How did you get into truffles, Giulio?
I used to be the manager of a famous restaurant in Milan and when I left I set up a B&B in Florence which had a focus on food. It was a great success and thanks to the internet I was attracting international food lovers who often seemed really interested in truffles. It set me thinking and I eventually decided to close the B&B and to turn my home into a place where I could welcome people interested in learning about them. But first I needed to learn how to become a truffle hunter.
How did you go about that?
It was very difficult. In Italy and France truffle hunting exists in families and is a very closed-off thing; everything is passed from father to son. But my father was an engineer, so it was hard to find a family that would teach me.
Where did you find one?
It was a long search. Then one day I met a ranger captain and asked if he knew any truffle hunters; he asked me why and when I told him that I had a tourist project in mind and that I wanted to become a truffle hunter and look after international clients he told me that it sounded like one of the most exciting projects he’d ever heard of. He gave me his business card and it turned out that he was the President of the Tuscany Truffle Association and also an important truffle hunter.
Did he take you on?
Yes. We became great friends. He said he would show me how to find truffles during a year of training on land about 50km south of Florence. It was great fun. Every morning they would take me into the forest, blindfolded, and then take it off when we were there.
They blindfolded you?
Oh yes. They didn’t want to show me the secret area where we would be hunting; these things are really well protected. The next step was to go and try and get a license, because in Italy you need the right paperwork to be an official truffle hunter. There’s a school and quite a difficult exam you need to pass.
What happened next?
After passing the exam, the next step was to try to find a dog because without a dog, especially when you are relatively new to truffle hunting, your chances of finding something are practically nothing. But finding a dog is not easy. It takes a long time to train one to become an expert hunter - at least a couple of years. When people have trained them they usually want to keep the dog, and if they are prepared to sell them then they want a huge amount.
Oh, in the range of Dh85,000 to Dh 200,000 for a well-trained one – but a really good one could find 120 kilos of truffles a year, so it can pay for itself very quickly. The kind of dogs we use here are known as Lagotto Romagnolo, and that basically means “little lakes of northern Italy” because originally that dog was used there to retrieve hunters’ kills from the water.
How did you find your dog?
The man who taught me how to find truffles had a friend in Siena, an old truffle hunter who had problems with his heart and was told by his doctor that he needed to get rid of a couple of his dogs. He sold me one of his best dogs, named Edda, and with her I started to become a real truffle hunter.
Can you hunt year-round?
Yes. There are different truffles for each season. There are literally a couple of weeks in May that we don’t hunt.
What is a typical day’s hunting like?
Our responsibly is to be able to understand, each day, what’s best to look for. Truffles are a fungus that have a symbiotic life with specific trees: here in Italy the principal varieties are oak and pine trees and we have five different truffles. And any of those five truffles prefer to grow under different types of tree. So you need to spend a couple of years of making mistakes to be able to understand in any season which trees to look for.
Do you mark them?
No, but truffles do generally regrow under the same trees: in an area of three or four hectares you might have 1,000 trees, but if you spend long enough there you’ll notice that the truffles are always under the same 10 or 20 trees. You must continue to come back until the dog steadily memorises the right trees.
Which truffle is the most valuable?
The white truffles that grow principally only in Italy and Croatia in late September to early December. Every day the prices change, and can be between 1,500 euros per kilo to 4,000 euros per kilo. One thing that makes the price rise is Thanksgiving in America, because a lot of people like to serve white truffles with their meal and it can double the price. Black truffles are much less valuable.
What was the most valuable truffle you ever found?
Three years ago I found a white truffle weighing 500g which I sold by phone in 10 seconds for 1,300 euros to a restaurant client. We often sell black truffles to other countries but white truffles we like to sell in Italy.
Are hunters competitive?
In the search for black truffles there’s no trouble as there’s plenty to go round, but everything changes when we’re talking about white truffles because they grow in very limited areas and most of the time it is in private lands owned by families. They fence these areas off, like a reserve, and have private police when it’s white truffle season. There are often problems if they allow multiple hunters into the area because the dogs’ sense of smell is so strong that everyone converges on the same tree!
Finally, how do like to eat your truffles, Giulio?
Hunters start early in the morning and so when we wake up we need energy, just like Popeye and his spinach. In summer we have eggs with truffles and bread, and after the hunt we have pasta with truffles. In winter we have a bean soup that is full of energy – and of course we slice truffles onto it.