This all started innocently enough. Lisa Jane's mom and dad, Linda and Mario, invited us to dinner at their house in Siena. Mario, or Chef Mario, is a retired (mostly), world-class chef. As an appetizer he served us small slices of grilled bread, with a fried quail egg on top, with fresh shaved white truffle on top of that. Woah! I've seldom had anything as tasty. Seriously.
Well, that started the quest. I had to make this for myself. We found fresh Tuscan bread easily enough, but the quail eggs were a bit more challenging. Finally I found two dozen at Montalcino's local butcher shop. But the white truffles? I asked Mario and he basically said, "I could tell you where to get them, but then I'd have to kill you." That's when I knew this would be a major quest. Finally Lisa Jane charmed her dad into giving up the secret and voilà she had arranged for us to go out on a truffle hunt with two Sienese truffle hunters and their maniacal truffle dogs, dogs bred just for hunting truffles, called lagotto romagnolo.
So here's how a truffle hunt goes down. There were two hunters, each had 5-6 dogs. They take 2-3 dogs each out at a time. In addition to the dogs the only other tool they have is a custom-made digging stick that has a sharpened blade to carefully dig up the truffles, cut through nearby roots and even hack through thorn bushes.
Their dogs "live" to hunt truffles. When they are set loose they literally go crazy, at least to the untrained eye. But it turns out they stay within range of their owner. When they smell a truffle which is usually 3-8 inches underground they literally start frantically digging. The key is for the truffle hunter to get there before they dig up the truffle and keep them at bay while the truffle hunter carefully digs up the truffle so as not to damage it. All the while the dog is diving in and trying to help dig, throwing up a shower of dirt. As the truffle hunter digs he occasionally picks up little handfuls of soil to see if he can smell truffle. When they are close the dirt actually smells like truffle. Of course, the dogs smell all this from several feet away while apparently running randomly through the thick woods
White truffle season goes from October-November and March-April depending on the rainfall and the moisture content of the soil. Truffles grow pretty quickly and during the season truffle hunters can go back to the same ground several times a week and find a completely new "crop" of truffles. White truffles sell for €1 to €2 per gram. That's $500 to $1000 per pound! Our haul for the morning was probably slightly more than a pound, but then our presence was definitely slowing down the hunt with my incessant questioning and photographing.
OK, so that was my quest. Except for the final test: grilled bread with fried quail egg and shaved white truffle. Granted my presentation didn't win any culinary awards but all those who got to eat it agreed that we had succeeded.