Like So Many Dark Stones

A conversation with an Italian truffle hunter about the culinary delicacy and the dogs trained from birth to unearth them.

By / December 2012

A muggy July morning and I am sitting on the cool, stone steps of the National Central Library in the Piazza dei Cavalleggeri on the outskirts of Florence. Along the horizon and just beyond the Arno River, I can see the Tuscan hillsides dotted with Cyprus trees. I am waiting for Giulio Benuzzi, a local truffle aficionado who leads visitors on truffle hunts into the Florentine hills. With its intense, rich, and musky flavor, the truffle (especially the rare and excessively expensive white truffle) remains a highly sought-after ingredient in American kitchens; it is a kind of status symbol in the world of fine dining. But in Italy, where black truffles fill the dirt around tree roots like so many mud-caked stones, you’ll find them on the menus of even the most humble and economical family trattorias.

Giulio soon arrives in his grey Land Rover, and after a warm introduction over a bottle of cold water we begin our excursion. First, we stop briefly at Giulio’s home for a pre-hunt snack of slender slivers of prosciutto and fresh truffle butter smeared on delicate rectangles of white bread. His home, a former bed and breakfast with rustic sunbathed plaster walls and a garden of pebble pathways, is surrounded by olive trees and perched on a hillside overlooking Florence. As I sit and snack, Giulio talks about his business, truffle hunting with tourists in tow, and gives me some pointers on greeting his beloved dog, Eda. It is best if I don’t look her directly in the eye. It is advisable that I always walk, just slightly, behind them. These gestures, he says, help establish a sense of respect and trust between Eda and her co-hunters. Without trust, there will be no truffles today.

Giulio loads Eda into the car and we  drive farther into the hills. We park on the side of a narrow winding road. An expanse of forest rises above us and we begin the brisk uphill trek deep into the woods. Eda takes the lead, her dusty white and brown curls visible only in glimpses as she charges through the brush. Occasionally, she buries her nose in the soil. If we’re lucky, a flurry of digging and frantic nosing will ensue as she searches to unearth a truffle from its moist, muddy hole. Giulio and I are not far behind. He coaches, cheers her on. “Vai! vai!” (Go! Go!), he shouts, and “Di me!” (Tell me!). Eda’s front paws dig furiously. Giulio yells, “Basta!” (Enough!) and then clears his throat, a noise that startles and diverts Eda’s attention away from the truffle. Without his intervention, Giulio tells me, Eda would scarf every truffle she finds.

Truffle hunter Giulio Benuzzi and his dog, Eda, a Lagotta Romagnola bred to hunt truffles.

My mind loops back to the beginning of the hunt, to what Giulio told me about the need for trust between dog and hunter. I can see that having a well-trained dog, like Eda, plays a huge role in the success of any truffle hunt. But as I watch how Giulio and Eda work together, how they give cues to each other, how they erupt with excitement when they uncover the treasure, I can tell that the bond between man and truffle dog goes far beyond good training.

Over the course of an hour or so, we collect five golf ball-sized black truffles before returning to Giulio’s home for lunch. Giulio’s wife, Cristina, has prepared white bean soup and vanilla gelato drizzled with truffle-flavored honey. Before eating each dish, Giulio showers my plate with fresh truffle shavings that wilt into the heat of the soup. We sit, eat, and talk well into the afternoon around a small wooden table in a kitchen that, they tell me, was once a horse stable.

In late November, having returned back to the States from Florence, I checked back in with Giulio. He was busier than ever taking visitors on truffle hunting excursions, but over email and several phone conversations, he made time to tell me more about the history of Italian truffle hunting, his background and relationship with Eda, and his feelings on food, wine, and all things truffle.

Give me a little background on you and Cristina. Are you both from Tuscany?
I was born in Turin, which is in the Piemonte region of Italy. My mother, she was a Freudian psychologist and my father, an engineer with a passion for cooking and for food. I arrived in Tuscany, personally, in the mid-eighties because my first wife was a younger Florentine lady. During that time, I fell in love with Tuscany, so I decided to remain in Tuscany for the rest of my life.

