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swirl and savor

Hunting with Sole

Beth Ribblett

Every year we take a group of Swirl guest on a wine, culinary and cultural trip in Tuscany and Umbria.  This year our visit included a truffle hunting excursion in Umbria...

Sunflowers in full bloom in Tuscany & Umbria
Driving the twisting narrow roads with seemingly endless switchbacks we go up and over the mountains that seamlessly join Tuscany and Umbria.  Even those who don't get car sick feel effect of the last 6 days on our stomachs.  Plunging down into the valleys we ride through the very rural small villages, peaceful land layered in a patchwork of color with brilliant yellow sunflowers, the silvery leaves of olive trees, golden wheat fields, and endless deep green tobacco.

View from the top of the mountain
Of course we make a few wrong turns but finally find the steep windy road that takes us up to the top of the tallest mountain yet.  Climbing higher and higher the forest changes from slender birch, ash and maple trees to thick trunks of oak and pine until finally reaching the top.  The GPS tells us we've arrived but all we see is a sleepy little hamlet of old stone dwellings and not a soul in sight.  As I try to find the phone number to get directions, a little white truck appears - our host out looking to see if we are lost.  We follow him further up the mountain road to his farm greeted by the breathtaking view of the villages below with the mountains of the Marche, Umbria and Tuscany stretched out before us.

Our host, the personable and soft spoken Matteo, brings us to one of the wood buildings on the property where we are greeted by his mother, father and two cats with their four young kittens.  Matteo and his family live here in this remote area of north west Umbria. They work the land as farmers, hunters and gatherers, living harmoniously with nature on their 30 acres of property.  It's not game or fowl that they hunt, but treasure in the form of elusive and mysterious funghi, truffles!  

We sit and spend some time talking first.  Matteo tells us that his passion and skill for truffle hunting was passed down from his father Carlos and he in turn wants to share his knowledge with others. He educates us on the fascinating world of truffles - what they are, the different types, colors, where they grown, how the animals find them, ripening, maturing and of course, the amazing dogs.

Walking to the forest to begin the hunt
Armed with our new found knowledge, we walk a short distance up the hill with kittens following close behind.  It's time to meet Sole, his dog.  As he talks about Sole, telling us stories of his training and first hunt, it's evident in his voice how much Matteo loves  his dog.  He releases him from the pen and the enthusiastic Sole bounds up the hill to greet us. Running, jumping, darting, constantly putting his nose to the ground and then the air, his energy seems endless.  Matteo softly commands and Sole obediently follows; their symbiotic relationship and mutual respect is the key to their success.

Into the woods we all traipse, Matteo leads us to one of his favorite spots. "Vai, vai Sole" Matteo says and Sole takes off, frantically searching, sniffing - you can actually hear his rapid breathing as he puffs his cheeks and puts his nose to the ground.  He hons in on a smell and frantically begins to dig.  "Piano, piano" slowly, slowly, Matteo softly calls and Sole tries to slow down but he's so excited, tearing at roots, flinging dirt behind him. Reaching down Matteo gently takes him at the neck and Sole immediately goes limp and lies beside his hole awaiting his next command. Matteo digs into the hole first using his vanghetto, a shovel like tool, and then his hands to see what Sole has found.  Out comes a black truffle about the size of a large plum with its dark knobby skin.  Matteo smiles, shows us all the treasure and then puts it into the pocket of his vest. Sole is generously rewarded with treats and affection.

Sole's first find
The ritual repeats, over and over in this spot and then another.  Matteo and Sole hunt each morning for several hours.  They are fortunate to live in an area where different types of truffles are available year round. And the reward can be great; the jewel of Italian gastronomy, white truffles, retail for over $3000/lb., the black for around $1200/lb. The black summer truffles that we found sell for around $500/lb.  Each type of truffle is available only certain months of the year.  Some days are plentiful but others might not yield a single truffle; it's a roll of the dice.

Today is a good day for Sole and Matteo.  In about an hours time Matteo has a pocketful of truffles and we head back to reception area where the delicious smells from the kitchen tell us lunch is almost ready!   Matteo shows us how to clean and store truffles as we sip on Prosecco in the courtyard.  We move into the dining area, beautifully and humbly set for our lunch. The intoxicating smell of fresh truffles permeates the air. Matteo sits with us but goes into the kitchen with each course to help his mother. Crostini with many different types of truffle sauces, carafes of local wine, fresh pasta shaved with our catch of the day, Matteo's fennel roasted pork with rosemary potatoes followed by dessert and of course espresso; we are served a simple, rustic family meal with local fresh ingredients, prepared with the utmost care.

The fruits of Sole's labor

Our fresh pasta with his catch of the day
Matteo's generousity,calm demeanor and infectious smile gives the experience an incredibly intimate feeling - his spirit, love of the land, his relationship with Sole are expressed throughout the visit.  Matteo is a young farmer dedicated to his trade and enthusiastic about sharing it with others.  We will be back...And so with full bellies and warm hearts we load back into our cars, with a new found understanding and appreciation for the now not so mysterious funghi and the people and dogs who bring them from the mountains of Italy to our tables.

If you'd like to visit with Matteo and Sole email him at or check out his website at Ca' Solare Agriturismo.  Please tell him Beth from New Orleans sent you :)