The truffle hunt

The truffle hunt

by Russell Brown 21 October 2015

Chef Russell Brown swaps restaurant life in Dorchester for a unique opportunity to join a traditional truffle hunt in the beautiful Italian hills of Emilia-Romagna.

Critically acclaimed chef Russell Brown is a regular Great British Chefs contributor.

Critically acclaimed chef Russell Brown is a regular Great British Chefs contributor.

While I have cooked with truffles over the years, I have never had the chance to hunt for them. Until now . . .

While on holiday in Italy, we have come to Savigno, an area in the hills of Emilia-Romagna that has been proclaimed the ‘Città del Tartufo’ to join a traditional truffle hunt. Standing on a hillside forest track, we start by looking at iPhone pictures with Maurizio, the tartufaio or ‘truffle hunter’. He shows us images of white truffles of various sizes ranging up to half a kilo in weight; not just one or two but lots of them. One particular shot showed several dozen white truffles laid out, a good haul even by Maurizio’s standards.

Licences are required to hunt for truffles here because much of the land is privately owned and there is a real sense of working to preserve the environment and future harvests. Truffles that don't come up to scratch are broken up and thrown back into the forest to spread the spores, a job done best by wood mice and snails, we are told.

Pigs are no longer used to hunt truffles because of the damage they do to root systems so hunting is now is the preserve of dogs. Various breeds are used but Macchia, Maurizio’s dog, is a Lagotto Romagnolo. It is only a few months since she gave birth to a valuable litter of 10 puppies, and she is close shaved due to the high temperatures. This is the reason our hunt is taking place in the early evening – the health and wellbeing of the dogs is paramount. As soon as Macchia is let out, she is impatient to work rather than hang around while Maurizio talks to us through Helena, our guide and translator.

The hills of Emilia Romagna, Italy
The hills of Emilia-Romagna, Italy
Dog on the truffle hunt image
Macchia on the hunt

Most black truffles are found close to the surface but a white truffle can be up to a metre deep. How the dogs dig is a measure of the size of the find; if they scrape sideways as opposed to digging straight down, chances are that the truffle is a large one.

If I'm honest, I was expecting a pleasant walk in the hills, some great information and not much more. We set off down a track that looks dusty and well used; I’m not full of hope but it’s only two minutes before our first truffle, Tuber Aestivum, has been scratched from the dry, cracked earth! The aroma from the Aestivum doesn’t compare with the winter white or black truffle but it is still evocative. In the space of only forty-five minutes, Macchia finds four more truffles to add to the pile, around 80 to 100g in all. Chunks of rough salami are her well-earned reward.

Maurizio insists that freshness is key when it comes to cooking with truffles, with a white truffle only being good for five days and black ones ten to fifteen days. When buying truffles, squeeze them gently in your hand; they should feel like dense rubber balls. And then smell them; they should smell of truffle not earth. The earth smell can indicate a truffle that has been broken and ‘glued’ back together with mud. Once cleaned, keep truffles in a sealed glass jar, covering them in kitchen paper which should be changed every day. Store in the coldest part of the fridge. Store with eggs to infuse the flavour but never in rice as it draws too much moisture from the tuber.

Maurizio also gave us some cooking tips for black truffles: he recommends grating equal quantities of truffle and Parmigiano Reggiano and storing it in a sealed jar for two days then using it with some cooking water to form an emulsion for coating gnocchi. The asparagus and truffle bruschetta with Parmigiano Reggiano cream we had for antipasti at lunch was seriously good too.

Thank you to Helena at who organised our day, gave us access to some amazing producers and translated brilliantly. Her knowledge of the forty-plus PDO and IGP products in Emilia Romagna and her contact list is invaluable.

You can follow Helena on Twitter @TrueYummyItaly

Freshly unearthed truffles