Truffle Hunting in Italy: Searching Emilia Romagna for this Exquisite Food
We’ve taken a lot of food tours around the world but perhaps the most unique was going truffle hunting in Italy!
When it comes to truffles it seems there are two camps — those who don’t care for the taste or smell of them, and those caught up in an endless love affair. Count me firmly in the second camp!
The earthy flavor and unique woodsy aroma of truffles make my mouth water. But like any love affair, sometimes too much of a good thing can make things go awry. Add a bit too many truffle shavings and truffle will be all you taste no matter what it’s added to. It’s a delicate dance but one that’s well worth having.
If you can’t get enough, you may want to add truffle hunting to your Italy bucket list — there’s nothing like foraging for the food you’ll be savoring later on. It’s the ultimate soil-to-table experience.
Truffles are one of Italy's unique regional foods, and grow in parts of north and central Italy particularly in Piedmont, Emilia Romagna, Tuscany, Umbria and Marche, and also in Istria in northern Croatia just across the Adriatic Sea.
Truffle hunting in Italy is one of the most unique food experiences you can have.
Truffle Hunting in Italy
On our recent trip to Bologna, Italy we had the chance to go truffle hunting with a local truffle hunter regarded as one of the best in the area. Truffle hunting in Italy is something I’ve always wanted to do — talk about a unique farm-to-table experience, right? It’s slow travel at its best!
We were here with our friends from Italian Days, a company we toured with on our first trip to Bologna. They specialize in unique food and wine tours and run some of the best food tours in Bologna. Late one afternoon we rode into the Valsamoggia area and met up with the truffle hunter, Adriano, and his friendly truffle dog Macchia to search for one of the world's most exquisite foods.
This short excursion was a perfect day trip from Bologna to get out and see more of the countryside.
WHEN IS TRUFFLE HUNTING SEASON IN ITALY?
Depending on where you go, the truffle hunting season in Italy can nearly run year round. Our truffle hunting tour in Valsamoggia outside of Bologna was in late May, and a perfect time of year for finding black truffles in northern Italy.
But truffles can also be hunted in winter in places with more moderate winter temperatures. Provence in France, Tuscany in Italy, or the Istrian peninsula in Croatia are great places for hunting the distinct white truffle.
Where to Go Truffle Hunting in Italy?
Culinary tours are a great way to experience any destination but in Emilia Romagna, they’re a perfect excuse to eat! If you're not yet familiar with this part of Italy, you're not alone. The region is known as one of the world's premier culinary destinations, and the food in Bologna is considered by many to be the best in the country.
So if you're planning a trip to Italy and looking for unique things to do in Bologna, this experience is great fun for foodies!
Alba in northern Italy’s Piedmont region is home to the prized white truffle, and there are many food tours that will help you find them. This truffle hunting tour in Alba will take you with a local truffle hunter on a 3-hour hunt for both white and black truffles. Since Piedmont is also known for their Barolo wines, this combination truffle hunt and Barolo wine tasting is one of the best tours to take!
Truffle hunting in Umbria is an old age tradition. In fact, Umbria produces the highest number of black truffles in Italy, and their quality is famous throughout the world. Not far from Tuscany, we think Umbria is the perfect place to go truffle hunting in Italy. This half day truffle hunting tour in Orvieto is top-rated and includes a traditional Italian breakfast to start the day.
Tuscany is another region rich with so many famous local foods too numerous to count, and that includes truffles. We found this full-day, small group truffle hunting tour that includes a 2-hour lunch with wine and truffle pasta. If you’re going to go truffle hunting hunting in Italy, make sure the tour includes lunch or a food tasting so your nose and palate can experience the taste of truffles firsthand!
Hunters and Truffle Dogs
Like many people, we thought that truffle hunting pigs were still used to hunt for truffles, but in 1985 the Italian government outlawed their use, a direct effort to help protect the environment from the damage the pigs were doing.
When we went truffle hunting in Italy, Adriano and his truffle dog Macchia taught us a lot about finding these heady morsels. Macchia is an Italian Lagotto Dog (Lagotto Romagnolo), a medium sized old breed that was originally used as a water retriever. They’re intelligent and gentle dogs, with the energy to put in a full day.
Today however, it’s more common for them to be used as truffle dogs, and only female dogs are used. Apparently males are a bit more distracted and therefore more difficult to train!
