Written by Marianna Dick for The Mayfair Magazine
Delve into the delicious cultural tradition of truffle hunting with an equally beautiful villa at Il Borgo di Petroio.
Truffle hunting is an ancient cultural tradition in parts of Italy, still often shrouded in mystery and villainy. Marianne Dick travels to two of the country’s most popular culinary regions to uncover some truths and hopefully, some truffles too.
In his epicurean bible published in 1825, The Physiology of Taste, Jean Anthelme Brillat- Savarin defined truffles as “the diamond of the art of cookery”.
Brillat-Savarin’s deduction of the rarest member of the fungus family still rings true almost two centuries later. Even in today’s technologically and scientifically advanced world, the elusive truffle still resists mass cultivation. This stubbornness could be attributed to its dependence on tree roots (they can only grow in a symbiotic relationship with certain species), its fussiness when it comes to the conditions of its subterranean dwelling, or its rare mode of dispersal – via the insects and mammals who devour it. Even if you do chance upon one of these precious nuggets, they will only stay fresh for around 20 days and need to be carefully cared for. Ideally, they should be cleaned with a toothbrush and then kept loosely wrapped in newspaper and put in a glass jar in the fridge.
In Britain, we have two main species: the black summer truffle and the autumn burgundy truffle. The most highly valued black type however, the perigord, is usually found across in France. And when it comes to the mythical white ones (if we’re still talking about diamonds, then these are the sparklist), the majority of Tuber magnatum, better known as Piedmont truffles, are found in northern Italy – particularly the regions of Tuscany and Emilia-Romagna.
When one imagines a trip to Tuscany, it is often visualised as a sun-drenched, high summer affair. Yet, the autumn and winter months are ripe for harvesting – and consuming – the area’s gastronomic riches: olive oil, Chianti, wild boar, and of course, the truffle.
The Tuscan landscape is diverse, with coastal assets as well as the Apennine Mountains. It also boasts the most woodland of all the Italian regions, resulting in six thriving spots where truffle hunting is most concentrated. I visit one of the most prolific, San Miniato, a town that holds a festival on four weekends in November and December solely to celebrate the tartufo bianco.
The (Camugliano estate, belonging to an old Florentine family, has villas available to rent, a private chapel and offers guided tours and pheasant hunting. It is also where truffle hunter Cesare Profeti and his canine companion, Gina, lead hunting expeditions for specialist business Savitar Tartufi. While pigs are most commonly associated with sniffing out truffles, dogs are now preferred as they are easier to train and handle – and less likely to scoff the treasure. Truffles smell like male pig saliva, which more often than not renders the females helpless to resist.
Using dogs still comes with its fair share of problems, though: they can often be stolen and used by unlicensed hunters, and in some extreme cases, tricked into eating poisoned meat to eliminate them as competition.
ANTICA MACELLERIA CECCHINI
On a side street in Panzano, Chianti, Dario Cecchini blasts AC/DC and serves red wine inside his raucous butcher’s shop, which buzzes with chatter and excitement as people spill out onto the street, usually heading straight across the road to his legendary restaurant.
THE FRESCOBALDI ESTATES
The majestic Castello Nipozzano and Castello Pomino are part of the Frescobaldi family estate. You can take a tour of the vast cellars, enjoy various vintages with traditional Tuscan food, and even stay the night.
We’re only a few minutes into the trek when Gina is suddenly distracted. She hurries to a spot at the base of a Linden tree – one of the truffle’s preferred partners – and digs furiously before Cesare restrains her and finishes the job with his special long-handled tool, revealing a waxy white truffle around the size of a marble. As the search goes on, we have less luck and it becomes clear just how scarce this unassuming yet €4,000-per- kilogram gourmet mushroom really is – we come away with just one more conker-sized find.
Our meager haul is put into perspective when we are served a five-course lunch at Locanda di Camugliano, one of the villas where chefs are available to hire. Piles of pungent truffle shavings sit atop pasta, are swirled into fondue cheese, and even used to garnish ice cream. It makes even the simplest fried egg taste rich and decadent. By the time the coffees arrive we are all giddy, seduced and positively truffle drunk. The words of Brillat-Savarin begin to ring true: “Whosoever says truffle, utters a grand word, which awakens erode and gastronomic ideas.”
‘It becomes clear just how scarce this unassuming yet €4.000 per kilogram gourmet mushroom is’
The villa I stay at, II Borgo di Petroio, is a renovated stone farmhouse high in the hills above the village of Rufina, yet only a 40-minute drive from Florence. The pool and tennis courts evoke idyllic summer scenes, but the wild, misty hills and dewy greenery make it an enthralling and scenic setting in November too.
The villa sleeps up to 14, and there is and there is even an industrial kitchen to accommodate professional cooks. During my stay, I am lucky enough to have Michelin-starred chef Tom Aikens rustle up dinner; he incorporates some of the wild boar hunted that morning on the 900-acre grounds.
All this, combined with the fresh Tuscan air, the finest of wines and cosy quarters makes for three nights of blissful sleep.