PISA, ITALY — Dogs and diamonds, what’s not to love?
Adorable dogs were half the reason I agreed to a truffle hunt on a farm in the province of Pisa. While visiting my daughter during her study abroad college program in Florence recently, I ventured to the Savini family farm about 45 minutes south into Tuscany. There, we looked for white truffles, often referred to as the culinary diamonds of Italy.
The face of the company, Christiano Savini, drove to Florence to pick up me and my husband, Joe, at our hotel near Piazza della Repubblica. We drove through the Tuscan countryside and into the small city of Forcoli while Savini explained the lure of the underground mushrooms and the history of his family’s four-generation business.
While black truffles are available from May to October, the more precious white truffles are found only from September to December. They like rain and sunshine — but not too much of either, according to Savini.
“That’s why Tuscany is a good area for them,” he said. “It’s not too far north or south — right in the middle of the country where we get a balance of sun and rain.”
White truffles are almost exclusive to Italy and more valuable because of their rarity. They also do not have a protective layer or shell, so they are susceptible to weather. That’s why they are more expensive, sometimes priced at twice as much per ounce as black truffles.
The Savinis own 33 acres in Forcoli where they farm truffles for products they sell to restaurants in Italy and other countries, including the United States. Their farm includes a storefront with jars of truffles, truffle oil, truffle risotto, truffle pesto sauce, truffle sea salt, truffle-flavored summer peaches, honey and truffle dressing and truffle potato chips, among other delicacies.
Savini’s grandfather, Zelindo Savini, started the business in 1920.
“He understood the important value of the truffle,” said Savini. The family also offers a variety of truffle experiences that include hunting, tours of their factory and a truffle tasting dinner.
Truffles are fungi under the soil that grow naturally from the mushroom spores and roots of certain oak trees and hazelnut trees. The Savinis and other truffle hunters have tried to cultivate white truffles, working with local university scientists to plant trees and try growing the fruit that way.
“But for the white truffles, we haven’t had the results,” said Savini. “Sometimes with the black truffles we do, but not the white ones.” They just grow wherever they grow.
When we arrived at Savini Tartufi, Savini quickly changed from street clothes to hunting gear and boots. After a couple of days of rain, the forest was damp and still pretty muddy. While we waited, we spoke to tour guide Andrea Cossentino about the dogs used for the hunt. Apparently, while some French farmers still use pigs to find truffles, the dogs work much better.
“The pigs loved the truffles too much and when they found them they wanted to eat them,” said Cossentino. And the pigs bite.
If the truffles are broken or damaged in the hunt, they aren’t as valuable.
“Truffles should be solid and very fragrant,” said Savini. “It’s all about the collaboration between the hunter and the dog.”
The hunters spend years training their dogs and building a bond between themselves and the truffle diggers. The preferred type of dog is an Italian sort of Labradoodle/water dog called a Lagotto Romognolo.
On our hunt, Savini brought two of his favorites, including a Lagotto named Giotto Jr., named after his longtime partner, the original Giotto, a truffle-hunting dog who died a few years ago at the age of 14. Jumping in the Jeep to join 4-year-old Giotto Jr. was a little black, mixed breed dog named Bibba. The 9-year-old looked like a black Labrador retriever with very short legs. Before leaving for the hunt, Savini filled his pockets with dog treats.
We drove to the edge of the forest and started walking. The dogs ran ahead as Savini directed them deeper into the woods. Ideally, the dogs are supposed to sniff out their territory and then report back to Savini whether or not they located a truffle.
Bibba, perhaps because of her age, knew the drill. Each time she came dutifully back to Savini she got a treat and a pat on the head. Giotto was more interested in roaming on the day we went hunting. Savini was constantly calling for him to get back to us, but Giotto had a mind of his own.
We climbed up and down ravines, under large, fallen tree branches and along yards of brush-covered trails following Bibba on the hunt. Our guide yelled “Dov’è?” (“Where is it?”) throughout the hunt.
After about an hour, Bibba found the diamond in the rough. She started ferociously digging like she had found a buried bone. Giotto finally joined the party, excited about the find. We had been directed before the hunt to stand back if the dogs found a truffle and let Savini retrieve the prize. As the dogs dug, he fed them treats like candies coming out of a Pez dispenser to prevent them from eating the truffle and to give him a chance to carefully excavate the “diamond.”
Our hunt was a success. We found an intact white truffle about the size of a large marble. I wrapped it in a tissue from my pocket and tucked it away for safe keeping. Savini later said the truffle was worth about $55.
Sometimes, Savini said, they don’t find truffles on the hunts. He compared the challenge to fishing when nothing bites. I was happy to call it a day after we hit pay dirt on our hunt. No need to be greedy.
We returned to the main trail and made our way back to the Jeep and back to the Savini storefront and farmhouse where, even though we had opted out of the truffle meal tasting, we were served wine and truffle-infused snacks before returning to Florence.
Most importantly, I kept the white truffle. It’s going to make its debut in one of our upcoming holiday dinners — one worthy enough of the flavor from the white diamond of Tuscany and the trouble it took to find it.
Our truffle hunt cost approximately $600, which included transportation to and from Florence. The family offers different experiences at various prices. For more information about the Truffle Experience by Savini Tartufi, email firstname.lastname@example.org.