If you're going truffle hunting then the best chance of finding any is in Acqualagna, in Pesaro-Urbino Province, as it supplies two thirds of the Italian market.
This really is a shaggy dog story. It's raining in the woods and I'm following Giorgio Remedia and his long haired Italian Pointer, who's running in front, sniffing the ground. He's searching for the elusive white truffle which is an underground mushroom, growing in the root system of trees like oak and poplar. This year has been a bad one for this exotic fungus - deep snow in spring, and then an exceptionally dry summer, means that supply is at a 20 year low. The famine has driven the price through the roof and they're now selling at around €4000 a kilo, about one tenth that of gold.
Suddenly, in the undergrowth, I see Bobo frantically digging with both his front paws and Giorgio wastes no time in taking over. He brushes him aside and feeds him a small biscuit as a reward. I watch as he carefully excavates the spot and suddenly there's a glimpse of white in the dark earth. Giorgio gets out his knife and prises out a specimen slightly larger than a golf ball. He scrapes off the earth, holding it over the hole so any spores present can seed the next truffle. Now I get a whiff of its strong earthy, slightly sweet, perfume and my mouth begins to water.
I've arrived the previous day in Acqualagna, in the Marche region of Italy, which prides itself on producing truffles all year round. As a result, this village supplies around two thirds of the Italian market, around 50-60 tons, and every year holds three truffle fairs to coincide with the harvests. In February and August it's black truffles but now, at the end of October, it's the Fiera Nazionale del Tartufo Bianco, the white truffle event.
The village square is lined with stalls packed with fresh white and black, as well as jars of preserved pastes, creams and oils. Today the black are going for around €800 per kilo whilst the white range from €2,500 for walnut size to €3,500 for golf balls. I get to hold the biggest one on display, weighing 750g - a bargain at only €6000.
Even better, all the restaurants have special truffle menus so there's ample opportunity for tasting. My hosts hustle me into the Osteria del Parco restaurant and I get a plate of scrambled eggs and crostini, sprinkled with white truffle shavings. It might not look much, but by golly, I can taste the truffle, and that's the secret - keep the ingredients simple and let the exotic fungus provide the flavour.
It's difficult to describe but it's a taste you'll never forget, a fusion of garlic and mushroom. Over the next couple of days, everything I eat comes with truffle - pasta, polenta, Carpaccio, veal slices, even pears for desert have a couple of shavings. And if that's not enough, there are often truffles on the table so you can grate extra helpings.
Back on the truffle hunt, Giorgio tells me that it's actually possible to cultivate truffles, although so far he's only had success with the black variety. Seedlings of oak.poplar or willow are inoculated with spores and nurtured in greenhouses. After a year he transplants them to suitable ground and regularly checks their roots for signs of the fungus. It can take 8 years for them to be productive and he pulls up those that show no promise. So far he's planted over 4000 trees, in his 15 hectares, and reckons he gets around 200 kg a year.
He's so successful that in 2010 he was called to the UK by Prince Philip to investigate why the trees on the Sandringham Estate were not producing any truffles. He presented a jar of truffle cream to the Prince who took a sniff, recoiled in horror, and asked him if it was stuff that he used for his beard. He'd obviously never encountered truffles before. After a fruitless search with his dogs Giorgio's verdict was that the trees were too young and that the Prince would have to wait. Given he's over 90, he may well not live to see royal truffle production.
The rain's getting heavier but Bobo is undeterred. He's frantically digging again and over the course of half an hour we collect 100g of white truffles with a street value of €400. Giorgio says that it's best to hunt in the early morning as later it warms up and there are too many competing smells to confuse the dog. I ask him if he ever uses pigs to sniff out the truffles and he shakes his head and smiles: "You can't talk to pigs" he tells me. We call it a day and I'm half hoping that I might get a small specimen in payment for my work as truffle assistant but I'm sadly disappointed. Fortunately, I've been asked to call in on Mayor Andrea Pierotti before I leave and he hands me a small paper bag. There's no disguising what's inside and, as I take my seat on the plane, I find myself looking forward to my very own truffle feast.
All pictures copyright Rupert Parker.
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