And Cristina, for her part, her mother is from Germany and father, Portugal. Cristina’s mama was a photojournalist for National Geographic and her father was an important comic’s designer. They were in Tuscany for a vacation and they fell in love with the city [of Florence] and decided to live here for the rest of their life. Cristina was born in Pisa, but lived all her life in Firenze and grew up inside a beautiful villa close to Fiesole. The owner of the villa took care of Cristina when she was younger and taught her all of the traditional Tuscan recipes in the big villa kitchen. Cristina fell in love with the food because this mama was the best teacher to her.

How did you meet?
I met Cristina in the beginning of the nineties through a friend. We were first introduced at a Chinese restaurant (laughs), during a lunch. And after a year or so, we decided to live together.

How did you begin truffle hunting and giving tours?
La Limonaia, our bed and breakfast, was the beginning of everything. We ran it for 10 years, until 2008, and it was very popular with a lot of wine and food lovers from the US and Canada, or England, or Australia. Our B&B was booked 300 days a year. Not because La Limonaia was the best and nicest B&B in terms of decoration, rooms, or service, but because we conducted incredible, authentic wine and food experiences for our guests. I created a spice tour, a cheese tour, a saffron tour; they were something unique that nobody had ever thought of in Tuscany at that time. In the end, we decided to close the B&B because we were too tired. We had been working for more than 10 years without stopping, without vacations, and the place was not big enough to hire a few people to help. As a result, Cristina and me, we did everything alone.

Also, during this time, my passion for the truffle was becoming stronger. So Cristina and I decided that it was time to close one business and open another one that would take out all the extra work that the management of a B&B required. We decided to focus on just one product – so I selected the truffle.

What are the different seasons for the different truffles? Which ones are the hardest to find and most expensive?
The truffle year, like the calendar, is divided into four seasons: winter, spring, summer, and autumn. In each season we hunt one type of truffle. The most difficult to find, and the most valuable, is the white truffle, which grows from mid September to the end of December.

How did you learn how to truffle hunt?
In Italy, the truffle market is regulated by a license that everybody interested in hunting must have. You take a class, which runs for a week. Then, there is a public exam, which is done twice a year. To take the exam, you go in this public building and all the truffle hunters from the most important associations are there. They ask you many questions and show you different truffle images for identification. Finally you have a written exam that is 30 questions and you are not able to get more than four wrong if you want to pass the exam.

If you pass the exam, you obtain the truffle hunting license. Then, you must register in your municipality. For example, I am registered in the Bagno e Ripoli municipality, where I have my residence. And every year you must also pay a tax. Then you are able to hunt truffles in all public Italian forests.

So, you can hunt truffles anywhere in Italy with that one license?
Yes, but only in the public forest areas. In Italy, truffles can grow in three specific areas. First, public forests, where you just need the license to hunt. In the public forests, black truffles grow more than the more expensive white truffles. There are, of course, some little areas that are considered public areas where the white can grow, but there are very few of these, unfortunately. Eighty to ninety percent of the white truffles in Italy are found in private areas.

What do you mean by “private areas”?
That is the second area truffles can grow. In Tuscany these areas are called “private natural reserves.” A private natural reserve is a piece of land inside a private property and the owner of that property asks and receives — after registering this piece of land in a book and paying a local tax — permission from the government to close the area. They put a different sign on that area that says, “Tartufia Privata,” which means Private Truffle Area.

To go in the private reserve, to search for the valuable white truffle, you need to be a member of an individual truffle association. I am a member of the Association of the Bassa Valdese. This association manages 44 private reserves for the white truffle and accepts only truffle hunters that live in Florence or in the provinces surrounding Florence.

And the third?
The third area for hunting truffles is another kind of reserve that is not natural. It is considered a plantation. To have access to a plantation, you must have a second authorization, which we call a “green card.” To obtain a green card from your local association, you must provide 45 hours of volunteer service every year. For service, you can do two things: you can clean and maintain the forests and also help during the festival.

There is an important truffle festival in Tuscany every year. Every week of the festival there are three or four or 5,000 visitors that need to eat truffles. I work in the big kitchens of these restaurants. That is the compromise to obtain the green card.

