A tasty region to sample, truffle hunting at Il Borgo di Petroio

Published by Guy Pewsey for The Independent, I and The Evening Standard

Lose yourself in the picturesque hills of Tuscany and indulge in a spot of truffle hunting at Il Bogo di Petroio and chef Tom Aitkins

 → GETTING THERE:
EasyJet flies from Gatwick to Pisa
→ STAYING THERE:
Tuscany Now & More offers seven nights’ self-catering in Il Borgo Di Petroio from a week based on people Sharing.
→ MORE INFORMATION:
Tuscany Now & More

Lose yourself in the picturesque hills of Tuscany

The autumnal charms of Tuscany can be enjoyed with a fine glass of red or hunting for truffles and wild boar. Guy Pewsey and some culinary chums head into the hills to raid Italy’s larder

As autumn transitions into winter, a crisp chill in the air arrives and the sun’s light shifts into almost sepia tones. Human instinct may guide us inside towards warm fires and soft furnishings but in the hills Of Tuscany there’s good reason to stray outside among the falling leaves.

The central Italian region that’s home to Pisa, Florence and Siena, Tuscany is very easy on the eye: flat plains of crops and poplars, rising green hills and modest mountains littered with reminders of the area’s Medici-filled past. Like much of the country, it has built a reputation for its cuisine and unparalleled wine, and a short flight to Pisa unlocks the Tuscan larder,leaving its stocks ready to be raided.

Il Borgo di Petroio, Acone near Florence, Tuscany.
Il Borgo di Petroio, Acone near Florence, Tuscany.

My visit coincided with truffle-hunting season, which soon comes to a close. The methods of finding this seemingly unremarkable fungus, enveloped in the ground beneath the linden, hazelnut and oak trees, have barely changed over the centuries. In the grounds of the San Miniato estate, Cesare Profeti, from truffle business Savitar Tartufi, took a group of us out with the dogs. These days, dogs are used more frequently than the slower — but more traditional —pigs.

Truffle hunter and a Lagotto Romagnolo truffle hunting dog find a truffle.

Gina, a cross-bred canine, led the way up the hills and through the woods. The group followed close behind, wound, spring-like, in anticipation for the moment where Gina’s snout would settle on a spot, her tail would wag and she would begin to dig.

Cesare could then step in, excitement on his face. Ile would help with the digging and, if Gina had sensed correctly, find a small, unassuming block of culinary gold, its outdoor lingering on the fingertips even when covered in soil.

Two hours of hunting unearthed just three white truffles, going some way to explain their high price. But those seeking an easier method of finding the Tuscan staple, or anyone who wishes to sample their hard=won goods, can make the trip to the nearby Locanda di Camugliano.

Specialising in classic regional dishes and offering handsome views of the surrounding landscape, the restaurant offers an impressive wine list, cosy seating in converted stables and a menu rich in truffles. Truffle fondue, truffle spaghetti, fried egg with truffle and squid ink, ice cream with truffle and honey; it provides the perfect showcase for this remarkably versatile ingredient.

And yet, in true Italian style, there is always room for more. Up in the quiet hills of Panzano in Chianti, the sound of rock music is in the air. Dario Cecchini, a portly Italian hands out shots of grappa in his butcher’s shop.

This is the small town’s favourite Friday night venue, flooded with music and a party atmosphere that has earned him a reputation on the international food scene. His motto, he proudly exclaims, is “to beef or not to beef”, and it has permeated his life: a giant, floral cow stands in the street outside Solociccia, one of his restaurants, where placemat menus explain exactly where on the animal each dish came from. Ragu, steak, salami and cutlets — it’s a feast of almost impossible proportions.

A full day of consumption makes a night of comfort a Vital requirement, and the area is spattered with villas, many brought together beneath the umbrella of Tuscany Now & More, which offers rental accommodation as well as excursions and meals cooked by private chefs.

Tom Aikens, the Michelin-starred chef and stalwart of the London restaurant scene, joined us for the weekend, and together with local chef Francesco Marrucelli cooked up his interpretation of an Italian feast at our home for the weekend, Il Borgo di Petroio.

Il Borgo di Petroio -Open air living area with comfortable sofa shaded by a large chestnut tree.

Open air living area with comfortable sofa shaded by a large chestnut tree.

A villa in the grounds of a former monastery, it comes with warmly decorated bedrooms, living areas full of personal and eclectic touches and — a prerequisite of Tuscany — an expansive, well-stocked kitchen.

Accessed by car up a challenging winding road punctuated with waterfalls. But a deep night’s sleep fuelled by red wine and white truffles makes the ascent more than worth it.

On waking, though, there’s more food to find, with thousands of boar roaming the glades, visitors are able to join professional hunters, as they track and kill the animals.

Those who’d prefer the lie-in can wake before lunch and head down the mountain again for tours and a bite at one of the local vineyards, like the uncharacteristically white wine-focused Castello Pomino, or Castello di Nipozzano, a grand castle on the hill that also offers renovated villas in its grounds.

There is an innate warmth to Tuscany, its people and its food, which ensures an inviting visit even as the temperature begins to drop. So you can head outdoors in search of your next Italian feast — or just stay inside by the fire with a nice glass of red. EVENING STANDARD.

Independent I, 10th December 2016button