Easily the most incredible experience we discovered in Italy’s Tuscany was truffle hunting with one beautiful Labrador and a Lagotto Romagnolo, a local breed renowned for its ability to sniff out prime Tuscan black truffles.
What if we told you we had found a unique travel experience that would be enjoyed equally by dog lovers, foodies, photographers, and nature lovers? Wait, did we say truffle hunting in Tuscany? Got your attention yet?
Truffle hunting is something we came across watching Anthony Bourdain and to a lesser extent, Conan O’Brien’s silly but fun take on travel – Conan Without Borders. In Tuscany, Italy, it’s something you can experience firsthand, not with a pig, but two beautiful truffle-hunting dogs.
Truffles are a much-loved delicacy and seasoning for exceptional culinary dishes. Their distinct flavors activate the senses of smell and umami in a way that chefs and diners will pay a small fortune to taste. Black truffles are the most easily found as they grow through the year, but it’s the white truffles that are the most savored, with a market rate of up to 3000 euros for a kilo due to their scarcity and that they only grow for two to three months a year. Even black truffles can net around 400 euro a kilo making a two hour search a much higher than average hourly pay rate for the elite hunters.
Be vewy quiet, we’re truffle hunting
Our truffle hunting adventures start at the Porta Romano, where a lovely young woman, Regina greets us and introduces us to a Canadian couple who are coming along as a honeymoon treat. Regina is warm and welcoming, a recent med school graduate who serves as an interpreter and assistant on each trip. She and her partner, also a doctor work with Alessandro, the truffle hunter who arrives on cue. We go with Regina and the other couple join Alessandro and his two pups to drive out to one of his many secret hot spots.
The two cars roar along city streets and out into the countryside where we are absolutely besotted with the scenery. Rolling hills of wildflowers meet cypress groves, golden sandstone farmhouses glistening in the mornings magic hour light. Ahead in Alessandro’s car we get our first introduction to Moka, an excitable Lagotto Romagnolo pup who is the nose of the operation. She is accompanied by a black lab named Pepita, a smart but over enthusiastic dog that seems to be caught in an internal struggle between playing her role and just wanting to be a bouncy, affectionate Labrador.
We turn down an almost invisible driveway and park beneath a thick copse. The setting is just stunning. Thick knee high grasses are speckled with yellows, reds, whites, and purples of blooming perennials. Low scrubby bushes lie in wait to scratch the face of the inattentive – a pretty easy state to find yourself in as you watch the two pups run ahead gleefully, disappearing in the long weeds. Alessandro calls after them, his commands strict but comforting, like a father figure. His calls are simple, sharp, and encouraging in a way that keeps the dogs on the ball. “Dove, Moka, dove!” (where is it?) an “Dai” (come, come) urges the dogs along.
The Hunt is On
We leave the paths and go cross-country, climbing small hills and sliding clumsily down muddy embankments. Our compasses have four legs and a golden nose and almost immediately they’re onto something. It’s so quick that we giggle that it’s all a set up and the truffles have been buried so we don’t go home disappointed. Thankfully Alessandro is no scammer. He’s the consummate professional and this is no plant (well I guess a truffle would count as one, at least biologically).
Pepita and Moka lead us on a merry chase through the undergrowth deeper into the woods where the truffles grow just below the surface in the damp soil. Alessandro points out the areas that they are most likely to be found and directs the dogs towards the base of trees free of grass – the spores affect the ability for grass to grow and the shade makes it perfect for mushrooms and truffles.
Hitting Pay Dirt
Each time Moka detects a truffle, she pauses and her tail points straight up. Ping. Ping. Ping. Alessandro moves in with his blade, gently piercing the earth to reveal the top of a golf ball size truffle. The shiny implement makes it easy to dig below and free the truffle from the fertile, black humus. The booty is passed around the group and snuffed appreciatively. As a reward, he reaches into his pocket and pulls out treats for each dog. Regardless of which one finds it, both dogs get the treat that they woof down in one bite.
Along the way we find around 20 truffles, the largest the size of a baseball. As we hunt in gullies and in lush patches of wildflowers we take moments to smell fresh wild mint that has a zest unlike anything we’ve smelled in the fresh produce section of a supermarket. Alessandro and Regina are a wealth of knowledge. We learn what they look for as they hunt. Dry truffles are old; moist truffles usually mean there’s an insect or worm inside. At their best state, the truffles have a lifespan of 12 days so they are sourced for chefs or preserved in oils and other culinary delicacies that Siena Tartufi sells from their shopfront on the main Piazza del Campo.
Truffle Hunting is a Competitive Profession
There are around 500 licensed hunters in the region and everyone has his or her “secret” spots. Understandably, at 400 Euro a pound, it’s no chump change, but luckily this delicacy replicates quickly and you can return to an area five days later and find new truffles in well-trodden ground.
We emerge from the woods slightly muddy but as excited as the two pups who retire to the trunk of Alessandro’s car, panting and grinning between gnawing on dog toys.
Returning to Siena, we explore the renaissance wonders as Alessandro runs Moka to the vet. Her curly fur is like Velcro and attracts burs and nasties. In this case, a bur has become entangled in the fur inside her floppy ear, irritating it and causing her some discomfort.
The Fruits of Their Labour
Running pooch repairs performed, we meet back at Siena Tartufi for a truffle tasting. We try a range of butters, oils, salts, and nuts, all enriched with authentic truffle flavors and washed down with craft beers. From the store’s single humble outdoor table, we have prime position overlooking the Piazza del Campo with its iconic bell tower.
Over the course of three days in Tuscany, we’ve climbed castles, domes, explored hilltop towns and sampled fine Chianti, but it’s been two puppies with a superior sense of smell that have revealed a memory of the region we’ll forever hold dear.
For more Watt Where How Italian adventures, view our other articles here.
Truffle hunting is an amazing way to see the Tuscan countryside while chasing cute puppies through the wildflowers, meadows, and woods.
We found Siena Tartufi through AirBNB Experiences though they also feature on Trip Advisor. Truffle hunting is a unique experience that anyone can enjoy and we’d recommend it as something that really shouldn’t be missed.Follow & Connect with us