Uzi is a special dog and she knows it. Nearly a dozen of us follow as she meanders through the misty forest, stopping now and again to look back and make sure she’s still the center of attention.
We’re on a truffle hunt in Bracciano, Italy, about 30 minutes outside Rome. Our host, Matteo, is a third-generation truffle hunter and he’s trained his dogs to sniff out these elusive delicacies. While truffles are members of the fungi kingdom like mushrooms, they are actually in the tuber family and grow underground. Prized by gastronomists around the world, black truffles can cost from $300 to $800 per pound. White truffles can cost even more. Traditionally, female pigs were used to root out truffles. But their reluctance to part with their finds led hunters to switch to dogs, who more readily exchange the truffles for another treat.
There’s a steady drizzle as we shuffle through the fallen oak leaves. It isn’t long before Uzi stops and paws at the ground. Matteo rushes over with his shovel as she begins to dig in earnest, dirt flying. Soon the truffle is exposed and Matteo rewards Uzi with a piece of hot dog. A round of “good dog!” goes through the group as we pass the truffle around. It looks like a clump of dirt about the size of a walnut. The smell is a bit unpleasant, pungent and musky. But we know there’s magic inside.
Despite Uzi’s truffle super powers, she reminds us she’s still a spirited pup as she wiggles under a fence and runs defiant circles in the damp leaves. A scent catches her attention and she quickly starts to dig. Matteo tries to find an opening in the fence, but Uzi’s already bounding back toward him with a treasure in her mouth. It’s not a truffle, but the long-dead carcass of a frog. Uzi gives up the frog and pleads with her eyes for a treat.
Two hours later, we have a half-dozen truffles and are heading to Matteo’s for a feast. You can get a lot of flavor out of just one truffle. Matteo dazzles us by shaving them over eggs, fresh mozzarella, local cheeses with honey and in creamy risotto. Time passes quickly and we swoon over the seemingly-endless parade of dishes.
It’s well past sundown when the plates are empty and the wonders stop coming from the kitchen. We linger over Matteo’s homemade wine and toast our new friendships while Uzi snoozes in front of the fireplace.
A very special dog, indeed.