The Truffle Hunt

We spent our late morning following the truffle hunter Diego and his two specially trained truffle hunting dogs, Nutella and Lightning, through the woods, waiting for the dogs to alert and sniff out truffles for Diego to pry out of the rich soil. After observing the hunt, we returned to the il Sole di Nebbliano farm, and ate a multi-course meal cooked by “the farmer’s wife,” (as she wanted to be called), each course featuring truffles in one delectable form after another.

After we got home and had a rest, I gathered our writing class together and asked everyone to choose a special moment from the day to write about and then led them through a sensory recall of a that moment using a guided meditation that included questions such as:

Where are you?

What season is it?

How does the air feel on your skin?

What’s the weather like?

Where is the light coming from?

What does the air smell like?

What do you hear immediately close to you?

What do you hear in the distance?

If you turn your head to the right, what do you see?

If you turn your head to the left, what do you see?

What’s behind you?

What’s below and around your feet?

What’s above your head?

What are you tasting?

There is something you haven’t noticed yet. What is it?

And so on…for about fifteen minutes…three dozen or so questions to help place them back in time.

Then I gave them half an hour to write about that moment. And as they did, I recalled some of the sensory highlights of the day for me:

I FELT my walking shoes sink into the mud as we made our way up and down mucky trails soggy with recent rain.

I WAS AMAZED as I rounded a bend and came upon a vast field of vibrant red Flanders poppies spreading out in all directions, a completely unexpected surprise.

I FELT the sun bake down on my bare arms as the ever-changing sky went from clear to cloudy to grey. Like everyone else in our group, I left my raincoat and umbrella on the bus, having stripped all my layers to savor the welcome sunshine that accompanied the start of our hike.

I WATCHED with delight as the small, sleek, dogs, Nutella and Lightning, bounded up and down the hills in search of truffles, then raced back to their handler’s call—in Italian of course.

I NOTICED how sexy and alluring the Italian conversation between our driver and our Villa hostess Virginia sounded as I drifted off to sleep. They could’ve been talking about spreadsheets or farm prices or politics or something ordinary or boring and it wouldn’t have made any difference. It all sounded like sweet music to my monolingual ears.

I WAS STICKY AND SWEATY when we got back to the farm and walked over to one of two outdoor tables set up for our truffle-themed repast. One of the tables was in a three-sided shed with a big table in the middle, kind of like a giant restaurant booth with benches on three sides. The table I chose was outdoors with a sheet of plastic serving as an awning over the top, with wide open sides.

I LAUGHED when the first course arrived because I had been here the year before and I knew what was coming: long wooden platters covered with thinly sliced meats and two kinds of cheeses, baskets of mixed bread, a lazy susan with several serving bowls with liver pate, a mushroom pate and a creamy cheese truffle fondue, a bowl of fresh chopped tomatoes. The table was completely filled with plates and platters. And small jars of accompaniments: truffle honey, pear truffle jam, eggplant truffle pate. I remembered that truffle honey and how I grieved when the jar we brought home last year finally ran out, six months after rationing it out in small thin smears on nutty cheeses on camping trips, for guests and for special occasions. Everyone’s eyes bulged with the amount of food spread out before us.

Karyn and I laughed some more. She said to our tablemates, “Pace yourself. This is only the first course.”

Suddenly, our servers rushed over and quickly pulled down a couple of extra flaps of plastic. They knew what was coming even though we didn’t. Suddenly, there was thunder. There was rain. Soon, there was a downpour. Suzanne, who was sitting at the head of the table began to take on a drop of rain, then another, and then the water that was bulging in the plastic “ceiling” got too heavy, and when they tried to remedy the situation with a plastic garbage bag, the pocket of rainwater poured down Suzanne and onto Karyn’s leg. Suzanne, a good sport all the way, moved to the “indoor” room, the rest of us squeezed in a little tighter. And ate a little more. And more. And more. And drank the prosecco they had poured upon our arrival. And then they brought out a red and we drank that, too.

I remember thinking I should stop eating the slices of cheese with the truffle honey and with the pear truffle jam (my favorites), but how could I stop? They were so good. And the salami and the prosciutto (neither of which I ever eat at home). One slice more, could it hurt? And I hadn’t yet tasted the mushroom pate. It was earthy and robust with that flash of truffle. And the liver. I hadn’t eaten liver since I was pregnant with Eliza 27 years ago—the only time I ever craved liver was both times I was pregnant.

After each course, the farmer’s wife, who never had a name, only “the farmer’s wife,” came out with her cherry cheeks and broad smile, so eager to please us with course after course after course, each one scented with truffles, covered with slices of truffles—even the ice cream at the end.

The rain continued to pour down and everyone’s eyes got fuller and their voices grew little louder and the wine was poured again and again, and someone said, “Are they really serving us dinner tonight back at the Villa?” and we all laughed, because damn it, we all knew that yes, we couldn’t imagine how, but we would definitely eat again.

But what I remember most of all was the laughter and the bonding, that moment when I looked up and said, yes, this group has finally fully arrived in Italy and bonded with each other. That magical moment had occurred when we’d all crossed over into presence and the magic of the unexpected which is why we all love travel so.

Photos by Graseilah Coolidge

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