"So will you be following a pig or a dog?"
This was probably the #1 question I got asked by family and friends when I told them that I was going on a truffle hunt in Tuscany. To answer that question right from the start, we had a lovable pooch named Choco on our hunt. Apparently, it is now illegal in Italy to use pigs to hunt truffles because their noses tend to ruin the soil and the surrounding land. I honestly think it's also because they thought about the opportunity cost of using the pig for pancetta and prosciutto too.
So now on to the truffle hunt. When we knew we were going Tuscany, we knew that truffle hunting had to be on the agenda. San Miniato is a town in between Pisa and Florence. Despite its very accessible and practical location, I was surprised that after talking to other Tuscan travellers, San Miniato wasn't really on anyone's radar.
On a gastronomic level, San Miniato is well-known for its truffle population. Aside from the more common summer black truffles, the sought after white winter truffle can also be found in San Miniato's forests. L'Associazione Tartufai delle Colline Sanminiatesi refers to the group of families of truffle gatherers who have organised themselves in conjunction with the local municipality to "promote the protection, harvesting, production and marketing of the White Truffle of San Miniato." These families all have their own secret hiding trails, well-trained dogs, and unique styles when it comes to truffle hunting -- they really do treat it like both an art and a science.
If you search truffle hunting tours on Google, you'll find a good number of options. After looking through most of them, we decided on the one by Truffle Hunter, which is one of the first sites that come up. Initially, this made us hesitant that it was going to be a very commercial, impersonal experience, but boy were we wrong!
The meeting point is at the truffle hunter's actual home in Fattoria Collebrunacchi and simple instructions are given to help you get there. You're even provided with the truffle hunter (in our case her name was Francesca)'s mobile so that you can easily contact her (she was on WhatsApp, just FYI) if you have any questtions.
Francesca and her family have different types of tours for you to pick from, but we decided on the Truffle Walking tour (€100), which includes a truffle hunt and a truffle-based lunch back at her house. This was the cheaper option as we had a car and didn't need to get picked up, but they do have a tour that includes transport from Florence, and some other tours that are combined with a wine tasting and cooking class. Our shared tour meant that we were in a group with two other couples, both from the USA. The group size was just right to have a good balance of intimacy and interesting conversation.
Francesa has a number of dogs who help her hunt for both truffles and wild boars. On our hunt, she chose to take Choco, who is a Lagotto Romagnolo, which has become the go-to dog breed for truffle hunting.
Francesca's tour takes us on a walk to the woods right by her house. Make sure to wear good trainers and comfortable clothing as you will be walking under branches, over tree stumps, and up and down some hills -- there's a reason why truffles are so sought after!
Along the way, Francesca will also point out (and pick out) wild berries and herbs for the guests to try.
Francesca talks to Choco in Italian and asks him "Dove sono i tartufi" (Where are the truffles) on a constant basis. Choco can smell the truffles up to 100 metres away, and once he gets whiff of something, he'll head on over to the spot, and start to dig. Francesca will shout out another command and from there she can find out if he actually did find a truffle, or is just being a dog and wants to dig and play. If it is a truffle that Choco has found, Francesca told us that she usually has to tell him to stop digging right away lest he accidentally breaks off a piece of the precious fungi. Francesca then finishes off where Choco left off and uses a special shovel and her hands to get the rest of the truffle out.
During our tour, we found about four different truffles. As a truffle lover myself, I was shocked that the smell of the fresh, newly discovered truffle is actually not as strong as the ones I've had in restaurants. That could be because many restaurants only use truffle essence or oil (which Francesca says is a major no-no, but I'll get to that later). Francesca assured us that she only does real truffle tours and doesn't spend her time planting any truffles just for the tourists. She also told us that she has her own notebook where she keeps track of spots that are truffle-rich. She also said that her husband has a similar notebook but that they don't share notes and keep everything very secretive!
Once back at her house, Francesca led us to her dining room. Francesca lives in a beautiful, stately home and you can tell that her family loves hunting and the outdoors.
Francesca had some products on display that guests were able to purchase such as olive oils, wines, jams, and honey. However, there was no sight of any truffle oil. Francesca explained that when it comes to truffles, it's only the black truffles that can be cooked, whilst white truffles should always be served raw. She also said that thought truffled cheese or honey is fine, truffle is oil is a major no-no. She said that this is because many truffle oils are actually made with a chemical, aromatic compound which isn't good for you anyway. This explains the very strong smell you get from truffle oil, but which I didn't notice from the actual fresh truffles we found.
Now on to some incredible, non truffle-oil grub!
Aside from some glasses (fine, bottles) of what Francesca called "very, very Tuscan wine", we had a few tasting dishes which made up our delicious lunch.
The pappa di pomodoro is a traditional Tuscan "soup" made out of tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and garlic. I say "soup" because it is a lot thicker than a regular soup due to the addition of bread.
Our first truffle dish was made up of three parts, a side of crusty bread, a sunny side up, runny egg on top of candied bell peppers with shaved black truffles on top, and some bresaola stuffed with citrus and topped with shaved truffles.
The star of the meal was this amazing truffle pasta, which is very different to the creamy, cheese varieties you get in most restaurants. This one only had simple olive oil, garlic, and black pepper, and of course, a generous shaving of truffles on top.
We were also served some cantuccini, or Tuscan biscotti along with some Vin Santo, which is an Italian dessert wine.
The truffle hunting tour and lunch was an amazing experience, that we have already started to recommend to any friends who are looking to visit Tuscany. Especially for the food lovers out there, this tour is one you cannot leave off of your bucket lists!
Italy Wine & Truffle Tour