Striding through the Italian countryside after a truffle-hunting dog is a wonderfully decadent way to spend a Thursday afternoon.
The white variety of the elusive fungi is one of the most expensive ingredients to be found in the foodie paradise of Tuscany and we are hunting for the buried treasure beneath the hazelnut, oak and linden trees of the Camugliano estate.
Usually we would only be lured from the warmth of our Canary Wharf tower by an Italian summer, but make the journey outside of peak season and you will discover it has just as much to offer.
We wait, tense with excitement, as our canine leader Gina thrusts her snout into the ground beneath the golden trees and begins scrabbling in the rich brown earth, tail wagging.
Her owner Cesare Profeti from truffle business Savitar Tartufi, quickly steps forward to snatch a small dirt-covered knobble from her jaws before the prized truffle, priced at 400 euros for 100g, becomes a dog’s dinner.
Gina’s training began at a few weeks old and dogs are now a more popular choice than the more traditional, but slower, truffle-hunting pigs.
Even so, it takes two hours to find three smallish nuggets of culinary gold. And it feels almost criminally indulgent when we head to nearby restaurant La Locanda to scoff a five-course lunch rich with the delicate shavings thanks to chef Simone Cetti.
Each course, from the bread with onion lard butter and truffle paste, to the cheese fondu with polenta, pasta and traditional fried egg brings out a different flavour of the truffle.
The most surprising is the ice cream dripped with honey and truffle oil – a heady, slightly confusing mix.
It is only afterwards we realise the meal was vegetarian. But fear not as carnivores can make the pilgrimage to Panzano in Chianti to find eighth generation butcher Dario Cecchini .
Stepping off the cobbled streets into his small shop is like entering a rock god’s lair. Music blasts from the speakers, bovine iconography adorns the walls and silver platters of food are borne by eager young men.
A hush falls as the imposingly broad-shouldered Dario steps forward. His eyebrows dancing up and down as he speaks of keeping the art of butchery alive.
“We have sought to maintain respect for the animal. That might seem strange for a butcher to tell you.
“But through history it has fallen to butchers to procure meat to eat. We are responsible for the most delicate link in the food chain.
“We can guarantee animals have happy life and dignified death. And we honour it by using every bit from the head to tail.”
We head downstairs for a meal demonstrating these ethics and the ancient Italian tradition of convivio (eating together) which features endless dishes of ragu, salami, cutlets, pure pork fat and fennel, a much-needed digestive.
After all that food, we head to the stunning Borgo Di Petroio, part of the Tuscany Now And More portfolio of villas and set high in the hills above Rufina. A brave driver and strong stomach is required to ensure successful navigation of the winding route.
The collection of high-ceiling farmhouse buildings are set alongside a small vineyard and have been restored with mod-cons such as air-conditioned bedrooms and rainforest showers as well as sweet touches such as family photographs and local history books.
Owner Eduardo, who has a wolfish charm and an unusual American twang, can organise private chefs for groups wanting to relax by the fireside.
He said: “People coming here want a typical Tuscan menu. It’s a very family-orientated experience.”
We were lucky enough to have Michelin-starred Canary Wharf chef Tom Aikens along on our trip and alongside local chef Francesco Marrucelli he cooked us a feast combining all the best elements of Tuscan food, including wild boar caught that morning by hunters accompanied by the more adventurous members of our group.
If loud gunfire isn’t your thing, a visit to the ancient castle of Castello Pomino might suit. Set in the heart of the Chianti Rufina territory, the estate has been owned by the same family since the 15th century and produces Frescobaldi vintages.
The landscape is unlike any other in Tuscany, sitting 600-800ft above sea level, with a soil rich in sand not clay, meaning they can produce white wine as well as red.
In the pinot noir cellar the techniques of wine-making remain almost unchanged, with gravity used to move wine down holes in the floor while the grapes are hung on racks.
Lunch is served in front of a roaring fire, and there are five rooms that can be booked should you wish to indulge in a stopover.
Castello di Nipozzano feels like the village that time forgot with most of the houses deserted for years.
The surrounding vineyard still yields plenty of wine however and the cellar is full of row after row of dusty bottles, with the rarer vintages dating back to 1864 kept in what looks like a jail.
Sadly we didn’t manage to liberate any but the shop provided ample opportunity to stock up.
If however you can’t fit enough bottles in your suitcase among all the other goodies, Frescobaldi now has a restaurant in Mayfair, serving wines from the castle and it’s other estates.
We doubt they have truffles wet from the ground though.
Truffles season runs from October to February.
Borgo Di Petroio is open from May to the end of October with seven nights from £5,074 per week based on 14 people sharing on a self-catering basis.
Tuscany Now & More features a range of properties across the region and Italy and can provide private chefs, excursions and other services upon request.
tuscanynowandmore.com , 0207 684 8884
Easyjet flies from Gatwick to Pisa
Airport lounge access available through en.dragonpass.com.cn
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