Decked out in fatigues and wielding a particularly sharp-looking spear, you could be forgiven for concluding that Omar Podesta is some kind of ruthless mercenary, stalking the Italian countryside. The reality is that he’s a truffle hunter. Though his bounty might not strike you as the kind that enkindles life or death situations, his profession has its hazards. “Competitors leave poison to kill the best dogs,” he tells me, instinctively reaching to pet his own canine companion, Lucky. “In Tuscany, my tyres got slashed.”
Truffle hunter Omar Podesta and his dog
Truffle hunting is big business, especially here, around Sant’Agata Feltria in northern Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, known for its white truffles. A hunter’s income depends on the weather – truffles like moist conditions, so if, like this year, there’s little rain, the truffles are rarer and the prices push upwards. (Currently, one the size of a chestnut fetches about €12, or £10). Though truffle hunting has its dark side, Podesta has set up an association to create a more amicable community of hunters, of which he is president. For him, truffle hunting is in the blood – he’s been at it since he was 12, and uses specialist tools fashioned by his grandfather.
As I trail Omar through the wild woodland by his grandfather’s farm – here, the special spear slashes us a path from a mess of tangled thorns – the hunter coaxes Lucky with a stream of rhythmic, soothing tones, the latter trained to sniff out the fungus growing underground from up to 100m. Omar tells me every hunter creates a special language in which to communicate with his dog, so that flappy eared competitors can’t discover their secret, truffle-rich spots. (Nowadays, there’s a blanket ban on using pigs for truffle hunting. It’s best for everyone, really, as dogs find truffles for a treat in return. Pigs actually want to eat them, and will bite anyone who gets between hog and snack.)
Inside of 30 minutes, we find three good-sized truffles, earning €36, or £31. Consider that Omar does this for around six hours a day, and you can appreciate it’s a lucrative trade. Looking at the muddy, knobbled growths, I find it hard to believe these are so sought after in haute cuisine – but they do smell enticing, giving off a strong, sweet mustiness that speaks of rich and complex flavour.
A mutant truffle
Emilia-Romagna has more than just truffles to its sweeping valleys, which are epically beautiful on a Sound Of Music scale. Castrato (a castrated local boar), fosse cheese (which is covered with leaves and buried underground for three months before it’s ready to eat), and fine wines are all delicious, endemic delicacies. Tradition here revolves around long lunches with lots of food and even more vino – and I can thoroughly recommend assimilating the local habits.
At Sant’Agata Feltria’s white truffle fair, held every October, I meet Graziano Pozzetto, a local celebrity gastronome. (Imagine a tanned Santa Claus dressed in double denim and you’ve got a picture of Pozzetto.) He tells me the village has the fortune of being located in a “lucky valley with lots of treasures”, and that the dearth of tourists here means that “those treasures are preserved”.
The truffle fair at Sant’Agata Feltria
True, Emilia-Romagna is more famed for its capital Bologna and the seaside resort of Rimini than its inland medieval villages and vineyard-dotted valleys. But a trip inland to join a truffle hunt, or gorge on the region’s tasty treasures, makes for a less hectic, more unique experience.
It’s not all foodie-focused sophistication, either. The region’s arresting scenery hides a grisly history. I visit the village of San Leo’s ancient fortress to see the ‘Well Cell’, designed to hold Count Cagliostro, a magician and freemason who was jailed in the 1700s for being a heretic. The cell has no door, just a gap in the ceiling into which Cagliostro was lowered and then locked up for life – the authorities feared his magics, and thought this the only way to prevent escape. Legend has it that when Cagliostro died, the villagers drank from his skull to celebrate. Today, you’ll see piles of flowers left in the cell by freemasons, who still revere his memory. It adds an extra layer of sinister to an already eerie locale. (You can check out a museum of ye olde instruments of torture within the fortress, too.)
Big city Bologna and the packed Rimini coast may up the action factor, but I reckon a few days inland makes a great way to stray from the beaten path – and it won’t stay unspoiled forever.
When in Rimini, be sure to swing by Nude Crud for lunch. Not only is the locally sourced fare predictably stunning – go for the freshly made piadinas – but this cute cafe also serves up its own microbrews. The La Cotta red beer has a deceptively deep colour that jars with its light, super-fresh taste. (nudecrud.it)
By the ruined castle in the medieval village of Verucchio, Ristorante La Rocca serves gargantuan, expertly seared steaks and castrato, the local boar (a dark meat packed with fatty flavour). Even the roast vegetables dazzle. Don’t be put off by the cheap, too-pink decor. (Tel. 0541 668122)
Looking to splash out on a multi-course meal? Try Il Granaio in San Giovanni Marignano, where a parmesan-packed risotto and truffle-topped spinach ravioli precedes drooly lamb chops accompanied by baked fennel and cheese-laden mushrooms with polenta. Extreme stomach-stretching never felt so good. (Tel. 0541 957205)
There are plenty of quiet wine bars and licensed cafes around the inland medieval villages, but for a lively nightlife scene, you’ll need to hit up Rimini. Try the rustic Taverna Della Vecchia Pescheria around Rimini’s historic fish market for a cheap draught beer with the locals.
Right on Rimini’s waterfront, Disco Bar Coconuts pretty much does what its says on the tin – a summer beach party feel, non-stop tunes and sickly cocktails go great with the sunset. (coconuts.it)
If you want to blow your budget on a big night out, head to Rimini’s super-club Paradiso in the south west, which has capacity for 2500 ultra-glam party people. (Via Covignano, 260, tel. 347 2369987)
The trouble with Tenuta Carbognano is that you’ll want to live here. For an incredibly reasonable €70pn (£60), four can stay in a self-contained apartment on this wine farm near Rimini, complete with pool, cooking classes, tear-inducingly beautiful views and the friendliest hosts you could wish for. (tenutacarbognano.it)
An apartment for two in Agriturismo Montalcino, a farmhouse a stone’s throw from Sant’Agata Feltria, will set you back €80pn (£68). Truffle hunts are thrown in for free, but you must go with a licensed truffle hunter – it’s illegal to strike out on your own. (agriturismomontalcino.it)
The four-star Oste del Castello in Verucchio is a converted 18th-century building made to feel like staying in a stone-walled castle. Rooms from £85pn. (ostedelcastello.it) While in Verucchio, check out olive oil specialists Il Bello Il Buono on Piazza Malatesta – tourists can join in olive picking when the season allows. (ilbelioilbuono.it)
Words: Laura Chubb