At COMO Castello Del Nero, we go in search of buried treasure, hidden deep in the woods that surround this 12th century Tuscan castle.
With the help of our professional guide, Mattia, and his two loyal Lagotto Romagnolo dogs, my family and I will be spending the morning taking part in a tradition that stretches back centuries: seeking out Tuscany’s elusive truffles.
This distant cousin of the mushroom is prized by chefs the world over for its powerful, rich aroma. Over the next hour, we’re hoping we’ll be lucky enough to root out enough of these earthy treasures to provide for our lunch.
Before we set off in earnest, Mattia – an experienced tartufaio, or truffle-hunter, who learnt the skill from his grandfather – introduces us to his faithful hounds. This breed, Mattia explains, has been chosen for centuries by tartufaio here in Tuscany for their keen noses. While the woolly curls that cover their bodies can give an adorable teddy-bear impression, don’t be mistaken - like Mattia these dogs are hardy, trained professionals skilled at their art.
The dogs’ noses are already firmly to the ground, ready to sniff out their quarry. As we approach the edge of the forest it’s difficult to say whether we’re leading them or if they are leading us. The children are particularly keen to get acquainted, and it’s hard to tell who is more excited as they chase towards the forest where we’ll begin our hunt.
The shade of the wood is cool and refreshing which, with the Italian sun beginning to hit its stride, is welcome. Mattia – like his dogs – is straight to business, directing us between cypresses, ashes and elms, and pointing out the likely spots the dogs might stop to rummage in the earth.
As we search, Mattia delivers a crash course in the art of the truffle hunt. While the popularity of truffles has boomed in recent years, they are notoriously difficult to farm. So for the finest examples, we’re still dependent on these dedicated experts who – in partnership with their four-legged companions – hone their skills over a lifetime.
Truffle hunting has been a way of life for generations of Mattia’s family, and he has the stories to prove it. From tales of bygone days when pigs not hounds were used to root out the truffles (until the hunters grew tired of the pigs too often eating their prize!), to the skulduggery and espionage between truffle-hunting rivals who would stoop to devious methods to beat the competition, it’s clear we’re taking part in a piece of living history.
After about ten minutes of searching, excitement strikes. The dogs have started digging beneath a nearby tree. Mattia moves to kneel beside them, pulling a small hand shovel from his belt. After rewarding the dogs with a treat, with great care he uncovers the treasure we have come searching for.
After gently dusting off the damp soil, Mattia passes it around and we all roll it over in our fingers excitedly, examining what the locals here call a ‘diamond of nature’. Mattia explains how the forest environment changes with the seasons, producing different types of truffles: white in winter, and black in summer. Our find is the more common black truffle, which when cooked will give flavours reminiscent of porcini and parmesan. Luckily for us, this seasoned trio would unearth three more prize specimens in quick succession.
All too soon, our hour of hunting is over and – newly-acquired truffle in hand – we say goodbye to Mattia and his faithful friends. We make our way back towards the hotel where a delicious, four course al fresco lunch beckons.
The culinary ethos at COMO Castello Del Nero prizes fine Italian cuisine drawing on the freshest, locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients. And as guests, there are few things more satisfying than helping gather ingredients from the forest and enjoying them barely an hour later on our plates.
We surrender our prizes to Executive Chef Giovanni Luca Di Pirro, and settle into the Pavillion restaurant to wait. As we look out over rolling hills, olive groves and woods, the food begins to arrive.
Each one of the courses – bar the mouthwatering tiramisu – are topped with truffle, from the home-made taglioni with a simple butter sauce, to the rich beef tagliata with spinach and mashed potatoes. Knowing that we played a small part in their creation makes them all the more satisfying. Accompanied by Tuscan wines paired by the Castello’s resident sommelier, few meals have felt more rewarding than this.
Duration: One hour of guided truffle hunting, followed by one-and-a-half hours for lunch
Inclusions: Guide, four-course lunch or dinner at Pavilion, prepared by Executive Chef Giovanni Luca Di Pirro
Level of Difficulty: Easy
What to wear/bring: Comfortable shoes, sunglasses, hat, camera
Book your Truffle hunting experience here.