“Sole, dov’è il tartufo (Sun, where’s the truffle)?” called Matteo Bartolini after his dog.
Picking their way carefully over the uneven ground, two Umbra Institute food studies classes followed Bartolini – and the truffle-hunting Sole – as the farmer showed the students around the woods and meadows of his farm, nestled in the Tiber River Valley in northern Umbria.
As Sole sniffed out truffle after truffle, Bartolini demonstrated how to use a medieval-looking shovel to carefully dig the fungus from the ground.
“We think of truffles as elite food,” said Bartolini, scrubbing a truffle with a toothbrush after the tour. “But it was the hungry farmer who first tried the food on his pasta centuries ago.”
Thirty-six-year-old Bartolini is not only a truffle hunter and farmer but one of Italy’s representatives to the European Union agricultural committee in Brussels.
Umbra Institute Professor Zach Nowak and Marymount University Professor Peter Naccarato deemed Bartolini’s tour ideal for the courses they are teaching through the Umbra Institute’s Food Studies Program (FSP) this summer. Nowak teaches “The History and Politics of Food in Italy,” while Naccarato heads up “Mangiamo: Food in Italian and Italian-American Literature and Film.”
“I think today’s truffle hunt offered the opportunity to teach students about a food product that they were perhaps unfamiliar with – from the ground to the plate,” Naccarato said after the classes enjoyed a four-course meal made complete with pork cutlets and a rich pasta dish, both cooked with the same truffles students had dug from the ground earlier that day.
“We’ve been spending time talking about Italian food history, and it was just perfect to see Matteo (Bartolini), who has figured out a way to preserve this tradition and also maintain it for the future through agritourism,” Naccarato continued. “Agritourism allows him the opportunity to practice his family’s work … and educate people about where the food actually comes from.”
“The field trip was a great opportunity to reinforce themes we’ve talked about in the classroom: foraging for wild foods as an integral part of the Italian diet, as well as the rural economy,” agreed Nowak.
Nowak and Naccarato’s courses fulfill 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.
According to students, Saturday’s excursion provided some answers.
“I could not ask for a better field trip that shows a tradition in Italy and how it is integrated into the culture,” said Connecticut College student Caroline Knoblock, one of Nowak’s students. “Everything about the day was beautiful, including the food. I also have never seen a better, more passionate team than Sole and Matteo.”
“The chance to be on a real truffle farm was priceless,” added Marymount University student Emil Lendof. “This was an amazing memory and experience.”
Note from the Umbra Institute: To see more photos from Saturday’s truffle hunting field trip, click here.