Fall is my favorite time in Tuscany for many reasons. Some have to do with what happens in Tuscany this time of year, as the weather cools down and the colors start to change. Much of it has to do with memories of times spent in Tuscany in the fall. Many of my trips there have taken place this time of year, including a 3-month stay a couple of years ago. As the kids gear up for a new school year and I attend to the business of back-to-school, I wonder if I’ll ever go through this time of year without feeling a slight pang of longing for the back-to-school time that took place in Florence two years ago. Probably not, and that’s OK.
In Tuscany, with the changing weather come many treasures. The grapes have matured on their vines and are ready to be picked. The olives are ready to be harvested so they may undergo their first press for Tuscany’s famous olive oil. Some fabulous fungi are in season, including porcini (my favorite mushroom), and the fragrant truffle.
If you’ve never seen a truffle in its whole, natural form, be prepared— it’s not pretty. In fact, truffles remind me of a clump of dirt that may have mistakenly attached itself to my shoe while walking through the forest. But please don’t discard that clump of dirt, as it may be quite expensive.
Truffles definitely fall into the “love it or hate it” category. Their aroma is distinctively pungent, and you know right away, walking into a restaurant in Tuscany, when they are in season. Personally I love them. In addition to having a divine flavor, their story is pretty cool as well.
Because truffles are so decadent and difficult to find, the origin of the truffle is a subject of some mythology. Some once believed that truffles were generated by bolts of lightning hitting trees. Others speculated that they generated from thunder and heavy rains. In actual fact, they grow underground near the roots of only certain types of trees, and their spores are carried to the next tree by the unwitting animals that eat them.
A good truffle hunter ventures out at dusk (to avoid revealing the location of his search in the light of day), armed with a stick, small shovel and his trusty dog that is trained to track that unmistakeable scent.
There is some evidence that truffles were enjoyed during ancient times. The Romans did not actually eat truffles but a different fungus from northern Africa that was less flavorful. Truffles resurged during the Renaissance due to a new found popularity in French cuisine. Other cuisines (including Italian) followed suit. Eventually the French discovered ways to cultivate truffles by planting fields of certain types of oak trees. But truffle farming suffered from fits and starts during the modern era, and the Italians never showed much interest. As with most things, they preferred the old fashioned way. So they hunt for wild truffles.
In Tuscany there are 4 main types of truffles to be found-
1. White truffles (tartufo bianco pregiato) are largely found in and around Mugello and San Miniato from October through December. White truffles are said to be the most expensive food in the world, partly because they are delicate and dry out easily. Because they are so delicate, it’s best not to cook them or heat them at all, but to simply shave thin layers across your pasta, risotto or even your scrambled eggs. Delicious.
2. White-ish truffles (tartufo marzuolo) are in season from January to April and look very similar to white truffles. They are not as expensive or tasty.
3. Black truffles (tartufo nero pregiato) are also very expensive because they are rare and very popular. Apparently the best ones can be found in areas of Umbria. They are ripe from November to February, with their flavor and aroma peaking in January.
4. Black summer truffles (tortufo scorzone) are ugly, warty things that are similar in taste and aroma to black truffles. Because they are easier to find and more resilient than black truffles, they are less expensive. Their long season lasts from March to November.
When the season is right, truffle hunters are hard at work around various areas of Tuscany, and there’s plenty for the truffle-lover to do. In the hills around San Miniato, an annual white truffle festival takes place over three weekends in November. There are other truffle festivals around the region this time of year as well. There are even some truffle hunters that bring visitors along for the experience, and of course the delicious meal that follows. But if you don’t find yourself in Tuscany during the season, don’t despair. I recently learned that the town of San Giovanni d’Asso south of Siena has a Truffle Museum that appeals to all the senses. After hearing about the myths around the origin of truffles (remember the bolt of lightning?) and then some actual science, visitors are invited to experience the beauty of truffles through sight, touch, smell and of course taste. Sounds like a delicious experience.