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On the Land in Umbria - Rino Stalks the Truffles

Anne Robichaud

On crisp cold days like this, I often think of Rino and wonder if somewhere he is out stalking that "black gold", truffles.

On a chilly sunny day about 20 years ago, I was out under our oak trees in an old coat, scooping up acorns for our pigs (a typical November task, still done today in rural cultures, generally designated to the women). With fewer farm chores to do in November, acorn-gathering fills the days. Pig slaughtering take place on the coldest days of the year, to assure better meat preservation, and prior to the slaughter, fattening the pig with acorns guarantees the best prosciutto and capocollo. On clear sunny days in November, my neighbor Chiarina and I would often gather acorns together, enjoying the bold sun and cold air and each other's company.

On this particular day, I was picking alone, lost in my thoughts, when suddenly I was startled by a raspy "Buon giorno".

I looked up to see a scrawny grizzled man, face partially shaded by a frayed Borsalino hat, wearing a patched worn jacket and old pants held up by a piece of rope instead of a belt. In one hand he held a gnarled walking stick and in the other the leads of two Spaniel-type dogs who were tugging him eagerly, snouts to the ground.

This was my first meeting with Rino, who had trekked with his dogs about 10 kilometers over the hills from his little village in search of "black gold" - truffles. I had never seen one until meeting Rino that day. After introducing himself, he gingerly pulled a balled-up handkerchief out of his pocket, carefully unwrapping this precious parcel. Inside was a black truffle, roughly the size of a plum. In appearance it reminded me of a small, black very rotten potato. But, ah, the perfume as Rino held the truffle up to my nose; of loam, of rich forest undergrowth, of the good earth. Rino proudly bundled up his truffle and then asked me if he could go with his dogs into our woods, telling me that our land was good truffle terrain.

Rino disappeared for about an hour and I went back to the acorns. Now and then I heard the eager yaps of his dogs and the swishing sound of dead leaves as they made their way up and down our hillside woods.

And then Rino scrambled up out of the woods and onto the road. The dogs' tongues were hanging out and this time, Rino tugged them. Rino unearthed his grimy handkerchief, now bulging. Inside were four truffles. To my astonishment, he presented one to me with a "mille grazie". Rino told me to scrub the truffle gently, slice it finely, add it to heated olive oil, then toss into fettuccine. I had made fresh pasta that morning and Pino and I will long remember the truffle dinner that night.

Before Rino set off that day, we shared a glass of our vino rosso, while Rino reminisced about childhood truffle treks with his father and learning how to train his own truffle pups. In the same tradition, Rino's son has learned from him. I heard from a neighbor recently that now and then, Rino's son passes our way with his truffle dogs, though I have never met him.

Rino used to to come our way, now and then, always leaving me a truffle with his "mille grazie". It's been many years since I have seen him. I am not even sure he is still alive.

But I always think of him in truffle season.

Truffles

The truffle has always been the richest and most refined element of Mediterranean cuisine. Certainly not desired for its beauty, it resembles a measly rotten potato, and grows underground, like the potato, far from light and air, taking its nourishment from the forest undergrowth. Above-ground mushrooms are called epigei, whereas the truffle, an "underground mushroom" is an ipogeo (belonging to the Tuber family).

How can the truffle, compressed as it is underground, liberate its spores so as to reproduce? The ipigei mushrooms need only drop the spores onto the forest floor and insects, animals, wind, and rain will see to its dispersal. Nature has given the truffle an invaluable survival tool; its perfume. When mature, and only then, the truffle emits an unmistakable and intense perfume, capable of widespread subterranean diffusion. The perfume rises to the surface and entices the highly-developed olfactory sense of animals (e.g. pigs and dogs). Here in Italy, dogs are trained as cani tartufai. No special breed in particular; a good nose is what counts, and the skill of the dog's trainer.

The most prized truffle is the Tuber Magnatum, or the white truffle of Alba in Piedmont and Acqualagna in the Marche, characterized by its intense aroma. Prices of this truffle can soar to 3,000- 4,000 euro per kilo.

Our black truffle, Tuber Melanosporum, emanates a pleasing aroma and excellent flavor, especially when used in the prized dishes of our Umbria cuisine: from black truffle risotto to fettuccine with truffles to simple bruschetta with shaved black truffle and our world-famous olive oil.

Black truffle season is in full force in mid-November, peaking at the end of December.

Truffle festivals

Join "the locals" in tasting truffle dishes, attending conferences on truffles (but in Italian!), cheering on truffle dogs as they compete in digging up truffles, and even in truffle hunting at the annual Umbrian Mostra/Mercato ("show/market") events in Gubbio (October), Citt di Castello, Fabro (near Orvieto), Valtopina (all in November).

Resources

Slow Travel Photos: See larger versions of Anne's photos on our photo gallery.

www.hostetler.net: Dan, an American who lived in Milan for several years, has put together a comprehensive list of festivals throughout Italy. You can select by month and region.


Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2005. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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