Come with me to Abruzzo and hunt for truffles amid spectacular vistas of hilltop towns, fields of grain and abundant fragrant wildflowers. When we’ve got our truffles, we’ll make maccheroni alla chitarra and shave our bounty over the top. Interested? Follow me.
We’ll start here – at the home of Ettore Altieri, out in the countryside not far from the village of Lentella. Ettore is a sculptor who holds classes for anyone interested in chipping away at stone. He was more than generous to open his home and property to a small group of us who had arrived following the “Let’s Blog Abruzzo” workshop. He and his companion Barbara, his mother Carla and father Angelo were so warm to us during our visit, that we felt part of their family. How did we find such welcoming folks and this unique experience? Through Fabrizio Lucci, owner of Italia Sweet Italia. Fabrizio seems to know all the nicest people in this area of Abruzzo who were willing to share their talents and time with us. This is a photo of Ettore, but believe me, this picture doesn’t really convey his friendly demeanor. It’s one of the few times when he didn’t have a broad smile on his face.
Here is one of the many of Walter’s creations you’ll find throughout the property.
It’s hard to take your gaze off the panoramic view from his home, with the Adriatic sea far off in the distance.
You don’t have to go truffle hunting if you don’t want. Bring your children here and just let them enjoy the animals, including the donkeys.
the goats love attention too,
and there are myriad cats roaming the property amid Ettore’s art scattered here and there:
But we were here to hunt for truffles, so off we went, led by Walter, a local veterinarian and friend of Ettore’s, who knows his way around the property.
Walter was also adept at directing Frizz on where to search for the truffles. Frizz is a lagotto dog, a breed particularly good at sniffing out truffles. Lagotto dogs are well tempered and make good pets (my brother in Pennsylvania has one named Lana that I wrote about here). Normally they have very curly hair, but Frizz’ had recently been shaved due to some problem with an insect that infiltrates through the hair.
Most truffle hunters won’t reveal their secret places for finding these treasured tubers, so we felt particularly lucky to be given this insider’s look. Truffles grow near the roots of oak trees, and those roots extend far beyond the trunk of the tree. Fritz was on the scent almost at the start of the path.
He scampered about in delight, sniffing out the musky smell.
It wasn’t long before his nose led him to a spot where he started digging. Take a look at this one minute video to see him in action:
These are black summer truffles, known as “scorzone.” They’re available from mid-May to late August and are less costly than other types of truffles. At the market, they’d cost about $30 per pound. The most valuable truffles – the white truffles – are found between October and late December and can cost upwards of $600 a pound. In between are truffles called “il bianchetto” that are found from mid-January to late April and cost about $60 per pound.
This is what the black summer truffles look like straight from the ground:
And here they are cleaned up and ready to be used:
Afterwards, we headed back to Ettore’s home for a taste of homemade wine and munchies before we were put to work making pasta.
We were treated to the best ventricina I’ve ever eaten, made by Ettore’s mother. Ventricina is a spicy pork-based salumi typical of Abruzzo. It was hard to stop eating it.
Then began the pasta making, guided by the expert hands of Ettore’s mother Carla.
Everyone enjoyed the lesson, including my friend Helen Free (right), co-creator of “Let’s Blog Abruzzo.” We rolled the dough over a “chitarra” or the traditional stringed implement that’s synonymous with Abruzzese pasta.
Meanwhile, Ettore blended the shaved truffles with fresh sheep’s milk ricotta.
While we finished making the pasta.
“Butta la pasta,” is the Italian phrase that literally means “Throw the pasta.” While Carla went to work “buttando la pasta”, she also warmed the ricotta and truffle sauce on a burner nearby.
The pasta and sauce were tossed together, Ettore shaved more truffles on top and we sat down to a great meal.
Dessert — a delicious almond cake made by Carla — was served outdoors.
Along with homemade liqueurs like this drink called “genziana” made from the gentian plant. Recipes for these kinds of herbal drinks are passed down through the generations and are thought to aid digestion.
But we still weren’t finished. Ettore and Barbara disappeared for a few minutes and came back with a basket of wild flowers and leaves gathered from the property. Ettore and Barbara, who is an artist, showed us how we could create some of our own art, using the natural colors of the local plants.
They gave us each a postcard and set us loose to experiment with nature in our artistic way. We were all amazed at the colors that came through, merely from rubbing the leaves and flowers on the paper.
It was hard to leave after such a fun-filled, sensory filled day with such kind, talented people. On the way down the hill from Ettore’s place, we passed the beautiful village of Lentella.
But I had a special place in my heart for the village in the distance – Fresagrandinaria — where my mother-in-law was born.
Did you enjoy this virtual visit on a truffle hunt? If you’re in Abruzzo and want to participate yourself, click here to contact Fabrizio at Italia Sweet Italia. He’s got plenty of other ideas too for genuine Abruzzese experiences far from the typical tourist traps, some of which I’ll be writing about in posts to come. In the meantime, here’s a recipe for the truffle and ricotta sauce.
Truffle and Ricotta Cheese Sauce recipe courtesy of Italia Sweet Italia
This is a lagotto puppy. For those of you wondering why this dog belongs on a blog about food, trust me, there is a culinary connection. The lagotto is a breed that hails from Italy’s Emilia-Romagna region, and was originally used as a hunter for water fowl. Today it is more commonly associated with truffle hunting.
I can’t say my brother and sister-in-law had truffle hunting in mind when they got their very own lagotto yesterday. They just fell in love with the gentle temperament, curly hair and hypo-allergenic tendencies of the breed. The fact that lagotti (plural of lagotto) also originated in Italy, in the same region where my mother was born, made them even more appealing.
After months of waiting, Lana (Italian for wool) was ready for pickup in Connecticut yesterday. Fortunately, my house in New Jersey made a nice way station for them en route home to Pennsylvania, so I got to have a sneak peak at Lana before anybody else. And now you’ve seen her too. Isn’t she adorable?
OK, Lana may never be a truffle-hunter here in the states. So I’m glad I’ve already tasted truffles, both in restaurants and in the home of people we know. That includes our friends Tony and Vanda, who own a beautiful second home in a small village in the region of Molise, where we were lucky enough to enjoy this wonderful pasta of tagliatelle and a generous helping of shaved truffles. Don’t even think of topping with parmesan cheese or you’ll blunt the fragrant aroma of the truffles.
The recipe is simple. Start with some fresh homemade pasta. Melt some butter or olive oil in a saucepan while the pasta is cooking. Drain the pasta, toss it in the butter or olive oil, and top with shaved truffles. That’s it.
Yes, truffles are expensive and yes, they’re hard to find in the states. But think of all the enjoyment you’d have received if you had invested in truffles instead of the stock market.