanciful tales about the big one that got away, they always report returning empty-handed, the better to avoid taxes and the envy of neighbors.

Mr. Tognazzi, however, was determined not to let his customers down. After an exhausting two-hour hike, he finally drove to one of his secret spots, a sun-dappled pine forest at the edge of a farm. Then he let Ugo off his leash. Mr. Tognazzi cajoled, commanded, praised and reprimanded him in a rapid staccato: ''Dove?'' (Where?), ''Cos'?'' (What is it?), ''Bravo ragazzo'' (Good boy), ''Fai la finita'' (Stop that).

Ugo snapped to attention like a lion on the prowl and started digging furiously under a towering pine. ''Piano, piano,'' (Slowly, slowly), Mr. Tognazzi cried, pushing Ugo away with a gentle shove. With a stout gardening hoe known as a vanghetta, he scooped out a clod of brown soil, revealing an orange-beige truffle the size of a walnut. He reached into his vest pocket and gave Ugo a kibble. ''Bravo,'' he said.

Ugo was on a roll. He sniffed out three more truffles over the next hour, ranging in size from chickpea to garlic clove. On the short drive back to town in his Fiat, Mr. Tognazzi insisted on giving away the day's paltry catch.

With the prize in hand, a victory lap was made to the local supermarket to pick out ingredients for a truffle-centered meal. In keeping with Tuscan tradition, the courses would be simple: baked eggs with shaved truffles; buttered tagliatellini tossed with truffles; and a grilled T-bone steak served over arugula and drizzled with truffles. There wasn't enough to experiment with truffle ice cream.

As night fell, the kitchen at a nearby bed-and-breakfast began filling with the tantalizing and precious aroma: slightly earthy, a touch nutty and, as the Romans once described it, vaguely sexual. It brought to mind something that another trifolau had said.

''I get tired of looking for truffles sometimes,'' said Fosco Lorenzetti, 62, a hunter for 30 years. ''But I never tire of eating them.''