This July, when in Italy, I visited Bracciano, a small town situated 50 km north-west of Rome over a picturesque lake of the same name. The village was known for its medieval castle rising majestically above small stone houses, where Tom Cruise, Eros Ramazotti, and a few other celebrities had their weddings. I didn’t go there as a tourist, but as a truffle hunter. The scant forests surrounding the village had abundance of earthy summer truffles that enjoy the local alkaline soil and mild climate. Historically, truffle hunters used wild bores to find mushroom that often grow 10 to 20 cm underground. Nowadays, hunters use dogs trained for this particular task. Whenever a dog finds one of these precious mushrooms and starts digging frantically, a truffle hunter is on the spot immediately to prevent it from swallowing the valuable commodity which is valued at 200 EU/kg on the local market – humans are not the only one who like the earthy taste of truffles!
Wendy and Udzi, the dogs that accompanied us that day did a great job. After two hours, we had about half a kilo of fresh truffles. “I start training my dogs when they’re two months old. Usually, they are ready by the time they are one year old.” – explained Matteo, my truffle guide who comes from a family with a long tradition of truffle hunting. His passion developed from a young age. Instead of doing his homework, he would rather wander around the forest or spending hours reading an encyclopedia of mushrooms. After graduating, Matteo worked for a while here and there. Eight years ago, he decided to quit his day job and dedicate his time to truffle hunting. To earn a decent salary, he needs to collect at least one kilogram of summer truffles (200 EU/kg) every day, which according to him is feasible. When season for summer truffles is over, Matteo collects porcini. The mushroom kingdom always has something to offer.
“There are different kind of truffles in Italy. White and Black Truffles are the most expensive with prices starting from 1,500 EU per kilo. Sometimes, if the season is poor, their price can go up to thousands of euros per kilo. These kinds of truffles grow in Northern Italy (Piedmont), Central Italy (Tuscany, Marche, Umbria), Istria, and Slovenia. If you get them from a shop in Rome, they will cost you double.” – explained Matteo on the way to Ricardo and Claudia’s house where we enjoyed a gourmet feast which Claudia had prepared in advance. Every single dish served that day was made with summer truffles: potato flan sprinkled with truffles, truffle bruschetta, home-made truffle pasta and a truffle-seasoned poached egg. Claudia’s family owned a restaurant in Roma which meant she had grown up in the kitchen watching her parents cooking up a storm every day. Today, in cooperation with John Cabot University in Roma, Claudia runs cooking classes and cooking tours. You can sign up for a three-day tour during which you visit local producers, taste local flavors and learn how to cook everything from scratch.
Late lunch was served in the spacious garden of Ricardo and Claudia’s stunning Mediterranean-style house. When we sat at the table I felt time slow down. External factors like work waiting back in Iraq or personal problems didn’t matter anymore. No surprise that the slow food movement has emerged with great force in Italy. My fellow truffle hunters and I spent the afternoon eating delicious food and enjoying the company of our hosts while sipping their uncle’s wine.