“There’s truffles under that tree,” says the hunter, pointing into a coppice. At least, we assume that’s what he’s said; we’re still awaiting clarification from our translator. In any case something’s happening as he’s dropped to the ground brandishing a short metal spade. There’s a flurry of digging on hands and knees.
We watch the scene unfold with bemused excitement. There are updates – mouse holes were redirecting the scent! Digging is quickly resumed thirty centimetres to the right – and he leaps up and re-emerges triumphantly into the clearing. Clattering towards us in a blur of green camouflaged coat, the sublime scent of truffle hanging about him like musk.
His canine companion pads nimbly at his side. It used to be pigs but dogs have taken over; more stamina, easier to train, and besides, you don’t want to wrestle with a 300-pound hog when it’s in the fervent throws of chowing down on a truffle (older-generation truffle hunters are all noticeably lacking in digits). The dog is his sidekick and his money-maker; the partnership between them forged from a shared language and mutual respect.
Gem of Poor Lands, Diamond of the Kitchen, the Black Queen… No other culinary delicacy has amassed as many dramatic-sounding names as the truffle. It’s hardly surprising, when prices can go as high as $2,000 per pound for ultra-rare white Alba kind (we’re told this find is around €150). Epicureans have likened the scent to that of the tousled sheets of a brothel bed; in the Middle Ages monks were prohibited from eating truffles for fear they would forget their calling. I contemplate this whilst I turn the fragrant nugget in my hand. It has the size and appearance of a small potato. But the smell is musky and compelling. This is the real deal, delivered fresh from the earth.
Our exact location is a remote woodland just near Montaione, Italy, on a truffle-inspired excursion that’s been planned for us by the attentive team at the Hotel Castello di Casole, a newly renovated Five Star Italian castle in Tuscany, close to Siena. The Castello is immaculate; elegant and inviting, with a rich and storied history that dates as far back as the year 998.
Throughout the 60s it was owned by legendary film maker Luchino Visconti, who lavishly entertained Hollywood stars within the walls of the cypress-lined estate. It’s now part of the Colorado-based Timbers Resorts, a seven-year transformation that has reinvigorated the land and stuffed it to the brim with an American take on Italy. But don’t let that put you off. The US owners might bring commercial savviness but you still get a healthy dose of Italian flair and local charm filtering through via well-appointed staff.
There are many non-truffle-related activities of course; nothing is too much trouble. Pizza and pasta-making classes, olive oil tastings, wild boar-hunting, winery tours, hiking and biking. The Castello’s 4,200-acre plot holds 28 restored Tuscan farmhouses in addition to the 41 hotel suites yet it retains a quiet exclusivity. Tuscan vistas are breathtaking; I sit in the dappled shade beside the pool, looking out over the landscape of vineyards and cypress trees and Renaissance hues. It’s warm and blue and there are plump olives and fresh bread and white awnings.
Castello di Casole suites are spacious and sumptuously decorated. Wood-beamed ceilings, hand-painted furniture and luxurious fabrics create a refined rusticity. Marble baths, mosaic floors and rain showers deck out the bathrooms. Later, in the Essere Spa I have one of the best facials I’ve ever experienced. Serene pools and steam rooms lie beneath the barrel-vaulted ceilings and restored stone walls of the estate’s ancient wine cellars.
Dining amongst the jazzy decor in Ristorante Tosca that evening it is clear that Chef Danielli’s food remains uncompromisingly and wonderfully Italian. Flavourings plucked from the surrounding lands form perfect synchronicity with main dishes of risotto, locally sourced meat and fresh pastas. Simple, bucolically charming ingredients are elevated to profound morsels in the way only great Italian cooking can. We sample elegant wines engagingly presented by the sommelier. Then the dessert arrives and it’s delicately and deliciously laced with truffle.
French novelist and truffle buff Alexandre Dumas once said: “They can, on certain occasions, make women more tender and men more lovable”. He must have been dousing himself in them daily if reports of his forty mistresses are to be believed. But at last I’ve witnessed the age-old ceremony for myself and I know just how intensely alluring they really are. The most seductive gift to come out of the Tuscan soil. The vibrant hotel Castello is another perfectly formed treasure of course. Go now. Before the end of truffle season.
Hotel Castello di Casole Estate: www.castellodicasole.com. Località Querceto, 53031 Casole d’Elsa, Siena, Italy. Hotel Reservations tel: +39 0577 961508.