Truffles require a delicate environmental balance, and the hunters using pigs had upset that balance by over harvesting the wild truffles. While the pigs are like bulldozers tearing up large areas, the dogs do no damage by digging precisely where they smell a truffle.
From the hunter’s perspective, pigs may have been better at finding truffles, but walking around in the woods with a pig on a leash was a dead giveaway of their secret hunting grounds!
The other downside for the hunter is they had to be quick, as pigs love to eat truffles.
There’s no such problem with the dogs. But there is still an issue of having to compete with wild animals who have a taste for truffles like wild boar which are the most destructive.
Adriano is a long time veteran who, like all hunters, keeps his best harvest area a very guarded secret. On our tour, we were in a not-so-secret area of Valsimoggia so this modern day truffle hunter and his dog could show us how to find truffles.
Macchia led the way through the woods and undergrowth at a fast pace, passing a lot of trees, back and forth and back again, and then she stopped... and started to dig.
Adriano with his digging tool finished the job and produced an irregularly shaped golf ball sized black truffle. Very cool!
Macchia found three or four truffles of various sizes all of which went into the large pocket on Adriano’s field vest. After an hour or so it was time to go so we didn’t overheat Macchia. It was a fascinating experience and so nice being out in the beautiful countryside.
Types of Truffles in Italy
There are two types of truffles found here: the most common are several varieties of the black truffle, generally harvested between March and November. Macchia found the most common type, the black summer truffle. They can also be cultivated in orchards of oak or hazelnut trees grown for the express purpose of producing truffles but this is a serious commitment.
It takes oak trees 10-12 years to mature before you can begin to harvest. Hazelnut trees mature in 5-7 years and will hopefully produce truffles sooner.
The sought after white truffles are harvested October through November, providing a higher return for the hunter and commanding a higher price at market. They’re generally larger than the black truffle with more flesh and are preferred by chefs for their intense flavor. Because they’re considered so precious, they are cleaned by hand, another reason behind their high cost.
If you find you’ve fallen for the flavor, there are several multi-day truffle festivals in nearby regions where you can indulge in everything truffle. The Tartufo Savigno hosts the International White Truffle Festival the first 3 weekends in November every year, in Savigno di Valsamoggia in Bologna.
A little further from Valsamoggia in the Piedmont region is the International Alba White Truffle Fair or Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba held in the capital of Alba. These festivals celebrate Italy’s claim to producing some of the most exquisite and delectable truffles in the world.
What Do Truffles Taste Like?
How do truffles taste? It’s very hard to describe. To my palate, truffles have the earthiness of a mushroom with a slight garlic aroma. In small amounts — barely indiscernable — it's heavenly. But, it’s easy to overdo it. It takes a skilled hand and some restraint to capture the wonderful essense truffles can bring to a dish without going overboard. Just a good shaving over warm pasta or drizzle of truffle oil will carry through any dish.
Throughout Italy, you'll find truffle oil, truffle salt, truffle sauce, truffle cream, truffle pasta… we even saw truffle infused honey. Obviously there are many ways to enjoy one of nature’s most exquisite creations.
After we went truffle hunting we stopped at Appennino Food, a truffle processing plant in business for 30 years, and the only facility allowed to ship and sell truffles to the United States. Two of their biggest clients are Dean & DeLuca and Eataly, which are some of our favorite places to shop when we’re in New York City.
The factory holds the record for the largest Truffle (tuber magnatum pico) ever harvested weighing 52.3323 oz (1,483.596 grams). The aroma of truffles was everywhere from the processing room to labeling and packaging. Fresh, frozen, and preserved truffles are all produced here.
IF YOU GO
If you want to have this farm-to-table experience and see an authentic side to Bologna and Emilia Romagna, we recommend going out with Italian Days. They offer an all-day Truffle Hunting Experience which includes an hour long truffle hunt, a wine tasting, and lunch at a family winery-farm with a 5 course Truffle Lunch and wine pairing.
Cost: This complete tour begins at 185-230 euro per person (depending on the number of guests). If you're looking for a unique foodie experience, we believe it's an excellent value. This experience was unparalleled!
We we were guests of Italian Days on the truffle hunting part of the tour. The opinions and recommendations here are ours alone from this first hand experience.