Sauro runs after Chicco, the two of them leaping over serpentine roots and dodging low-hanging branches. They become a blur of brown-and-white-and-khaki, and I feel the forest's tendrils grabbing at my limbs, snagging my sweater, trying to trip me up.
Chicco stops: this is the place. He starts scrabbling away at the earth, sending the soil flying as he searches for the treasure buried beneath the surface. After a few minutes, Sauro pulls him away and takes over with his vangela, a special spade-like tool designed for just this task. And then he stops, triumphantly holding up what he's found. It's small, about the size of a twopence piece, and dark and nobbly — pretty ugly, over all. But on a good day it could fetch between €600 (£535) and €1,400 (£1,250) per kilogram.
Sauro Podestà is a pizza maker by profession, but he's been hunting truffles here in the hills of Emilia Romagna, northern Italy, since he was a child; his mother, he says, was the first female truffle hunter in the area. And today Chicco, his eight-and-a-half-year-old springer spaniel, is his strongest asset in tracking down the prized fungi.
"A good dog can smell a truffle from a kilometre away," Sauro says. And, while the black ones, for which we're searching today, can be found up to 10cm underground, the more valued white variety (which sell for €1,500-€2,500 per kilogram) can be as deep as a metre below the surface. Using pigs for this purpose has been banned in Italy for decades as they damage the terrain, whereas dogs are more fleet of foot.
While the adrenalin and man-and-dog camaraderie of the hunt are big parts of the experience, truffles themselves are the driving factor. Sauro's passionate about them, peppering our conversation with tips on storage (in the fridge, wrapped in paper that must be changed daily) and preparation (the black ones should be cooked — on pasta, bruschetta, pizza — while white are always raw, shaved over eggs or pasta, for example).
We head back to the nearby town of Sant'Agata Feltria, where Sauro goes from Superman to Clark Kent, returning to his day job at Pizzeria Graziano e Sauro, which he runs with his brother. He swiftly throws together a pizza and, after putting it in the wood-fired oven for a couple of minutes, slides it out and shaves fine slivers of black truffle over the hot, bubbling cheese. I ask how this tallies with his 'always cook black truffles' rule, and he replies that the residual heat does just that. The pizza is thin and crisp, the truffle almost snowflake-light, with a flavour so subtle it practically forces mindful eating. It's delicious.
My visit to Sant'Agata coincides with the annual National White Truffle Fair, which takes over the town every Sunday in October. Stalls fill the cobbled streets and squares, selling sauces, oils and the fungi themselves (both white and black) and serving regional specialities such as piadina flatbread and what looks like the world's largest mortadella sausage. The festivities are intermittently interrupted by a marching band that pops up in the crowd with comedic regularity.
In the Sant'Agata Feltria Tartufi shop, owner Loretta shows me a fist-sized black truffle. It's perched on a nest of paper in a plastic tub and she tells me it's just been sold — though she won't say for what price. Certain subjects are touchy among those in the trade; as well as not discussing money, Loretta never discloses who found her truffles, or where — for fear others will go out searching in the same spot. Her father is a forager of some renown, but she refuses to be drawn on whether he was the one who unearthed this beauty.
I leave with a box of truffle sauces and oils, and a handful of fresh black truffles which, back at home, I shave over camembert and bake. The flavour they impart is so slight I'm almost tempted to augment it with some oil. But then I stop and remember: it's all about subtlety. The truffle may be found in a flurry of excitement, but this is an ingredient you need to slow down to appreciate.
When in Emilia Romagna
Fico Eataly World
Opened late last year, just outside Bologna, FICO Eataly World was touted as a gastronomic theme park in the run-up to its launch, but you won't find any rides here. Instead, it's a temple to field-to-fork dining and regional cuisine — a cross between a farm, museum and food court. You can learn more about local produce from the exhibits and on-site producers, hop between the trattorias, restaurants and street food stalls, and pick up gourmet souvenirs to take home.
Wash it all down with: Local wines
As the home of lambrusco and sangiovese wines, Emilia Romagna has — beyond its pretty hill towns — a landscape draped with vineyards. Many wineries open their doors to day trippers and overnight guests, so you can taste the region's finest before picking up a bottle of something local to take home. Just outside the village of Santarcangelo di Romagna is Collina dei Poeti, an agriturismo (farmstay) surrounded by olive groves, orchards and vineyards, with charming bedrooms upstairs. Take a tour of the grounds before a tasting of some of the delicious sangiovese they produce.
Don't miss: Bologna
It's home to 21 medieval towers and a beautiful historic centre, but it's Bologna's foodie scene that keeps visitors coming back for more. You'll find the best of the region's produce here, from mortadella and prosciutto to tortellini and tagliatelle. Start at Mercato di Mezzo, a three-storey indoor market where you can
pick up ingredients and try out some regional delicacies.
Big on: Ragu
As anyone who's been to this part of Italy will know, it's not spag bol — it's tagliatelle al ragu. Locals would never dream of putting the meat and tomato sauce we know as Bolognese on spaghetti — the flat ribbons of tagliatelle provide the ragu with a better surface area to cling to. There are countless restaurants in which to try this Emilia Romagna favourite, and you can learn to make it yourself. Local company Food in Tour can arrange lessons with nonnas, in which you'll cook up a feast including your own fresh tagliatelle, topped with ragu.
Found all across the region, this flatbread is usually eaten hot. It's sometimes filled like a sandwich, particularly around the towns of Forlì and Ravenna, where they make their piadini slightly bigger, cut a hole in the middle and stuff them with cheese.
This isn't just any dry-cured ham — this is the good stuff. A Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product, prosciutto di Parma tastes both sweet and savoury, and is relatively low in fat. It's served thinly sliced.
Another product with a PDO, parmigiano reggiano is made using raw milk. Matured for between one and two years, it's salty and crumbly, and used in cooking as well as eaten raw. Try it with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.
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