The Truffle Hunt in Umbria


The Truffle Hunt in Umbria
By Susan Van Allen

In the Italian village of Gubbio, a visitor follows a stranger into the dark forest seeking treasure.

Umbria travel

I stood in a grand piazza, waiting for a stranger to arrive and take me into a forest for a truffle hunt. It was dark. I was shivering. And all alone.

What the hell was I doing here at 6:25 in the morning?

Here being Gubbio, a medieval village in Italy's Umbria region. It's a fairytale of a place: all done up in ivory-colored stone towers, Romanesque churches, palazzos tucked into a hillside, surrounded by a shimmering green forest.

I was drawn to Gubbio by the treasures that grow in that forest: truffles. Warty, misshapen tubers. Sacred mysteries of the gourmet world. They can't be cultivated, but grow amidst the roots of trees. In Italy they're dug up by dogs, rather than pigs that the French use, as Italians discovered dogs are less likely to gobble up what they sniff out.

Black truffles are abundant in these forests almost all year round. Pricier white truffles are rarer, but they do show up here in winter. The smell of these black or white goodies is a knock-out: musky, with a garlic-peppery hint—what Romans called "vaguely sexual." The Catholic Church caught on to their seductive nature in the middle ages and banned truffles, declaring they surely came straight from the devil.

All week in Gubbio I've been imagining my Catechism nuns tsk-ing at me as I indulge…slathering truffle butter over my breakfast bread, digging into a lunch bowl of tagliatelle with shaved truffles, savoring truffle stuffed rabbit at dinner.

© Geobia, Wikimedia Commons

The Truffle Hunter

When Paolo, the hotel concierge, offered to find me a truffle hunter I could tag along with through the forest, I jumped at the chance. It's not like anybody can tap a hunter on the shoulder and say, "Take me with you." This is serious-big-bucks-making work, and hunters are secretive about their methods and spots.

"I know a guy," Paolo whispered. "Marino Aringolo is the best trifolau (truffle hunter) in all of Gubbio."

I'd gotten to like Paolo over my Gubbio days—a Poindexter-ish fellow, forever pumped to show off his village to a giornalista Americana. I'd follow him up and down Gubbio's cobblestoned vias, and he'd have stories at every turn:

Here's the San Francesco church that was once the home of the Spadalonga family—wool makers. In the 12th century, a guy named Francis walked to Gubbio from Assisi, (naked—after he'd taken his vow of poverty), and the Spadalongas threw a grey wool cloak over him. That became the first vestment of the Franciscan friars. Saint Francis stuck around Gubbio and miraculously tamed a wolf who'd been terrorizing the whole village. And here's the Roman theater, built under the order of Julius Caesar, who came through on his campaign against Pompey, after saying those immortal words, "The Die is cast." And this is the Fountain of the Mad. Run around it three times, splash yourself, and you can officially be declared insane." Shops surrounding the fountain sell kitschy "Get Me to an Asylum" certificates, for those who've done the fountain run.

Then comes Paolo's gulp-inspiring: "Marino the Truffle Hunter will pick you up in the piazza tomorrow…at 6:30 a.m."

The thought of actually dealing with another human being pre-caffe was daunting. Still, this timing meant Marino was the real deal. Early-early morn is primo for truffle hunting—when the chill intensifies the smell so dogs can more easily sniff them out, and darkness keeps the hunter's moves secret. These days, in more well-known truffle places, such as Alba, a cottage industry of hunting tours has built up. Many are fakes, stocked with pre-planted truffles, so customers will come away satisfied. Good man Paolo set me up with an authentic seeker instead.

© WolfgangSailer, Wikimedia Commons

To the Dark Forest

Now, at 6:30 on the dot, dim yellow headlights appear and a dusty gray hatchback inches towards me. The driver, who I can hardly make out in the darkness, rolls down his window and whispers: "Susanna?"

I spot two caged dogs in the back of the car, and a rusty, dangerous looking gardening hoe. Turning back, I'm face-to-face with Marino. Not a trace of the Big Bad Wolf about him. He's a compact fellow--bald, with wire spectacles framing brown puppy dog eyes. The kind of guy who could walk into an LA casting office and get typed as "trusty handyman." Plus, he pulls out a thermos of coffee and a cup for me. Bless him.

All's well until he looks at my feet. I'm wearing one of my favorite Italy purchases: suede-black-lace-up-to-the-shin-flat-soled boots that I scored in Rome years ago. They've been praised by many a galfriend, but clearly their appeal doesn't register with Marino. He rummages in the trunk and pulls out a pair of dirty rubber green high boots. "These will be better," he tells me. "Try…"

It's a way-warped version of Prince Charming with the Glass Slipper. Back and forth we go, the country signor and the stubborn city signora who's attached to her beloved boots, all very civil, until the dogs start getting restless in their cages. Marino shrugs, relents, and Andiamo

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