UNESCO added Italian Truffle Hunting onto its list of The Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity on 16 December 2021. This list identifies activities that hold “a set of knowledge and practices that has been transmitted orally for centuries,” as defined by UNESCO itself.
Why truffle hunting?
The aim is to recognise and protect elements of cultural heritage or identity and truffle hunting is just that for Italians – a seasonal delicacy, a way of life, a crop for export, a living for many, and certainly a skill which requires specialist knowledge and ‘tools’…
The two key steps to successful and skilled hunting of ‘tartufi’ include the hunting itself and the extraction.
As UNESCO details, the hunting “entails the identification of areas where the truffle plant grows” – with the help of a trained dog. Finding the truffle draws on the knowledge and experience of the ‘tartufai’ (truffle hunters) about climate, the environment, vegetation – and their relationship with their trusty dog.
Extracting the delicate fungus is equally challenging and requires skill to ensure the truffle is not damaged, which will reduce its value – and the surrounding soil is not disturbed too much so it can bear future fruit.
Although you can train to be a tartufai, the craft is highly protected, hunting grounds kept secret and the most respected hunters are those who have learned the craft from being selected, endorsed, encouraged and taught by seasoned family or friends.
It is this passing on of knowledge and practices over the centuries that UNESCO recognises as being core to truffle hunting today: it “still characterizes the rural life of entire communities in the Italian peninsula.”
Where truffles lie
Multiple places throughout the country claim to be the ‘truffle centre/heart’ of Italy and this is simple because the geography allows them to! Umbria, Tuscany, Emilia Romagna, Piedmont and Liguria all claim the prize for being ‘truffle country’, plus ‘border regions’ will also have ready supplies: Lazio, Abruzzo, Le Marche… so you’re highly unlikely to miss out!
Although some areas are stronger in certain types of tartufo than others, it is a large enough crop throughout the country to be a staple in truffle and mushroom shops and on menus throughout much of the year (summer, white, black…) – particularly with the magnificent ‘tartufata’, available in supermarkets, which also makes the unctuous taste of truffle accessible to those on tighter budgets…! Having said that, the main season for the strongest and most prized tartufi is, of course, September to February.
The good, the bad and the ugly…
The world of tartufai is secretive, protective and there is an ugly side. On one hand, we had no idea tartufi are so prolific – we have come across signs in random areas where we frequently walk, stating that they are licensed truffle hunting spots. There are also wooded areas adjoining public footpaths, fishing and walking spots featuring warning signs and CCTV, to ensure people don’t destroy the environment where truffles can be found. It is a vandalism offence to do so and only those holding permits are entitled to hunt in these areas.
The ugly side of truffle hunting is dog poisoning, to prevent other dogs (truffle or amateur), from scavenging the truffles… We have been warned to be alert to Jas eating bits of poisoned meat left by tartufai, which we thought was just a ’rural myth’, but in the 18 months we’ve been here, we’ve heard of three dogs who have been poisoned; two of whom have sadly died…
When asked if Jas is a hunting dog, we default to the little joke: ”only for prosciutto and parmesan” but it seems this could be potentially life-saving, as long as they believe us. The reality is Jas loves truffle – but only from a jar of tartufata, stirred into pasta with cream and parmesan!!