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Christina Mairhofer

Truffle hunting with Gino and his canine assistant

As every year, come mid-October we follow Gino and his dog on their truffle hunting trips once a week. Truffles grow all year round in our area, but this is the best season for the prized white truffle of San Giovanni d’Asso. 
Gino has been a passionate truffle hunter for more than 20 years. He owns a private truffière that extends along a river on unfenced land, which means it’s best to get an early start or all the truffle will be gone by the time we get there! The village of San Giovanni d’Asso, a hamlet near Montalcino, has a population of around one thousand people, 800 of whom take part in truffle hunting – and not all of them have their own private wood.

We hop in the hotel’s mini-van and drive to San Giovanni d’Asso to meet Gino and his inseparable four-legged friend. Willy, an adorable hunting dog with infallible sniffing skills, is already champing at the bit. He knows that our truffle hunt is about to begin. We make our way along the 6-kilometre route following Willy’s busy nose – the terrain is unchallenging, but sturdy footwear is essential.

Truffle hunting can require quite a lot of patience. Rummaging among trees and bushes, Willy combs the undergrowth for the tell-tale scent. Then he starts digging frantically – that’s the signal that he has finally located a ripe truffle. Sometimes the pungent fungi are just hidden under a thin layer of leaves, but they might also be growing half a metre deep into the earth. As soon as Willy starts his excited digging, Gino has to rush over and stop him from swallowing the delectable treasure. He attracts Willy’s attention by calling his name and then rewards his friend with a treat.

Foraging for truffles is a fascinating experience that brings us into close contact with nature, and it is not without its share of suspenseful moments. But there is more to it than just that. It is also a wonderful occasion to observe from up close the perfect synergy between man and dog, and their shared joy when the precious fungus is finally found. To Gino, Willy is family: he gives his dog a lot of affection and would never do anything that puts him in danger. As he repeatedly points out, this is why it’s so important for Willy to think of truffle hunting as a game and have fun doing it.

The Lagotto Romagnolo is the par excellence truffle-hunting breed, but nearly all dogs can be trained for the purpose. A good truffle dog can be worth as much as €4,000. Still, the dog’s good nose and the truffle hunter’s experience are not always enough to guarantee success. Not all years are good, and much depends on the abundance and timing of summer rains. 2018, for example, was an exceptional year; we would come back from every trip with truffles exceeding 200g in weight. Once we even managed to find a giant 350g-truffle (the local record is 1kg). The previous year had been less generous, and the white truffle yield rather poor. After all, truffles are a gift from nature, and their unpredictability is part of their unique charm!

Our day out is suitably crowned by a truffle tasting. Gino’s wife, Serenella, welcomes us to Agriturismo La Canonica, serving us pasta sprinkled with fresh truffle shavings and an excellent Rosso d’Orcia DOC red wine for accompaniment.

If you would like to taste the authentic flavours of Tuscany, there is no season like autumn. Among its gentle rolling hills, other delectable specialities including new wine, fresh-pressed olive oil, fine San Quirico saffron, chestnuts, porcini mushrooms from Monte Amiata and other delicacies are all waiting to be discovered and tasted!