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In Search of an Italian Delicacy, Il Tartufo

Il Tartuffo

Earlier this month, students from Umbra’s HSIT350: History and Culture of Food in Italy found themselves picking their way carefully over uneven, muddy ground in the search of an Italian delicacy, il tartufo, the truffle!

This truffle hunting experience was led by Matteo Bartolini and his dog, Sole, at Agriturismo Ca’ Solare in nearby Cittὰ di Castello. Bartolini, a truffle hunter, farmer and president of the European Council of Young Farmers, provides students at his award winning truffle school, with a basic understanding of how, when and why truffles grow.

“We think of truffles as an elite food item,” said Bartolini, “but it was the hungry farmer who first tried the food on his pasta centuries ago.” 

Bartolini explained that truffles are actually an underground mushroom composed of two parts: the fruiting body and the invisible root system. There are multiple varieties, each emitting its own unique odor upon maturation. This odor attracts animals to the food source, ensuring release of their spores upon consumption. While traditionally small pigs were used for hunting truffles, dogs are now used as they are less destructive to the ground and are less likely to eat the mushroom. On his twelve acres of land, truffle hunters can find five varieties, Trifula (white), Nero Dolce (the prized black truffle), black summer, March white and black winter truffles, allowing for hunting almost every month of the year. 


Following this lesson, students went truffle hunting alongside Bartolini and his dog, Sole. With man and dog leading the way, students were treated to more insights of the truffle business as they waited patiently for Sole to catch the scent of ripe truffles buried underground. Their patience was rewarded multiple times, as he dashed ahead of the group, sniffing fanatically to identify its exact location. Matteo used a medieval looking instrument then to complete Sole’s digging, unearthing the textured, distinct smelling mushrooms.

Umbra students and Prof. Ascione pose with Matteo Bartolini and Sole.
Umbra students and Prof. Ascione pose with Matteo Bartolini and Sole.

This field trip reinforces themes from class and encourages students to consider foods’ origin, in conjunction with sustainable and traditional food practices.

“In class we have learned a lot about the pride Italians have in their food,” commented University of Wisconsin-Madison student Joe Orner. “Since Italy is a large producer of truffles, due to climate and environment, it is not hard to see why, especially after truffle hunting and getting to experience it first-hand.”

At the end of this long day of learning and hunting, students sat down to enjoy the fruits of their labor with a delicious multi-course meal, starring none other than the truffle.

This course fulfills the Umbra Food Studies Program’s goal of encouraging students to think about food and ask basic questions about what we eat; where it comes from; is it important if it is local or organic; and the significance of labels, fundamental questions to life in a globalized world.

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