AMELIA, Italy – Zara made sure we had a sumptuous dinner that night. Zara the dog, that is.
The cocker spaniel was our purveyor extraordinaire of black truffles.
Have them shaven over your dinner with a silver slicer by a coat-tailed waiter at any Michelin-starred restaurant, and you are in for a very expensive meal. But Zara just dug them up from the dark damp earth, carried them gently in her mouth and dropped them in her master's hand whenever Fausto Ostili shouted "porta."
Then Zara became the unwitting victim of one of the most lopsided economic transactions in history. She delivered the prized "tartufo" that went for 600 euros a kilo (almost $1,000 U.S. for 2.2 pounds) in a nearby shop and all she got in return was the tiniest portion of an industrial hot dog sausage.
Yet, her tail didn't stop wagging and Fausto's smile was one of deep-seated contentment during the two-hour hunt through the Mediterranean oak trees and mossy rocks dotting the verdant hills.
Happiness in Umbria is what looks at first like a clump of dirt and smells like wet earth.
And unlike that other luxurious gastronomic pleasure, foie gras, this one comes without a side order of guilt. Even better, it turns you into a vegetarian. If only momentarily.
In Umbria, all you need is fresh pasta, the virgin olive oil from the same hills that yield the truffles, some onion and garlic to glaze. Mix it all, sprinkle it with age-hardened Parmigiano-Reggiano and have some local dry white Orvieto ready to wash it down. It might not have been the ideal food-wine pairing, but "tartufo" was king that evening.
The experience takes some discipline though — including rising in time to hit the woods at 9 a.m. In summer, it is easy — it is even good to beat the midday heat. But when the hunt is on for the black Norcia truffle from December to March, getting out of bed requires more discipline. For white truffles, the most expensive and highly prized of Italy's truffles, the hunt takes place in northern Piedmont, September through December.)
But even with a double dose of Lavazza espresso, there was no way to replicate the joy of two dogs jumping out of a four-wheel drive, the twisting of their truncated tails matching the pitch of their feverish breathing.
The dogs were sisters, but they could not have been more different. Zara did all the work, sniffing each patch of damp moss, scratching under stone after stone. Cita meanwhile specialized in playing with whatever scurried through the undergrowth.
Zara came up with her first black truffle right in between the farmhouse where we were spending our vacation and the adjacent swimming pool. Basically every morning we were treading on black gold.
A big swath of the farm was surrounded by wire fencing to keep out boar and other creatures that know a good thing when they smell it. At one point, Fausto also found a porcupine quill under a tree next to a freshly dug hole, another sign truffles are special to man and beast alike.
Still, there were plenty left. Now, what to do with a black lump, sticky with mud?
Toothbrush was the answer. We went up to the local alimentari to buy one so we wouldn't have to use the ones we brought with us. Before cleaning them, we briefly put them in the fridge. Anyone doubting their origins only needed to open the fridge door half an hour later. That divine smell of wet earth immediately wafted right into your nostrils.
Since we didn't have a truffle mandolin, it came down to slicing it as thin as possible with a mere potato knife. When the shavings on top of the steaming pasta gave dinner its luxurious luster, anticipation was high.
My wife Reine's version was excellent — yet something intangible was missing. It didn't quite match those memories of the truffles we had the year before at Dimicla, a humble pizzeria in Tuscany's Loro Ciuffenna, where the smell under the awning every balmy night immediately drew you toward that part of the menu.
It didn't dampen the magic of the day: Something straight from nature, wild from a dog's mouth, highlighted a dinner at night. Still, over the next few days, the question lingered — why didn't we get that full opulence a truffle deserves?
With all the riches in and around Umbria, it was easy enough to get distracted. Rome, with over two millennia of history, was a short day-trip away. Orvieto, Cortona, Perugia with its medieval relics were also within striking distance.
The question came back one night illuminated by a full moon over Lago Trasimeno, when we were having one of the best dinners of our vacation in the eagle's nest of Castiglione del Lago. At the Ristorante Monna Lisa, our daughter Clara had picked a cheese-stuffed ravioli topped with "tartufo" and, suddenly, the absolutely right smell hit us.
This time we had to know. We called over owner Maurizio Bracci.
Yes, Maurizio said, we were right not to cook the truffles from the start, but no, just putting them on top was not good enough either.
"Saltare. Saltare," he said of the Italian word that roughly translates to leap and jump. Realizing he faced some linguistically challenged tourists, he put his hands together and started swaying like you do with a pan carefully flipping pancakes. That way pasta and tartufo mix perfectly.
"The pasta has to get drunk with the tartufo," he said, explaining the process should not take more than 30 seconds and not involve additional heat.
"The tartufo has to feel the heat. Just a little heat."
Point taken. On to our next quandary: Such was the excess of the hunt, that we were not going to eat them all but wanted to take some home up north.
Deep freezing seemed too cruel a fate for such a noble tuber and too complicated to take home on a 1,000-mile (1,600 kilometer) trip. Olive oil provided the solution. Reine shaved the truffles thin, put them in glass and filled it up with fine oil to the rim. Close it up with a lid, look at it, and you think you caught the Italian sun in a jar.
Now that little bit of summer warmth and memories stands in our kitchen cabinet, waiting for the dead of winter. We hope to use it for a risotto with duck's breast or a mix with dried funghi porcini we had brought from a previous trip.
And if it doesn't work out, we'll have to get back. Perhaps in time for the NeroNorcia truffle festival in the Umbrian medieval town of Norcia, traditionally held the last weekend of February and early March.