Judie: First, let me swear I'm not making this up. I am
the first American to go on a safari....in Italy. Okay, there
are no guns, no broad savannahs, no wild beasts -- because this
is a truffle safari and I'm tracking wild mushrooms. If I bag
any, I get to take my prey home. Before you laugh, let me tell
you that truffles sell for up to $2,500 per kilo, so I stand to
make -- metaphorically speaking -- a killing.
The truffle safari I'm on is in the beautiful province of Umbria, and I'm trekking through a grassy field with oak trees all around. I'm following truffle hunter Luciano Beccafico and translator Manuela Ciri. And we're all following the most important member of our party -- a scrawny, white and brown two-year-old named Birillo, Luciano's dog. A dog? I thought people used pigs to ferret out the famed fungi.
Manuela (translating Luciano): He says we use dogs -- in France they
use pigs. It's much easier to carry a dog in your car than a pig.
Judie: Suddenly, Birillo trots briskly off to the left
and buries his snout in the ground. Luciano encourages him:
Judie: He scores! He's found me a truffle! Luciano runs
to the spot and gently pushes Birillo away so he doesn't eat or
damage the truffle. Then, with a long pole with a small spade
at the end, Luciano digs up the 'shroom -- and actually smiles
at it. The truffle is ripe and ready to eat. And what does Birillo
get for his labors?
Manuela's translation: The dog hasn't eaten the truffle,
so now he gets a prize. He knows that every time he finds a truffle
he gets a little piece of bread -- that's his prize. It's a great
exchange, no? You give me a truffle and I give you a piece of
bread. These kinds of dogs are not usually fed bread, so for them
it's a delicacy. They really go for it.
Judie: Luciano quickly covers up the hole Birillo has
dug. The fungi are scarce and he doesn't want to leave any traces
for other truffle hunters. He also wants to preserve unripe truffles
that Birillo might sniff out in the future.
Manuela's translation: Truffles could be here, and if
they're not ripe, they don't have much smell.
Judie: Meanwhile, Manuela holds my ripe, newly found truffle
up to my nose. It looks like a little whitish lump.
Manuela: Can you smell it?
Judie: I would think it's a stone.
Manuela: But it doesn't smell like a stone. If the truffle's
not ripe, the dog doesn't smell it -- he's got a bigger one....
(Luciano makes noises and runs to Birillo. )
Judie: It's sort of between seasons -- too late for white winter truffles,
too early for black summer truffles. Today, Birillo is digging
up bianchetti, or whitish truffles. They're at the low end of
the fungus scale -- "only" $250 a kilo, about a tenth the price
of white truffles. But they are still truffles. And now that I've
got a few of them, I want to know how to use them.
Luciano: Per Tutti la cocina.
(He and Manuela laugh)
Manuela: From hors d'oeuvres to dessert, wherever you put it, it's good.
We even have chocolate truffles....
Luciano: Antipasto....a primi.....arrosto......
Judie: Since I'm now salivating over these scarce mushrooms,
I want to know if there are any tricks to finding them
Manuela's translation: When you're walking through an
area where there could be truffles, the first thing you do is
look under the trees. If you're looking for black truffles, a
plant that has the association will not have much grass under
it because the truffle exudes a substance that has a killing effect
on the grasses.
Judie: Although Luciano is an expert tracker and a fungal
encyclopedia, he also holds down a job as a fireman. It's an iffy
proposition to depend upon scoring truffles for a living. Some
years he's lucky, and other years he finds "niente." If there's
a drought and not enough humidity, for example, the truffles won't
Manuela's translation: You basically take the dog and
you see. And if you find nothing you'll find next time.
Judie: The $60 novices like me pay for the safari helps
to tide over local hunters like Luciano during the lean years.
And the safari price includes a wonderful lunch at a nearby country
restaurant -- with truffles.
Judie: At the table next to us, a group of hunters are playing the accordion
as we eat antipasti, wild boar salami, boar ham, omelet with truffles,
spaghetti with truffles, boar stew and cheesecake -- without truffles.
The pros congratulate me on my first hunt and assure me it was
a successful beginning.
Okay, I've gotta shuffle to pack up my truffles. All 10 of them. Ciao for now.
In Umbria, Italy, I'm Judith Fein for the Savvy Traveler.