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A rundown of San Miniato's 51st white truffle festival
What to see, taste and experience
It’s the most exciting moment of the year in San Miniato, the 51st white truffle festival and my favourite celebration of food in Tuscany, which opened Saturday November 12 and will run over three weekends until November 27. It is such a treat for the senses, complete with the scent of truffles permeating the streets and piazzas during this festival of one of the world’s most elusive (and prized) fungi.
I wrote about some of the things I learn going on truffle hunts every month with tartufaio (truffle hunter) Luca Campinotti and Fiuto, his adorable partner in crime (who at times looks more like a cuddly lamb than a truffle machine) for the latest issue of the weekend mag HTSI of The Financial Times. You’ll also find some tips on things to try, what to look for and how to use white truffles and what to expect at San Miniato’s White Truffle Festival — but down below I have some more!
Why I am so fascinated by white truffles is not just for their utterly unique, intoxicating scent, but because of many other reasons — like how they’re foraged, the mystery behind why they are only found in a handful of places and why do we love them so much?
White truffles are technically an impossible thing for us humans to find. They are food for forest animals, from mice to wild boars and snails, more than they are meant for us. They are so rare, so delicate to their microclimate and found in less abundance than black truffles. They cannot even be farmed (yet… there are a handful of experiments in France that are looking positive, after decades of attempts).
They are found so deep in the ground (up to 40cm/1.3 ft), you can’t just dig them up, you really do rely entirely on a dog’s concentration and ability to sniff them out (and not get distracted in the woods by other exciting smells, so you need a fully, well-trained dog like Fiuto, which is another investment of time and money and practice). Which reminds me — Have you seen The Truffle Hunters?
I have yet to see the film (still not on Netflix in Italy yet!) but this story on how the filmmakers spent three years filming this documentary style film is enough to make you understand what a special project this was to capture this unique and secretive aspect of Italian gastronomy.
Marco said to me the other day as we talked about this, why do we even eat truffles? We aren’t eating these for their nutrition content. I mean this is an ingredient we cannot even find these on our own, humans are not meant to be eating these. But here’s the short answer: truffles are pure pleasure.
White truffles are a joy to experience. It’s hardly even for their taste, you only need about 5 grams of delicate petals of white truffle (which right now will cost you about 15 euro worth of fresh truffle, half the price of last year) — shaved over your dish of buttery tagliolini or a perfectly fried egg to get the main effect you want: the aroma.
How we came to finding and falling in love with truffles is another story that fascinates me. Why do we go to so much trouble to unearth these little nuggets?
In the Middle Ages truffles were considered a staple of peasant food. The fact that you could forage them and find them out in the wild like mushrooms and chestnuts meant that anyone could go out and get them — well, unlike this medieval image you don’t just find them sitting around on the forest floor to be picked up, you do need an animal to help you locate them - pigs, female in particular, are excellent at smelling them out but dogs are easier to train.
More than the foraging was the fact that truffles were found underground. In the medieval hierarchy of foods, things that came from the air were the most noble and holy, while things that came from under the ground were the most poor foods — these underground diamonds were considered “devilish” over a good 1,000 years.
By the Renaissance, truffles began to be considered an aphrodisiac and this seemed to actually enhance its status. This image actually kept up for centuries; in the nineteenth century writer Alexandre Dumas not only called them “holy” but claimed truffles “made women more tender and men more lovable.” Their reputation just kept building up and by the twentieth century, any time a record truffle was dug up it was sent to important heads of state. Not so devilish now.
Tempted to try white truffles? Since moving to Italy I have never missed a white truffle festival — and yes, now I live in San Miniato and I would be lying if I said it had nothing to do with white truffles!
My truffle festival picks
Try necci (chestnut pancakes) with or without ricotta from the necci van.
Truffled cheese from Cinzia & Maurizio (they make cheese in Ciompobbi, near Fiesole, their stand is in Piazza del Popolo).
Coffee and a not-too-sweet budino di semolino from Maurizio Pasticcere
The castagnaccio at Bar Cantini
The truffled sausages from Falaschi butcher shop (my favourite, always).
Delicious, handmade organic beers, wines and pasta from one of our favourite Valdorcia farms, Casa Gori (their stand is in the loggiato on Via Ser Ridolfo).
Wine tasting in the local San Miniato wine tent — 17 euro gets you a glass (which you can return for a 5 euro voucher to buy a bottle) and tastings of all of the wines
A range of historical tours around San Miniato will be on, check the times with the local tour office in Piazza del Popolo but it’s a very nice way to get some context and hear some stories about San Miniato while you’re in town.
If you’re planning to stay for a meal, definitely book something (see the eating guide below) or just grab a panino but do it early before everyone else has the same idea — La piccola bottega bio in Piazza del Popolo are doing simple porchetta sandwiches for 5 euro while Pizza del Popolo have a combo of white beans, new olive oil and white truffle for 10 euro).
Have to add this one! This year I will be doing a cooking demo for the white truffle festival in Piazza Duomo right next to the white truffle tent at 3:30pm on November 26th so if you would like to come and say hello you know where we will be! As the theme is “sustainability”, I’ve chosen a recipe that is a forgotten Florentine dish, goes incredibly well with white truffles and utilises ingredients that would normally get thrown away. Marco will be pairing the dish with a surprising wine.
This is my guide on where to eat white truffles in San Miniato from last year (also some tips on getting there which is ultimately one of the trickier things during the festival — the historical centre is closed to traffic so you need to get the special truffle festival shuttle bus!). If you’re visiting on a Saturday here is the info on where to get that bus. If you’re visiting on Sunday here is the shuttle info.