Christina and I recently returned from a trip to Italy and Belgium. In Rome, we were joined by our son Noah and his friend Bo. Noah is a sous chef at The Modern, a two Michelin-starred restaurant adjacent to the Museum of Modern Art in Manhattan. As one of his responsibilities is to source ingredients, Noah arranged for a trip to Urbani Tartufi, the world’s leading provider of truffles and related products.
While the Urbani brand is legendary, Urbani Truffles is first and foremost a family business. Started by Constantino Urbani in 1852 in the tiny village of Scheggino in Umbria’s Valnerina Valley, the headquarters are about an hour and a half from Rome. Today, Urbani is proudly guided by its fifth generation of leaders in a sleekly modern facility a few miles from the small room where Constantino first “processed” the famous truffles. Olga Urbani, daughter of the recently deceased Urbani patriarch, Paolo, hosted our visit.
A truffle is an irregularly round, firm fungus that grows below ground. Umbria is home to black truffles, which are harvested in late autumn and winter. The more valuable white truffle is harvested in the fall, primarily in Northern Italy. Black truffles cost between $750 and $1,200 per pound. White truffles between $6,000 and $10,000 per pound. Fortunately, a little goes a long way.
Contrary to popular belief, truffles can be cultivated by “inoculating” the roots of a newly planted host tree with truffle spores. Some years later the spores produce truffles. Our truffle hunting took place in what was essentially a “truffle orchard.”
Johnnie has been a truffle hunter for 60 years. Here he holds a fairly standard-size black truffle.
Truffle hunting is a team sport—the team being the human hunter and his dog. Since truffles grow underground and slowly, you don’t want to casually dig around and risk disturbing immature truffles. A dog can be trained to find the buried treasure by its scent, then gently dig a truffle out, hold it in its mouth without puncturing it and deliver it to its master. The central task of the human in the equation is to train the dog and to nudge the truffle from the dog. (So FYI, any truffle you eat probably spent some time in a dog’s mouth!)
The truffle-hunting dog sniffs and digs for “black gold.”
Noah, Bo, me, and our truffle hunting companions with our bounty.
Tasting the Treasure
Our hunt was followed by an intimate truffle-laden repast at the “lunch counter” at the Urbani’s hospitality center with Olga, a friend of Olga’s, Noah and Bo. The menu:
Black truffle risotto
Salad of radicchio, raisins, pine nuts and black truffles
Porcini with black truffles
Black truffled custard
Truffled dark and white chocolates
Life’s great questions: Can you ever have too many truffles? Is this risotto with black truffles or black truffles with risotto?
Of all my memories from this wonderful trip to Italy, the truffle hunt stands out. It was a reminder that behind the enduring buildings of Venice and Rome were passionate people like the Urbanis who continue to protect the important cultural traditions that define this great country.
Noah, Bo and Olga Urbani
Brussels Post Script
Our plan was to visit dear friends in Brussels on our way back to Philadelphia. We arrived late Sunday evening and checked into our hotel on the Place de la Bourse. After a lovely Monday wandering the streets of the city and enjoying our first home-cooked meal in weeks, we awoke to the news of the Brussels airport bombing, followed shortly by the attack in the Metro. Our original itinerary had us leaving the following day, but as the Brussels airport remained closed with travel disrupted, we decided to drive to Dusseldorf on Friday and returned home Sunday via Frankfort. We were never at risk, but it was a sobering end to our trip as we became eyewitnesses to a terrible history. In just a few short hours the mood in the city had changed and we had a deeper understanding of just how lucky we were.
The view of the Place de la Bourse from our Brussels hotel room.