Contemplating Truffles in Tuscany


We rarely speak of loss. We hate to lose. But loss comes in so many forms. Sure, we lose contests from time to time but what about loss of innocence? We may lose money on a deal or an investment but what about loss of hope? We frequently lose things, misplaced or left behind, but what about loss of love? Those we love, trust, and with whom we share, move on – to other places in this life or to the place where we cannot yet follow.

This morning, thousands of miles from home and the hearts of so many I love, I will consider loss and its uncomfortable and necessary apprenticeship. I will consider those who are facing loss and its cold uncertainty. This morning, I will consider loss in my own life, the temporal movements of things that must pass as well as the deeper losses that shape, sharpen, and prepare.

Sitting in this country that seems born of time and vine and faith and stone and blood, I will consider the losses that foster creation, rebirth, and a hope that is timeless. An open eye to an endless horizon and the dawn that brings life and love and laughter. Today I will speak of loss as a traveling companion helping us along the road of our own passing – sometimes reminding us that his open hand is a doorway, an invitation, to a belief in something bigger than our own struggles.

Lights go down, it’s dark
The jungle is your head, can’t rule your heart
A feeling’s so much stronger than a thought
Your eyes are wide and though your soul, it can’t be bought
Your mind can wander

U2, Vertigo

Ok, it’s 6:28am and I’ve got U2 playing in the background. The lights are on in Il Tiberio and I’m letting the dark wash over. Jupiter sits overhead, like the distant deity the Romans once celebrated, high on his throne in the sky – alone in a cloudy, starless night. Enough loss for now – we are heading to Siena today and the mystical story of Catherine. More on that tomorrow.

Balloons and Il Mulino dell’Abate

Shortly after sunrise yesterday, a parade of hot air balloons rolled through the valley below. At first, I thought they were all landing but soon realized that they were doing a touch-and-goes, descending to nearly ground level and then rising again. There was such whimsy and lightness to their movements, gliding on the invisible currents, I could hear the burners kick-in from time to time as they fired for elevation. For a moment, I was a boy again, wide-smiling at the wonder of these big, colorful balloons.

Our first stop would be Il Mulino, an old mill located in the Passignano countryside just outside Florence. The night before, we had received an invitation from Silvia to meet her there for a tour – we had no other context. The mill had been built in the year 1000 – one thousand. Somewhere a long the line, it had been converted into a B&B but had been abandoned and sat empty for a long time. Silvia’s family bought it 18 months ago and completely renovated it.

Pulling through the gates, we saw Silvia standing on the path at the end of a long gravel driveway. We stepped out of the car, speechless, as we surveyed the property – a main house, a smaller “annex” cottage, and another outbuilding along the drive. If one were looking through a magazine for a Tuscan estate, I believe this would be the picture. At first, I thought it was an inn but Silvia explained that the vision is to rent it for single group stays.

It turns out that Il Mulino covers nearly 7 acres along the Pesa River. The renovations were amazing – the stone, timbers on the ceilings, bathrooms, various sitting areas inside and out as well as a massive pool. Silvia’s brother led the design and construction work and his attention to detail showed-through in every room. For those interested, the estate sleeps fourteen in seven suites in the main house and the two outbuildings.

As the tour finished, we realized it was time to say our goodbyes to Silvia. I reminded her that we still had two weeks in Italy and that she needed to anticipate us calling for help. She smiled, “Of course!” Silvia will always have a place to stay in Indiana.

The Trouble with Truffles

Our big event of the day was a “Truffle Experience” at Antica Scuderia, just up the hill from Il Mulino. (There actually was no trouble with truffles, I just felt like it was a fun play on the old Star Trek episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles.”) Antica Scuderia is actually a restaurant that specializes in truffle dishes and we were going truffle hunting with one of their key guides, hunters, or cacciatore di tartufi.

Latizia showed up with Uffo (oofo), her truffle sniffing dog, her truffle trowel, and a big smile. Her broken English was slow and endearing but far better than any Italian I could muster. We were to follow her back down the mountain where she and Uffo would lead us along the river’s edge looking for the elusive white truffle which is now in season. Back in Indiana, we sometimes go mushroom hunting (well, some people do) and I just figured we were looking for some mushrooms.

Well, truffles are a fungus that grows off of trees roots (like mushrooms) but unlike mushrooms, they are entirely underground. There is no strolling along the riverfront and finding them randomly sprouting from the ground. Once Latizia got Uffo out of play mode, he started running around sniffing. She would follow him quickly and we would bring up the rear, trying to avoid sliding down slopes and getting tangled in roots and brush.

When Uffo got the scent, he would start digging. Latizia would follow up and occasionally grab some dirt, sniffing it for signs of the elusive truffle. We discovered that Uffo was being a bit defiant and frustrated Latizia on several occasions, including a suspected truffle snatching before she could get to where he was digging. At up to $4000/lb, a dog who eats the truffle is a very bad dog. Suffice it to say, we did not find a truffle, though the eagle eyes of my dad did discover some horse apples. Latizia was unimpressed.

We had fun chasing Uffo through the brush and Latizia was great at explaining the process. She and her boyfriend/partner Giacobbe, provide all truffles to Antica Scuderia and support their two girls from the efforts at truffle hunters. Though we did not find any truffles, they shared some of one they had found earlier in the day, showing us how to shave small slices from it and eat it with olive oil. For those who have read or seen the movie, Dune, the way they talked and treated the truffles reminded me of the spice central to that story.

Antica Scuderia

Though we failed to find any truffles, we totally scored with the restaurant! We had a four course lunch centered on truffle dishes – a bursts with truffles as antipasto, primi was spaghetti with truffles, secondi was filet with truffles, and dolce was just ice cream nuggets – I don’t think there were any truffles. However, the food was outstanding – probably our best meal yet in Italy. We noticed that we weren’t the only people enjoying this restaurant – it was clearly popular with the locals.

One note about Italian meals, four courses is not as extravagant as it sounds, at least in terms of portions. The size of each dish is relatively small – actually, I would say the sizes are properly proportioned. The portions are just right and afford a great sampling of options without gorging. Now, a bottle of wine with lunch is a tad indulgent but, hey, everyone else was doing it too.

I’m not sure how long we were there, maybe 2-3 hours. We chatted and enjoyed our food and wine. Our conversation mostly centered on the truffle hunt, the quality of the food, the really cool setup of the veranda, and the views of the surrounding countryside. Finally, we noticed that everyone had left, and, as we walked away, noticed the restaurant closing down. Oh yeah, riposo.

Above the restaurant was the Vallumbrosan Abbey of San Michele Arcangelo. We were able to visit the Abbey Church which is small but very beautiful with frescos and paintings from Passignano, Alessandro Allori, and Benedetto Veli. We left around 4:30pm to make our trek back to Villa I Barronci.

San Casciano

We went to Mass at St. Casssian in San Casciano. The Italian makes it difficult but we were able to follow along. Every one of these churches has massive paintings and other beautiful artwork within the church. Amazing.

We finished with pizza and wine outside – simple.

Today we go to Siena and enjoy our last day in Tuscany. Tomorrow, we leave the driving behind and train to Venice. Onward.

  • Julia Ertel

    The treasure hunt for Truffles was very exciting and sounded somewhat risky; however for the money it would be enticing!! I wonder how long it took to train this truffle hunting dog!?!

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