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Italy is renowned for its beautiful cities, delicious cuisine, and fine delicacies. One of these delicacies is the elusive truffle. This culinary delight is highly sought after for its unique flavor and is loved by foodies and chefs worldwide. This guide will tell you everything you need to know about truffle hunting in Italy, including which tour to book, how to get there, and what to expect.
What are truffles?
Truffles are a type of fungi known for their distinct smell and flavor. They are a gourmet ingredient, usually used in Italian and Meditteranean cuisine and can vary from the size of a walnut to the size of a tennis ball. Truffles have a bumpy texture; their aroma is released when sliced or grated. If you have ever eaten a truffle dish, you know the smell and flavor are unlike any other ingredient.
Often mistaken as a type of mushroom, truffles always grow underground (unlike mushrooms, which grow above ground). They usually grow next to the roots of certain species of trees and bushes. Truffle farms plant these trees in rows to harvest the truffles that form near them, using dogs to sniff them out.
Black truffle vs white truffle
There are over 140 species of truffles worldwide, though only a few have actual value. There are two main categories: The black truffle and the white truffle.
The black truffle
The black truffle is the more common of the two types. It is generally bumpier and smaller in size than the white truffle. Farmers can harvest them for a more extended period, too. Black truffles can grow as little as two inches underground, making them easier for dogs to sniff out and harvest. In terms of aroma, black truffles have an earthy and nutty smell. The smell is less distinct than the white truffle, but its true potential and flavor come out when cooking.
Italy has two main types of black truffles: the Perigord and the Black Summer truffle.
The Perigord truffle is the more expensive of the two, growing in and around Umbria from November to March. It has a more robust flavor than the Summer truffle, resulting in almost seven times the value.
The Black Summer truffle has a milder aroma and flavor (though still delicious). You can generally find it in central Italy, including Tuscany, from March to November. The Black Summer is most likely the type you will see when you go truffle hunting in Italy since it is available for a relatively longer season.
The white truffle
White truffles are more expensive than black truffles and have a more intense and complex aroma. They can grow as big as a tennis ball and are more elusive than the black truffle because they are only found in the wild. In other words, you need to go hunting for them. The most sought-after white truffles grow up to 8 inches underground near riverbanks and waterways from the beginning of October to the end of December.
Due to their aroma and complexity in flavor, white truffles have over ten times the value of black truffles. One truffle farmer in Italy told me, “black truffles feel like making love; white truffles are making love.”
Italy has two main types of white truffle: The Alba White truffle and the Marzuolo truffle.
The Alba White truffle is one of the most expensive and finest types of truffle. It has an intense aroma that is reminiscent of garlic. Just 20 grams can cost $1,800, making the Alba White one of the most sought-after truffles and a true gourmet delicacy.
Many consider the Marzuolo truffle as the “poor man’s white truffle.” It is usually smaller and has a less intense aroma than the Alba White truffle. It is often mistaken for the more famous Alba White Truffle but costs a fraction of the price.
Note: Purchase truffles from a reputable farm or a truffle festival. Truffles in truffle shops can be unreliable, with lower quality ones being passed off as a higher quality strain or containing very little of the real stuff. If you want to experience the white truffle, I recommend buying white truffle oil since obtaining an Alba White truffle is difficult and expensive.
Which tour should I choose?
There are many truffle hunting tours in Italy. My favorite is truffle hunting with dogs at Tenuta Torciano Winery in Ulignano. It includes information and a tour of the truffle farm, seeing the truffle dogs in action, and a meal with wine tasting in the beautiful gardens. Founded in 1720, this winery has a rich history and has been passed down through 13 generations of the Giachi family.
When you arrive at the winery, the owners treat you like family, and you can feel the employees’ love for the winery. The gourmet truffle dishes, selection of fine wine, and gorgeous Tuscan countryside make this tour the perfect getaway.
When should I go?
You can go truffle hunting year-round in Italy since different truffles are in season at different times. In other words, you can tailor the time you go based on the truffles you are interested in finding and the region you want to do the tour in. For example, you should go in late Fall or Winter if you want to see Alba White truffles in Umbria.
Note: The experience will be similar no matter which season you choose, and you do not get to keep the truffles when booking a tour.
Tenuta Torciano runs their tours year-round, fitting in with any trip. If you don’t care about the type of truffles you find on the tour, Spring and Summer are the best seasons to enjoy the warm climate and atmosphere.
What should I wear?
Truffle hunting tours are more informational than strenuous, especially if touring a truffle farm. I recommend wearing regular clothing for the weather and comfortable footwear, which you are okay with getting dirty in case it gets muddy. I wore a flowing dress and sneakers and had no issues on the tour.
Check out these travel accessories I recommend for every trip!
How do I get there?
Getting to Tenuta Torciano is easy if you have a car. Drive to the location, and there is ample parking available. However, getting to the winery is a little more complicated if you do not drive or have a car. The closest major city to Ulignano is Florence, and the trip from Florence takes two buses.
Note: Taking a train and then a bus is also possible, but it is much easier to use buses the whole way.
From Florence, go to the Santa Maria Novella Bus Depot and take the 131 line to Poggibonsi. Then, take the 133 line from Poggibonsi to Ulignano. Usually, the bus times line up so you are not waiting too long, and the total journey is around 1.5 hours.
You can buy your bus tickets for approximately $10 from a ticket seller at the station. Purchasing from a station attendant is the easiest option if you don’t know Italian and need help navigating the ticket machines. They will also tell you which platform to wait at, or you can look for the bus number. If you are returning the same day, remember to ask for return tickets as well. The winery is only a 5-minute walk from the Ulignano station.
Another option is to add a shuttle service to your booking by contacting Tenuta Torciano directly. They only provide this service sometimes, but it is a good option. Even if they cannot shuttle you, they will offer different suggestions to help you get to the winery and farm.
What should I expect on the tour?
On the Tenuta Torciano tour, you are put into a small group and learn information about the truffles as you walk to the truffle farm trees. You will discover everything from the types of trees used to grow truffles to how they train the dogs to sniff out truffles (training starts before they are even born, and the mom is fed truffles daily!). The informational portion was my favorite part of the tour because I learned so much interesting information!
Next, you meet the truffle-hunting dogs! I had three adorable dogs on our tour that made my day. The owner gives them a truffle to sniff, and off they race into the trees as you follow them. They dig up the truffles they smell, and then you examine them up close. The informational portion and truffle hunting last approximately an hour.
After learning all about the truffles, you get to eat them cooked into multiple dishes! Courses include Tuscan cheeses, truffle lasagna, roast meat, and dessert. Many dishes use different forms or types of truffle to give you a genuine appreciation of the truffle. You also get a lovely wine tasting with your lunch (I tried six different kinds!). The employees teach you how to properly taste the wines so you can differentiate the different flavors and aromas more precisely.
Is it worth it?
Truffle hunting in Italy is 100% worth it, especially if you’re a foodie! It is a fun and informative activity (not to mention delicious!). Though I recommend Tenuta Torciano over other truffle-hunting tours, you can’t go wrong, especially if the tour offers food at the end.
If you’re traveling around Italy, check out my Cinque Terre guide!