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18

VELOCITY

VOYAGE

A Tuscan

Treasure Hunt

S

uddenly, Gina’s off, scarpering to a patch of grass

at the edge of the field, nose pressed to the ground,

tracing a scent. She starts digging, sending mud

flying backwards, and gradually unearths the treasure that

we’re hunting for.

To give some context, Gina is a dog – not just any dog,

but a prized, specially-trained crossbreed (exactly which

breeds is top-secret, it seems). The treasure she seeks is the

underground fungus that’s used in haute cuisine around

the world and changes hands for thousands of pounds

a kilo: the truffle. In Tuscany’s undulating countryside,

it grows in harmony amongst the roots of a host tree,

trading phosphorous for sugars in a symbiotic existence.

Truffles have been described as “the diamond of the

kitchen”, and, although more and more of them are being

farmed in the UK, France and Italy corner the market

when it comes to the rarer and more valuable varieties.

It’s November, towards the start of the truffle-hunting

season, and we’ve joined Cesare Profeti from Savitar

Tartufi

( www.savitar.it )

on the vast Camugliano estate to

hunt for the delicacy. It’s much less involved than I had

expected; a pleasant countryside stroll punctuated with

bursts of activity from Gina instead of the swashbuckling

adventure through dense foliage that the word ‘hunt’

might conjure. While pigs are more traditionally used to

sniff out the little black mushrooms, the use of them has

been banned in Italy since 1985. In any case, the ease with

which dogs can be trained makes them good contenders

for the mission. During our short loop around the estate –

down autumnal tree-lined avenues and across slightly-

boggy fields – Gina’s clever nose tracks down a small

handful of truffles, which Cesare skilfully collects before

they’re devoured by the canine.

As each truffle is unearthed, it’s passed around the

group, inspected by wondrous eyes and, of course,

gently sniffed at. The smell is pungent, even through

the soil, and I’m somewhat taken aback by it, having

had very little experience of eating truffles of the non-

chocolate variety. Our reward for helping to find the

truffles is a special truffle-based lunch at the estate’s

traditional restaurant, La Locanda di Camugliano (

www.

camugliano.com )

. As we knock back glasses of Tuscan

red at a table in the cosy converted stable, we’re plied

with dishes including truffle fondue, truffle spaghetti,

fried egg with truffle and squid ink and, to finish, truffle

and honey ice cream.

HAVING A BUTCHER’S

Appetites satisfied, the group clambers aboard the

minibus and we head to our next calling point in Chianti.

After a long drive, during which most of us fall into

a food-related stupor, we arrive in Panzano, with the

promise of seeing master butcher Dario Cecchini at work

( www.dariocecchini.com )

. He’s something of a celebrity

in the area and beyond, with a reputation for cleaving

meat that precedes him – Elton John, Jamie Oliver, Jack

Nicholson and Prince Charles are fans. He also has a flair

for drama, it seems: we arrive at his butchery to the sound

of blaring rock music, and he stands behind the counter

ruddy-cheeked and beaming. While his employees serve

canapés of bread, salamis and olive oil, and keep small

tumblers topped up with more red wine, Dario’s wife –

the better English speaker of the two – tells us about his

ethical approach to butchery. At the end, he pipes up in

true showman fashion to share his work mantra: “To beef

or not to beef!”

Wanderlust

Florence is famed for its cultural clout, but head out into the

Tuscan countryside to find all the ingredients you’ll need for a

veritable foodie feast – whatever the season

Words: Tim Heap Images: Kirstie Young