Pecorino cheese drizzled with truffle-infused honey and a glass of pinot grigio; a standard start to a day at Giulio Benuzzi's house on the Tuscan hillside. It is a Sunday morning, 11.00am by the chime of the church bells next door, and Giulio's guests are beginning their day with the truffle hunter.
Within the hour myself, a young American couple and Giulio will be running around in the woods after a loveable hunting dog, but beforehand must be given a quick education over the moreish appetizer.
"White are more strong-flavoured, closer to a nut and more intense," he says of the most expensive variety of truffles, found among tree roots in particular parts of Italy, which in his experience range from €2000 ($2480) to €5000 to per kilo. "November and December are the best months for the white truffle, but I prefer the bianchetto which grows in January and February."
Black summer truffles are passed around and their smoky scent inhaled. They are no bigger than a conker, resemble volcanic rock and are a comparative bargain at €200 to €300 per kilo.
Giulio first hunted for truffles with his grandfather in Piedmont, famed for its white truffle, but only returned to the practice in recent years and gained a hunting licence in 2008 after years running food and wine tours in Tuscany.
With an education steeped upon us Giulio is up and summoning his hunting partner Eda; a six-year-old Lagotto Romagnola dog whose brown and cream curly hair obscures her eyes but stays clear of her valuable nose. Eda looks more suited to running after sticks than thousands of euros, but Giulio is full of praise.
"Buying an expert dog is complicated because a truffle hunter never sells, or they sell it for €20000 because a dog like Eda can extract 100 kilos each year," he says. "My teacher called me [in 2008] and said an important truffle hunter in Siena has had a stroke and must sell at least three of his best dogs." After much negotiation Eda arrived in Giulio's home in the municipality of Bagno a Ripoli, nine kilometres from Florence. Historically pigs have been used, but dogs are now commonplace are they are less destructive and less likely to eat the prize.
Eda jumps in the boot of the car enthusiastically and soon we are trundling up a country lane with Florence's cathedral watching from a distance. Giulio stops on the edge of a wood a few minutes away and picks out his vangeto, a long wooden pole with a sharp trowel on the end to pluck the truffles from the soil.
Truffle hunters are protective of their hunting ground, and while surveying the hillside Giulio admits that competition can be fierce: "It depends on whether you are a gentleman or not; if two rude truffle hunters were to meet there could be trouble." But he reassures us that this particular wood, despite its oak trees and fertile soil, has largely been overlooked by others.
Soon Eda is away, nose to the ground under Giulio's firm direction. A seemingly undetectable movement and he is racing towards the dog, shouting orders at her to stop and us to go. There, nestled between the trees is a black nugget. A moment of digging and there is another. Praise and dog treats pour down on Eda before she is put to work again; up steep slopes guided by the map etched onto Giulio's mind.
Loyalty to her master wavers on occasion and Eda can be heard crunching a truffle, to Giulio's evident annoyance. But the hour-long hunt is a success and the hunter leaves with a pocket full of autumn black truffles. They are smaller than usual after a rainless summer but a wet September will have a positive effect in November. Giulio also goes in search of white truffles by arrangement on private land, although on these occasions without excitable visitors in tow.
The gastronomic reward
Within a few minutes we are back in Giulio's truffle house, Eda excused, sipping on prosecco while the hunter offers instruction in how to polish up the truffles. They are first shaken in water, ridding them of the Tuscan soil, before being dried and carefully dusted with a metal brush. One last wash and they are then wrapped and refrigerated until delivered to local restaurants or gourmands globally.
While out picking up these new supplies Christina, Giulio's wife, has been preparing a delectable truffle lunch. With each of the five courses she explains the locality of the ingredients, the dish and the cooking methods. Her creations, which she insists are no different to the food she and Giulio eat regularly, have proved so popular that she is now writing a recipe book.
In honour of the furry forager, the starters are an 'Eda roll' and a white pizza. The former is mozzarella and truffle pesto wrapped in soft pastry and dusted with truffle flakes. Alongside sits the small pizza, covered lightly in mozzarella and drizzled in truffle oil and shavings.
The sensory impact is overwhelming. Much can be said of the hundreds of Tuscan restaurants bustling in Florence below, but flavours rarely flourish as they do at this table. There is little time to linger, as soon another dish is upon us; a hot soup of zolfino beans - the colour of cannellini beans yet half the size and particular to Tuscany. The broth is spiced with onions and truffle shavings; the oil remains on the table and much constraint is needed to stop every dish being doused.
The prosecco is replaced with a Morellino di Scansano, a sangiovese-based red wine from southern Tuscany which comes as a welcome change to the over-peddled Chianti Classico. It pairs perfectly with the next plate: home-made gnocchi rolled in butter and coated in slices of truffle.
For even the most gluttonous of truffle enthusiasts the meal could come to a contented end at this point, but still cutlery sits on the table. Christina arrives with the main course; chunks of beef fried with virgin olive oil and truffle shavings.
When it seems that no more space can be found for further indulgence, Giulio calls over for a balsamic vinegar tasting. The three types are from the Emilia-Romagna region north of Tuscany, where in Modena balsamic vinegar is taken as seriously as truffles in Florence, and aged by years. The 12-year, with notes of honey, is poured over cream-flavoured gelato to complete the two-hour lunch.
Those able to think of ever eating again can take home bottles of balsamic vinegar, which is a passion of Giulio's rather than produced by him, in addition to honey, oil and pesto produced at the truffle house.
The truffle tour costs €160 per person, although an alternative programme which replaces the lunch with a picnic is €75. The latter includes the introductory session, hunt and lesson on cleaning truffles. Giulio's tours are scheduled by request and can be booked any day of the week, each month apart from May.
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