I was at Ristorante Da Giovannino down the road the other day, listening to appassionati truffle hunters, Severino and Italo, talking about when they’d finally find truffles this year. Deluging spring rains and unseasonal cold weather in May and June have set the season back.
The truffle – an underground fungus – needs moisture but it also need warmth. Italo predicts that he’ll find summer black truffles after the moon changes on July 8th.
Last year was a better season: I remember talking to elderly Giuseppe, enjoying a sandwich after a successful hunt, the huge truffle he’d found placed on the table. Shy Michele had found a coveted white truffle – and he’d introduced me to his prized dogs who had sniffed out the treasure.
Talking with truffle hungers reminds me of the first time I ever saw (and later savored!) a truffle.
On a chilly sunny day in 1976, I was out under our oak trees on an old coat, scooping up acorns for our pigs (a typcial November task – still today in rural cultures – generally designated to the women). With fewer farm chores to do in November, acorn-gathering fills the days.
Pig slaughterings 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 thought, 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 old pants held up by a piece of rope rather than a belt and a patched worn jacket.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 kms over the hills from his little village in search of “black gold”: truffles. I had never seen one til 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. It reminded me (in appearance) 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 and add to heated olive oil, then toss into fettuccine. (I had made pasta that morning and Pino and I will long remember dinner that night.)
Before Rino set off that day, we shared a glass of our vino rosso (rural hospitality here – and perhaps the world round? – implies the sharing of food/drink to any visitor), while Rino reminisced about childhood truffle treks with his father and learning from him, 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.
Read about where to eat truffles
Read more about truffles
Read about an Umbrian truffle festival
Read about the wild boar hunters who meet at Giovannino’s too
Read about good eating at Giovannino’s