Italy has the best truffles in the world. Along with Piedmont, Tuscany has the best truffles in Italy. Not too far from Pisa, farmer Matteo Giuiliani or ‘Teo’ for short, educates visitors at his truffle farm ‘itartufiditeo.com‘. A fourth generation truffle hunter, he’s muscular and tanned, bristling with tattoos. His farm consists of 20 hectares of forest. While the terrain is naturally favourable for truffles, he promotes truffle growth by disseminating spores, a process known as ‘mycorrhization’.
Today dogs rather than pigs are used for hunting. English setters are particularly favoured as a breed, but any dog, even mongrels, can be trained. The dogs start from birth: the mother’s teats are dabbed with truffle oil to encourage a nose for the scent while suckling. Training takes between two and four years. On a hunting session, after a couple of hours, the dog’s nose is tired. For this reason Teo has a large team of 12.
We followed Teo into the nearby forest. Bianchi, a white dog, ran excitedly around the trees. Suddenly it stopped, wagging its tail, pointing its nose at a particular spot. Teo strides along with his ‘vanghetto’, a wooden stick with a tiny spade on the end, and digs where the dog has pointed. Every so often the farmer lifts a handful of nondescript dirt and sniffs it. It is pungent with the scent of truffle. Eventually some harder and more knobbly earth is located. Teo has to make sure that dog, who naturally is also a fan of truffles, doesn’t eat it.
At present, in October, we are searching for black summer truffles (which have a thick skin enabling them to retain moisture during the hot months). These sell for around 800 euros a kilo. We find four truffles of different sizes; ranging in value from 80 euros to 30 euros. On an average day during this season Teo will find truffles worth up to 1000 euros. Shape is also important, a nicely rounded truffle is sought by restaurants for presentation purposes, to shave it at the table in front of customers.
From November to January the white truffle season commences. These are the most valued truffles, worth 5000 euros a kilo. The soil in Tuscany is well drained and sandy, which means the truffles, fungi that live underground, as opposed to mushrooms which live overground, do not rot. Particular types of host trees, oaks, pines and white poplar, are associated with certain truffles, the roots have a symbiotic relationship.
Real truffles, especially the winter white ones, are a Christmas treat. This is when Teo makes most of his money. ‘How much money do you make a year?’ I ask him. He smiles and says he’s ‘molto fortunata’, very lucky.
There are three main types of truffles in Tuscany: black/summer truffles; white and ‘bianchetti’ small white.
A fresh truffle can last up to 10 days. Do not clean it until you want to use it, this will help preservation. They can be frozen but only if mixed with butter or oil. Do not cook truffles. Truffles smell completely different to how they taste.
For best results, look for them on a crescent or waxing moon. The day before a full moon is best. Each truffle takes 3 to 4 days to grow.
You can drink red or white wine with truffles, it depends with what ingredients they are cooked.
Some chefs can be negative about truffle oil. When buying it, make sure it is expensive. Too cheap and it’s probably synthetic.
Truffles can be used in desserts: I had vanilla ice cream drizzled with truffle honey, a delicious contrast.
A truffle hunting session, a four course truffle lunch with wine costs 150 euros per person.
Truffled baked eggs
These can be baked in ramekins. This is a Tuscan breakfast, delicious with crusty bread. I watched Teo collect spankingly fresh eggs from his own chickens. Keep truffles in a paper bag with the eggs. The porous shells will allow the truffles to perfume the eggs.
- 4 tsps clarified butter/ghee
- 4 fresh eggs
- salt and pepper to taste
- Shavings truffle
Preheat the oven to 200c
Grease the ramekins with the clarified butter.
Crack an egg into each ramekin, taking care not to break the yolk and seasoning with salt and pepper
Bake for 10 minutes.
Generously add truffle shavings on top of the egg and serve with crusty bread.
Mini gnocchi with truffles
These gnocchi are tiny, often called 'chicche' pronounced kikiye (meaning 'goodies'). They cook quickly, without too much stodge and you can enjoy plenty of sauce around each one. Use as much truffle you can afford. Failing that, add droplets of genuine truffle oil and salt.
For the chicche:
- 1 kg potatoes, baked and scooped out of their skins while still warm
- 300g plain flour or 00 flour
- 150 g parmesan or pecorino, finely grated
- 1 egg
- 1 tsp salt
- 100 g fine semolina to roll them in
For the sauce:
- 150 g butter
- Shavings truffle
- salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to 200g and bake the potatoes in their skins for 45 minutes to an hour. When you prick them and they are soft inside, remove from the oven.
Scoop out the insides (you can use the potato skins for another recipe, filling them with cheese or beans) with a fork and mix with the flour, cheese, egg and salt.
Form a long sausage with the dough, 1 cm wide, and cut into small sections 1 cm long. Place the chicche onto a tray spread with fine semolina so that they don't stick to one another.
When you are ready to cook them, boil plenty of salted water in a medium pan and cook the chicche for a couple of minutes or until they float.
Drain or lift out with a slotted spoon, mix with butter.
Add truffle shavings, salt and pepper to taste.