Food writer M.F.K. Fisher once wrote that truffles “may or may not be as good as they are rare and dear.”
I take issue with that statement. When I used to cover the fashion shows in Milan as part of my job, it was amazing to see the high style on the runways. But I admit it: What I found most exciting about being in Italy during the fall was being there for white truffle season. The pleasure of eating this rare delicacy so close to the source went far beyond my enjoyment of any truffle I’d ever tasted in the United States.
About an hour’s drive outside of Florence, Savini Tartufi is hidden away in the tiny village of Forcoli. Driving up to the headquarters, set in a nondescript building in an equally nondescript industrial area, my heart sank. This was not what I had envisioned. But inside, it was another story. The walls of this fourth-generation family company were lined with all kinds of divine truffle products, and a vintage scooter was propped in one corner. Luca Savini was weighing and packaging beautiful specimens, still covered with fresh earth, to deliver to some of Italy’s top restaurants and beyond.
There are dozens of varieties of truffles in the world, but Italy’s white truffle is one of the most elusive, most delicious and most expensive. It’s found only from September to December and in just the right conditions, growing on the roots of trees under layers of damp leaves and dirt. I was surprised that the Savini team didn’t blindfold us as they led us to a secret forest that must be worth millions, thanks to the treasures it conceals.
In 2007, two of the family’s hunters – Luciano and Cristiano Savini – unearthed a 1.28-kilogram (2-pound, 13-ounce) truffle that sold at auction for a whopping USD 330,000. That price is recognized by Guinness World Records as the most money ever paid at auction for a white truffle. You can check out a replica of the truffle at the headquarters. Fun fact: The dog that found the original was 14 years old.
In the past, hunters used to rely on pigs to sniff out these prized discoveries. Problem was, the pigs loved to eat them. These days, well-trained dogs who don’t care for the taste are used for foraging. We got to meet Giotto, a Lagotto Romagnolo who has become mildly famous thanks to his myriad media appearances. On this excursion, though, Luca had invited Giotto’s buddy Birba, a little beagle mix, to lead our small group. Birba was charming and friendly until we hit the woods; then her hunting instincts kicked in as she scratched at the undergrowth. Her reward for finding a truffle? A measly biscuit.
Kerry Sear, the private chef on the Four Seasons jet, took a picture of a truffle at headquarters in case we didn’t find any to share on social media, but fortunately we didn’t need it. Our dream team — Birba and Luca — delivered. Within an hour, they had discovered three perfect, delicious white truffles. We even got to sample a sliver of one, seconds after it came out of the ground. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone smile as broadly as Sear did as he cradled that truffle in his hands for a photo to share on Instagram. The experience was foodie nirvana.
Besides the hunt, there was something magical about wandering through the quiet forest, with Birba prancing through the brush and Luca softly offering her praise and encouragement in Italian. Light streamed through the leaves of the trees. Birds chirped overhead. It was like something out of Alice in Wonderland, except we had a treat coming at the end of the tunnel that would be much better than any tea party.
After our journey through the forest, we went back to the Savini headquarters, where Luca and his team whipped up a multi-course meal, with truffles generously heaped over everything from tagliolini pasta to fried eggs, served with local Tuscan wines. I’ve never tasted anything as heavenly as the truffles that we had helped collect just moments before the meal. It was definitely worth the journey.
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