Truffles! What else on this earth is hunted morning, noon and night in lush forests by men, women, children and dogs with the tenacity of Holy Grail seekers? I'd venture to say not a thing. Join me and the father-son team, Luciano and Christiano Savini, as we romp through the forests of Tuscany in search of this rare, precious, and mysterious fungus. (Oh, did I mention these two were the ones who received the Guinness Book of Records award for largest truffle ever found?)
An Italian Family's Tradition
I've been in pursuit of these mysterious, heady mushrooms a few times in Oregon, but let me just repeat the cliché phrase, "Italians do it better" and say that it holds true in this instance. Christiano and his team have a special passionate craze for "tartufo," "truffle" in English. It all began with Christiano's grandfather who worked as a forest keeper in the Tuscan countryside, not far from Pisa. He watched as others began to dig this precious fungus out of the rich, dark soil and decided to try. This decision turned into a lifetime devotion to truffle hunting, which he shared with his family. The historic familial ties to this neverending quest are palpable as the laughter, legends and stories unfolded with Christiano on our outing.
The Role of Dogs in Truffle-Hunting
In Tuscany, dogs are trained to sniff out truffles. They are rewarded heavily at first when they discover a truffle in order to learn not to eat their aromatic find. The dogs retrieve the truffle, run to their owner and receive a big treat. The dogs are treated as beloved family members and are cooed to, cuddled, hugged, and adored to the millionth degree.
Our afternoon out in the woods produced a handful of great looking summer truffles, and the puppy on pursuit did a glorious job finding a few of them. The relationship between dog and owner in this instance is so loving and intense, a remarkable connection to behold.
The Biggest Truffle in the World
In 2007, Christiano and Luciano embarked on an afternoon stroll through the neighboring woods of their home in Palia, Tuscany, about 45 minutes from Pisa. This was an unusual time for them to go truffle hunting, as they usually pursued truffles in the morning or in the evening, when the scent is easier to detect. But their dog, Rocco, began to cry and dig repeatedly in one spot. Father and son carefully began to dig at this spot as the dog ran in circles and made concerned sounds.
When they realized this was unlike any truffle they'd ever seen before, they gingerly began to uncover what would later be deemed the largest truffle on record. All 3.3 pounds of it were retrieved intact and Christiano gingerly wrapped the luscious beast in his jacket as they walked home. No one else could see their valuable prize. Christiano told me, "It's difficult to describe the storm of emotions that overcame me when I held the truffle in my hands."
The truffle was bid on by a few of their contacts for upwards of 80,000 dollars. But the family felt they'd receive more at auction after it was deemed the largest truffle ever found by the Guinness Book of World Records, and they were right. The truffle sold to a Chinese business man in Macao for $330,000 dollars.
Christiano and Luciano donated the money to a charity that supports research in muscular dystrophy and they continue to seek truffles and make truffle products. You can sample their salts, pestos, sauces and straight up truffles in their tasting room, Savini Tartufi, in Tuscany. If you like great food and stories, are willing to venture a bit off the beaten city track, it's a must when traveling to Italy. Mille Gratzie Christiano!
• Visit the Savini Family Truffle Shop: Savini Tartufi
Related: Wild Foods in Oregon: 5 Tips for Edible Foraging
(Images: Leela Cyd Ross)