I have long been a truffle lover. That sensual earthy sent makes me salivate. I’ve been known to drizzle a few drops of truffle oil to make truffled deviled eggs, or truffled Marcona almonds, and I once ate the real thing, shaved over pillowy ravioli at Del Posto restaurant in New York City. So, during our recent trip to Tuscany, when I heard we could go truffle hunting with a professional, I salivated. And signed up.
We met Mossimo of Truffle in Tuscany at his family home in the small Tuscan town of San Miniato. We pulled some wellies on, and got into his car, where Mela, one of his four truffle-sniffing dogs was already waiting in the back. Mossimo is an accountant by day, but is also third-generation truffle hunter and for years he’s been pulling out truffles from Tuscany’s loamy soil. He sells the coveted fungi to local restaurants or to truffle brokers, or lately, to customers like us who come from all over the world to see exactly how hard is it to find a truffle.
Turns out, it’s not difficult if you know where to dig (they grow underground) but you absolutely must have a trained dog. Mr. Em in Jerusalem asked about truffle hunting pigs and Mossimo scoffed, “A pig would eat the truffle, or at least break it. Pigs are no good. Dogs hunt truffles.”
We arrived to a lightly forested hill near surrounded by several homes and a soccer field and Mossimo let Mela off the leash. She bounded to find the truffles, but Mossimo warned us it’s an in-between season so we may not find much. The gold-standard winter white truffle season was just coming to a close, and it would be replaced by the lesser quality spring white truffle. Mossimo knew where to look. “If a truffle grows in a spot one year, there will probably be another truffle there one year later,” he explained.
He’d call Mela to a promising spot with an adorable command of “Mela, viene, qui, qui,” and suddenly, it worked. Mela’s tail went crazy and she started to dig. Mossimo stopped her before she got too deep. He took a scoop of soil, about inches down and invited me to smell it. Aaaaah, I’d know that dizzying smell anywhere, and it was all the more succulent sniffing it from a handful of rich, damp soil. Sure enough, I reached my hand into the hole and grabbed hold of a small rock-like truffle. It was a large black one, which are off season, but still could fetch 40 or 50 euros if sold to a restaurant.
A short time later, Mela’s tail went nuts again, and this time it was a small, but rare white truffle, which he could sell for 60 or 70 euros, if my memory serves me. (No, we didn’t get to keep the truffles. Mossimo is a state-licensed truffle hunter, so the bounty was all his).
On the hunt, Mossimo told us lots of interesting things about truffles, but the most devastating is that there is no “real” truffle oil. “It doesn’t exist,” he said. The truffle-scented oils of which I am so fond are just olive oil and an added chemical that mimics the heady truffle odor. The little pieces of mushrooms in the oil are either other types of mushrooms, or something synthetic. (This New York Times article from a decade ago asks whether a truffle by any other name smells as sweet, even if that name is 2,4-dithiapentane).
After the hunt, we met up with Mossimo’s sister Letizia, who poured us a glass of white wine (you should eat truffles with a light white wine, not a red wine) and prepared some surprisingly simple but delicious dishes. First, a soup that was just chick peas pureed with some of the water in which they were cooked, topped with a generous glug of extra virgin olive oil (Italian, of course) and covered in finely shredded white truffles. So simple, and so good.
For the pasta course (yes in Italy, there is a pasta course), she prepared ricotta ravioli, with a sauce of melted butter, chopped hazelnuts, and a little thyme. And of course, a generous shaving of white truffles.
And for the “meat course,” adapted for my vegetarianism, a baked egg, prepared in a way I’d never seen. Letizia baked the egg whites and a little olive oil in a ceramic dish until set, and then dropped the egg yolks onto the hot egg whites, just so the yolks would warm through. And topped them with some flaky salt and, you guessed it, shaved truffles.
And, finally, a little white chocolate truffle (the dessert kind) with some real white truffles inside. A little cheeky sweet (her family originally balked when she proposed serving a sweet truffle dish) along some Italian dessert wine. Mr. Em in Jerusalem did a little truffle deal with Mossimo and we returned home with a few little winter white truffles, and a spring white truffle, which we incorporated into a truffle-tastic dinner for 11 a week later in Jerusalem. (Not to make this sound super casual – in typical me fashion, the dinner party prep consumed my entire week, but it was worth it).
The truffle hunting and eating experience was so sensory and fun, although I’m not quite sure to do with the information that truffle oil is delicious chemicals. I’ll probably still use it sparingly because I crave that taste, and it would be the height of decadent foodism to fly to Tuscany (or France) every few months to stock up on something that is, almost literally, worth its weight in gold.
Em in Jerusalem
I have long suspected the chemicals in that oil were similar to MSG – they give me a headache. Love the real thing though. Delicious post!
Oh, that’s interesting! MSG has been known to give me a behind-the-eyeball headache, but truffle oil does not.
I have had truffles several times in Italy–they smell kind of like compost, but are soooo yummy! I have never thought that truffle oil was quite the same. Thanks for clearing that up.
Yes, it was a very earthy, fresh-out-of-the-ground smell. And the taste is not at all as strong as truffle oil. Quite delicate, actually.
I recently understood why chefs hate truffle oil. It is all synthetic and apparently the truffle flavor only diffuses in animal fat – like butter.