Three hours before sunrise, I was standing on a pitch-dark street corner in a tiny village in central Italy, and I was freaking out. I'd been in Emilia-Romagna for a week, sampling cheese, drinking wine, and drooling over slices of exquisite salumi. Because it was October, always hovering on the edge of these experiences was the white truffle. Mysterious, intoxicatingly aromatic, expensive, impossible to farm and notoriously difficult to forage, truffles are one of the cornerstones of the region's gastronomy.
This story was originally published on Eater.com.
I was visiting Italy on a photo assignment, and my fixer had set up an afternoon foray to hunt some truffles. "The hunter will pick you up after lunch," he told me during a morning visit to a Lambrusco factory. "You'll go on a mini truffle hunt—the morning is when he does the serious stuff, and he won't bring anyone else with him then, even a serious hiker; you'll only hold him back." A mini truffle hunt? That was never going to work. I was serious about the real thing, and maybe he could tell. There was a flurry of phone calls as my fixer and the tourism officers huddled with their cell phones in a corner of the factory. Whatever they said worked—this famously solitary truffle hunter was willing to let me tag along. "He'll pick you up at five in the morning," my fixer said. "But you can't slow him down."
If you've ever been to Italy and think you've been on a truffle hunt—well, odds are good you actually haven't. No one goes on real truffle hunts. Most of the trips tourists are sent on are these mini hunts: afternoon affairs, leisurely strolls through a picturesque landscape, turning up a couple of the small, aromatic, intensely pricey fungi. The man (it's almost always a man) leading your hunt might be the real deal, but your trip into the woods isn't his main gig. Truffle hunters go alone, and they work hard and fast. The season for white truffles is only three months long, hunting them is arduous, and the financial stakes are high, so a real truffle hunter needs to be unencumbered. A gaggle of tourists snapping photos and asking questions and disrupting the dogs is only going to get in the way. Real truffle hunting isn't glamorous. It happens in dirt, darkness, and secrecy.
And so I found myself on that street corner, alone, in the dark, waiting to be picked up by a man I'd never met before. My panic was mounting—I'm not the outdoorsy type, definitely not the kind of person who can do a hardcore, eight-hour truffle-hunting hike through unmarked territory—when a dust-covered, typical two-door Italian banger pulled up out of the night and a man rolled down the window. "Melanie?" he asked. He then pointed at himself: "I, Gianluca." This was my ride. The smell of truffles was strong and powerful, and I shook his hand with the firmness of someone applying for a job with the President. To cover my nervousness and fill the silence, I started babbling, reeling through all of the gastronomic words in Italian I knew: prosciutto, pizza, gelato.
After thirty minutes of driving in darkness, we came to our destination. It was still night, and a thick blanket of fog covered everything. I hopped out of the car full of vigor and fear, and Gianluca popped open the trunk of the car to let his two dogs spring out. I casually checked out the truffle hunter. He was tall, well over six feet, and dressed for a military incursion: camouflage pants, waterproof boots, a lightweight pack. Meanwhile I was in skinny jeans and flat-soled fashion boots, carrying two cameras plus a tote bag with extra lenses and batteries. I was, I began to realize, totally inappropriately equipped for the ordeal that was about to ensue..
Gianluca handed me a flashlight, turned around, and disappeared into the darkness. I jogged to catch up with him, cameras swinging against my back, and then it began: the descent, a double black diamond of a slope, steeply plummeting down into a forested ravine. Gianluca meandered down as casually as if he was strolling along a beach, but I slid and slipped on the slick ground, turning my feet and body to be perpendicular to the incline, digging the edges of my fucking Tory Burch boots into the muddy mountain. I was a little worried about twisting my ankle, but I was a lot worried because even then, just five minutes into our hunt, I was already slowing Gianluca down. My eyes darted between the terrain beneath me and his muddy boots just ahead; to avoid falling, I had to take exactly the same steps he took. This is what it's like to be in the shit, I thought to myself in the darkness. I started out my photography career planning to be a photojournalist; I wouldn't have lasted five minutes in a real war.
I moved to Paris after school planning to be Henri Cartier-Bresson. I had my trunk, my pillow, and my camera, and I was going to go to document the world. What I wanted to do was tell stories, to get out there and shoot real things. For one reason or another, that didn't happen, and I came back to New York where I became primarily a portrait photographer. Still, I love the underdog stories, the meaningful journeys. The grit, the reality. You look at a white truffle, presented to you at a restaurant like it's a precious gem, and you twirl your hair and say to your dining partner, "Oh, I don't know, it's $75 for the truffles, should we?" and you do or you don't get them shaved in a flurry over your pasta or eggs. But there's grit there, behind that satin-lined box. There's this brutal work: This guy is up every morning hours before the sun, tramping in silence and darkness, digging in the mud with his dogs and his hands, turning up these knobby little jewels, breathing in this rich blessing of nature.
Photos by Melanie Dunea.