Pick your own
Head out of town in mid to late summer and the road signs start popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm: strawberries, blueberries, apples, U-pick, self-harvest, pick-your-own. People everywhere love the harvest. There’s something compelling, almost primal about gathering your own food. How much better is it to slip a juicy raspberry off the cane than out of a plastic clamshell?
But some foods require more than just a hand drawn sign to track down. As research for my novel, Paraglide, I sought out one of the most difficult foods to find: the truffle. We’re talking the mushroom here; the outrageously expensive produce sold in tiny glass jars or laced into expensive olive oils, the aromatic finish for risottos and pastas at upscale restaurants. The ugly little root looks like a deformed potato, but is prized by chefs and foodies around the world.
Harvesting truffles requires expert help. There are no do-it-yourself destinations, no truffle farms with the tuber growing in straight rows waiting to be plucked by eager gourmands. Most attempts to cultivate truffles have failed. They grow where they will, mostly in rural France and Italy in locations jealously guarded by a small coterie of truffle hunters, many of whom work at night to keep their competitors at bay.
Our guide, Rino Ambrosio picked us up at 7:30 in the morning in his little Fiat Uno. We were a few miles South of Florence in the heart of Tuscany. I can’t tell you exactly where or, I’d have to, you know, kill you. Rino’s dogs panted heavily in a wire cage in the hatchback. These dogs are the key to finding truffles. They are trained to smell them out, digging frantically whenever they catch a whiff. Traditionally, the job was done with trained pigs, but they don’t fit very well into the back of Fiat Unos and aren’t nearly half as cute as the dogs.
After a 30 minute drive through twisting dirt roads I suspect are not on any GPS system, we arrived at the top of a long sloping hillside. The faint outline of an old road stretched toward a ruined house, craggy olive trees dotted the countryside. Rino released the dogs with a sharp whistle. Noses to the ground, they instantly began sweeping broad arcs on the edges of the roadbed. He directed them toward the base of certain trees where he’d had past success, keeping a sharp eye out for rabbits that would compete for the dog’s attention. Within minutes one of the dogs began frantically scuffing at the dusty soil. Rino rushed forward, grabbed the dog’s collar and jerked her back (explaining that the dogs would eat the truffles if you let them). He gently scraped the ground with a foot-long metal tool, a combination knife and shovel. He lifted three fingers of dirt to his nose and inhaled deeply. Nodding once, he continued to dig, then smiled and rose to his feet, placing a walnut-sized treasure in my hand. We’d found our first truffle.
It’s said that scent is one of the most powerful memory triggers. If that’s true, the next time I smell a fresh truffle, I’ll be transported right back to that Tuscan hillside. Nothing can compare to the musky, earthy, mushroomy aroma that came from my hand. I almost staggered at the intensity and marveled that I hadn’t been able to smell it even through the inches of soil. Rino nodded at my reaction, then rushed away toward the dogs. They were digging again. Time to pick another truffle.
Thanks for stopping by to share your food for thought, Peter!
Peter Anthony Kelley is the author of the young-adult novel, Paraglide. As a kid he loved climbing trees, staring off into the distance and dreaming of distant lands. Nothing much has changed, he still stares off into the distance. Only now, instead of perching on tree limbs, he sits at a table and captures those dreams on his computer.
He currently lives in Minneapolis with his wife, two daughters and a cranky nineteen-year old cat named Brownie. He graduated from American University with a Master's degree in International Relations. When he's not writing he loves travel, biking and watching soccer. He also makes a mean spaghetti bolognese.