I know you use your dog, Eda, but many people think of pigs when it comes to truffle hunting. Are pigs still commonly used or are dogs more popular?
First, you must know that in Italy, in the beginning, the truffle hunter was a farmer and farmers used pigs. Probably because one day the pig left his nest and the farmer followed and he found the animal eating something under a tree. He arrived and saw a truffle. So the farmer understood immediately that pigs could be used to find truffles. It was just a lucky circumstance, because every farmer had a pig anyway.

Why did pigs give way to dogs?
In the seventies, the truffle hunters stopped using pigs because the pigs were destructive to the forests. They made big holes in the soil, too big, when they dug for the truffles. So in Italy, around the 1970s, using pigs became illegal. And when the farmers could no longer use their pigs, they went to the next animal that was available on their farm, the hunting dog.

Is there a specific breed of hunting dog that is better suited for truffle hunting than others?
For a long time, the truffle hunting dog was the same breed as your typical international breed of hunting dog like the black pointer, the setter, or beagle, whichever you already had. But in the eighties someone in Italy intelligently remembered that the first real truffle hunters, who were located somewhere around Bologna, were using a specific type of dog: Lagotta Romagnola.

Lagotta Romagnola dogs were originally used as duck retrievers in the lakes of Italy’s Emilia Romagna region. They are considered the best truffle hunting dogs because they have important hunting characteristics in their DNA. They are little dogs and have a great attitude for hunting truffles. Eda is Lagotta Romagnola. She is so intelligent, well-trained, and has great instincts in the forest, at times better than a wild animal.

And where did you get Eda? How was she trained to find truffles?
I bought Eda from an important truffle hunter and dog trainer of Siena named Piero. Trainers are typically men that are from 50-70 years old. There are, of course, a generation of new trainers, but the most important ones are older, which means, to be a real expert trainer you need to have spent at least 10-20 years hunting and training dogs. In the past, there was no school for truffle hunting dogs, so trainers used their personal experiences to train the first generation of truffle hunting dogs. Some of them used a horrible, invasive technique, to convince the animal to do things. But after you train two or three animals, you understand better what works.

Thanks to their experiences, there is now a school for training the dogs in Italy and a more clear methodology for training the dogs. The approach is similar to the dogs trained to work for police or for disabled people. For the dogs, it is a game. You give them a biscuit every time they do what you ask. To teach a dog completely, it must be taught for at least a year because it must learn the smell of all the truffles, from all four seasons. Most importantly, the truffle dog must like to eat truffles. We give them truffles immediately when they are babies. Their first game is a metal bowl that opens and closes, and we keep a fresh truffle inside, and they can smell it. Later, from the age of six or seven, they eat fresh truffles everyday because they must love that flavor.

As part of your truffle hunting tours, Cristina typically serves a homemade lunch of truffle dishes. What are some of your favorite truffle dishes?
My favorite dishes are what I eat before I go out hunting. When I hunt alone, not as part of a tour, I wake up at 5:00 am and hunt from 5:30 am to 12:00 pm. Before hunting, I must eat something that is hot and full of energy but not too heavy because my stomach can get a little confused with the early time. If I eat something like pork, I won’t be able to move afterwards. I will come back in on the sofa and continue to sleep.

For that reason, the older truffle hunters traditionally ate what I call “The Infamous Cristina’s Bean Soup.” White bean soup is something traditional to the truffle hunter because it is hot and full of carbohydrates. I like also a classic risotto with white truffles or a simple, fresh pappardelle pasta with black truffles. Another plate I eat in the morning is a rolled cheese omelet with black truffle pesto. It is a simple dish and cheap. Generally, truffle hunters don’t eat very expensive dishes.

What wines do you suggest pairing with truffle dishes?
Of course, we are in Tuscany after all and I am from Piemonte. I love a Piemonte wine called Barbera. It is sparkling and good for all the dishes. It is also good in the morning because it’s light. For important meals, we like Brunello and Nobile, both important Tuscan wines. If you are not sharing your lunch with some very fancy wine lovers, sometimes I substitute these expensive wines with a more affordable Morellino. It’s a simple, more smooth Sangiovese that goes well with all the dishes.


Martha Miller is a freelance writer, passionate home cook, and recovering twenty-something. Her writing and recipes have appeared in Washingtonian,, and The Richmond Times-Dispatch. Miller’s award-winning blog, A Measured Memory, was designated a “Site We Love” by Saveur.