“Bravo, Sole! Hai trovato il tartufo (Well done, Sun! You found the truffle)!” Matteo Bartolini called to his dog, feeding him cubes of parmesan, his reward.
Picking their way carefully over the muddy, uneven ground, a group of Umbra Institute students followed Bartolini – and the bounding Sole – as the farmer showed the class around the woods and meadows of his farm, nestled in the Tiber River Valley in northern Umbria, on Friday.
As Sole sniffed out truffle after truffle, Bartolini carefully dug the fungus from the ground with a medieval-looking shovel.
“We think of truffles as elite food,” said Bartolini, scrubbing a truffle with a toothbrush after the hunt. “But it was the hungry farmer who first tried the food on his pasta centuries ago.”
Food Studies Program Director Zach Nowak deemed Bartolini’s tour ideal for History and Culture of Food, the course Simon Young is teaching this fall.
“The field trip was a great opportunity to reinforce themes we’ve talked about in the classroom, such as foraging for wild foods as an integral part of the Italian diet, as well as the rural economy,” Nowak said after the class enjoyed a four-course meal made complete with pork cutlets and a rich pasta dish, both cooked with the same truffles they had dug from the ground earlier that day. “It was also simply fun for students to learn about the truffle, which composer Rossellini called ‘the Mozart of mushrooms.’”
His students agreed.
“It was interesting to learn so much about a food product that is known worldwide and is so valuable,” said Sarah Kramer. “I loved getting a personal experience with someone who knows so much about truffles and hunts them himself.”
Her classmate Alyssa Evans added, “Today showed a quality of Italian life that many don’t get to experience.”
Nowak’s course, “The History and Politics of Food in Italy,” fulfills the Umbra FSP’s goal to encourage students to think about how, while we eat three times a day, we rarely consider the basic questions of how or what we put in our mouths. Where does the food come from? Is it important that it be “local” or “organic?” What do the labels really mean?
These questions are fundamental to life in our globalized world, Nowak explained.
Students stated that Friday’s excursion offered some answers.
“(Today) made me appreciate the time that goes into finding these precious items, and it made me think about why food has such value,” said Kate Davis. “I love this form of food production: It feels very rewarding and nostalgic.”
One bus ride later, the students were back in Perugia.