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Beyond Pasta and Pizza: Truffle Hunting in Italy’s Enchanting Forests

Italian cuisine, whether a deep-fried pizza on the backstreets of Napoli, a plate of Spaghetti alla Carbonara in Rome, or a risotto in Milan, is at its best when kept simple. Home-cooked pasta dishes with liberal lashings of parmesan, olive oil, and pepper, freshly caught fish selected from a silver plate, and lemons magicked into bottles of Limoncello — produce some of Italy’s most recognizable flavors, all of which stay true to their simple ingredient-led origins. But perhaps the most exquisitely simple of them all are the truffles. White truffles in particular with their heady, earthy fragrance, are kept as nature intended — not cooked but cleaned and then shaved over steaming hot pasta dishes, allowing their aroma — the integral part — to dominate the table.

Black truffles

Types of Italian Truffles

There are twenty-five varieties of truffles (or Tartufo in Italian) growing in Italy, but only a handful are eaten. It’s best to think of black truffles as an ingredient, something that can be stuffed into chickens and mixed into pasta, their flavor intensified with butter, with a scent less intoxicating than a white truffle but robust enough to withstand a bit of cooking. But white truffles are more of a condiment, almost always eaten fresh and raw, sliced thinly atop neutral flavors, their scent always set to take center stage.

The rarest of Italian truffles is the Alba white truffle (but it isn’t exclusive to Alba), the white gold hidden in Italian subsoil. A decadent, usually off-white or pinkish underground fungus whose scent is the stuff of legend inspiring claims of a hundred smells ranging from earthy mushroom to honey-sweetened garlic. The Bianchetto truffle or spring truffle is confusingly similar to the Alba white truffle, but it’s usually smaller with wider veining, a less intense scent, and is found in the spring — hence the name.

Truffle hunting

Truffle Hunting in Italy

Antonio Carluccio, Italian chef, and restaurateur behind the UK’s Carluccio’s restaurants, said that ‘truffle is the food for kings, gods, and pigs’ which gives an insight into how Italians view their native truffle and their dependence on animals to sniff them out. But these days truffle hunters try to keep the pigs away from the hunt, favoring dogs instead… mostly because the pigs tend to love truffles even more than Antonio did, devouring them in seconds and destroying their natural habitats. Most hunts start in the morning, led by a well-trained hound or two, leading a pack of hunters by the nose into lush autumnal forests. When the dog — usually a curly-haired Lagotto Romagnolo or Labrador Retriever, gets a trace of the truffle, they dig it out with the help of a guide and move on to the next find.

After-hunt lunches are deceptively simple. Fresh pasta is tossed with truffles and served with wine directly from the cellar, paired with the day’s truffle hoard. Ageless dishes such as Piedemont’s Tajarin alla Tartufo are simply white truffles shaved over spaghetti-like egg pasta. But the simplicity of the dish allows us to consider the complexity of the truffle, an incredible ingredient with which to develop our sense of “taste”, not merely a phenomenon of the mouth but a combination of sensations perceived by our taste buds, and shaped by our sense of smell and the textures of the food in our mouth (white truffles tend to be smoother than black, stronger in smell than in taste, etc).

Alba Piedmonte

Where to find truffles in Italy

Truffles grow across much of Italy but favor a colder climate, therefore they’re almost always found close to the roots of old trees in Italy’s northern forests, with various farms and orchards offering truffle hunting experiences alongside cooking classes and countryside stays, ideal for slow vacations immersed in nature. The typical regions of Italy for truffle hunting are Tuscany in the forests of Florence and San Miniato, the Langhe province close to Alba in Piedmont, and Umbria, though in truth they grow across various regions as well as in France and Spain. 

The city of Alba makes a good starting point, as the surrounding countryside and forests have Italian black truffles and the much-storied white truffles — the ones that sell for eye-watering sums — and the season persists for much of the year. Another option is the forested mountains of Umbria, where long scenic hikes are rewarded by lunches of Spaghetti al Tartufo Nero, while Emilia Romagna is a good option for those based in Bologna during their trip to Italy. 

Homemade pasta with truffles

Specialty Restaurants to try Truffles

Florence is an ideal city to hunt out truffles in a restaurant with the easiest (as the truffle is always the center of attention) — Il Tartufo — in the lively Mercato Centrale. Simple pasta dishes and Tuscan beef carpaccio, are elevated by shaved white truffles and truffle oil, and owner Luciano Savini (whose family has been in the truffle business since the 1920s) always has bundles of white and black truffles for eager noses to explore. If you’re in Milan, seek out Tartufotto, opened by the same family of truffle connoisseurs, with a slightly more cosmopolitan appeal.

Rome’s Tartufi and Friends is another option, with a menu that begins with simple truffled-based dishes such as bread, butter, and fresh truffle and journeys through all the usual Italian gastronomic classics such as truffle risotto, juicy steaks, and eggs elevated with various freshly shaved truffles.

Alba white truffle

Truffle Markets

While you’ll need to book your trip to Italy within a limited time window — usually in the autumn, a truffle market can be an extraordinary experience and an exceptional learning experience for those interested in Italian gastronomy. 

Alba’s International White Truffle Fair is a highlight, lasting from early October to November, with a captivating World Truffle Market offering truffle tastings and chef demonstrations alongside various types of truffle for sale. But Acqualagna in Le Marche is the largest area for truffle trading in Italy, with three annual truffle festivals: a regional black truffle fair in late February, the black summer truffle fair in late July, and the National White Truffle Fair in October/November. The attractive historic center of Tuscany’s San Miniato hosts an annual truffle fair over the weekends of November, showcasing its superb locally cultivated white truffles, one of which, the largest ever found, was sent as a gift to President Eisenhower.

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