Last weekend, the students in Professor Simon Young’s HSIT350: The History and Culture of Food course went on an exciting truffle-hunting field trip to Matteo Bartolini’s agriturismo and truffle school, Ca’ Solare, near Citta di Castello.
Matteo gave an informative presentation on truffles, or tartufi, tubers which grow underground in a symbiotic relationship with oak, poplar, and willow trees. He explained that truffle-hunting is a tradition in Italy; couples and families will often go truffle-hunting with a dog on Sundays. Although there are about one hundred variations of truffles, Matteo cultivates the five most famous ones, of both white and black variations. Each has a different season and price, fetching from $100 to over $1000 euros per kilo. Matteo has worked with the University of Perugia’s agronomy school to develop the ultimate conditions for cultivating truffles in his newly planted oak grove, and he encourages wild propagation by gathering them sustainably in his land’s forest.
After the lecture, the class was introduced to his truffle-trained, well-behaved, and almost-blind dog Sole (nicknamed The Professor). Together, they ventured into the forest to hunt for truffles. Unfortunately, in Italy, hunting does not recognize private property – and that includes truffle-hunting. Early that same morning, Matteo’s land had been poached by two truffle-hunters and their dogs who had refused to leave when asked nicely. In this competitive life-style, hunters often destroy the possibility for future truffles to generate by leaving uncovered holes, and they sometimes even attempt to poison other truffle dogs. The class took this opportunity to learn the realities of the truffle-hunting lifestyle.
A truffle grows underground for months, and when the mysterious conditions are exactly right, it can ripen instantly. Sole, with his supernatural powers of smell, managed to find the only remaining, pea-sized ripe truffles underground.
Student Michael Madigan commented that “watching the chemistry between Sole and Matteo was an experience in of itself,” and that “it was amazing how small some of these truffles were that Sole was able to find.” He now understands “why, aside from the taste, the prices are so astronomical for many truffles: lots of work goes into finding small amounts of truffles.”
After the hunt, students were instructed on how to store and prepare truffles, and then they got to taste them. For lunch at Ca’ Solare, the group was served a delicious, homemade meal, which of course included Matteo and Sole’s hand-collected truffles.