Giulio Benuzzi, who owns the Truffle House in Tuscany, Italy, has dedicated his life to truffles, which are relatives of the mushroom that sell for approximately $600 per pound.
He signs all his emails “Giulio, the Truffle Hunter,” and with good reason: everything Giulio Benuzzi touches is infused with his passion for truffles—the fungi, not the chocolates. His deep-rooted connection with these rare subterranean fungi has influenced his Italian lifestyle, his career, his paintings, and his art. And when he talks about truffles, you can’t help but imagine the surge of excitement that will come from trekking through the forest and getting your hands dirty as you unearth these culinary diamonds.
Truffles are found everywhere, from Oregon to Africa to Giulio’s home in Italy. They grow just a few inches beneath the earth’s surface, living off the nutrients provided by nearby tree roots. They vary in size, between that of a pea and that of an orange, and look a lot like the chocolates we usually think of when we hear the word truffle. In the culinary world, truffles are a treasure because of their tantalizing smells, which range from nutty to garlic-infused, and their characteristically indescribable flavors—even truffle experts like Giulio admit that they can’t accurately explain them.
Before becoming a truffle hunter, Giulio owned a bed and breakfast in Tuscany that catered to middle-class tourists. But in 2000, the poor state of the economy threw him into a financial slump, and he decided it was time for something new. The opportunity to shift paths arose when Giulio joined a truffle hunt and was drawn to this art—not because of the thrilling search for $600-per-pound treasures but because of “the beautiful feeling that was created between the truffle hunter and his dog.” This connection inspired Giulio to find his own hunting dog and become a full-time truffle hunter—making his living by selling valuable truffles and leading tour groups on unique “truffle experiences.”
Giulio and his dog, Eda, hunt for truffles in a forest near their home six days a week. Giulio gives all his success in finding these truffles to Eda. “Every day, she finds a new truffle for me because she’s really a champion,” he boasts. But apart from working side by side with man’s best friend, Giulio is convinced that his job is like any other. “It’s like working every day for anyone else, but I don’t have to take the car”—he just walks right outside his home and into the forest with Eda.
Giulio’s truffle tours bring visitors from all four corners of the globe to the Truffle House in Tuscany, where Giulio’s passion rubs off on anyone who hears him talk about these fungi in his thick Italian accent. At the Truffle House, visitors learn how truffles grow, go on a truffle hunt, and then indulge in a truffle tasting. When they come, Giulio says he tries “to give them ten stars,” creating an experience “that guests will keep in their memory all their life.”
Giulio’s customers are probably most surprised by the physical demands of the truffle hunt. It starts out as a casual walk, as Giulio and Eda lead their guests through the Tuscan forest. But when Eda catches a truffle’s scent, she dashes through the trees without warning, sending Giulio running after her. He must be with Eda the moment she arrives at the truffle’s location so she won’t eat it before the guests get there. With heavy breath, guests watch as Giulio unearths the truffle. This is the payoff, Giulio says, the moment where guests “become excited like little kids.”
Not only does Giulio sell truffles and offer truffle tours, but he also paints and writes about them. He explains that his creative energy comes from his moments in the forest. These are the moments that inspire him to create colorful abstract paintings and write poems and fantasies all about truffle hunting. For Giulio, truffle hunting is a near-spiritual experience that fills his soul with inspiration.
Not Just in Tuscany
If you are looking for a bit of inspiration or adventure, don’t wait until your vacation in Tuscany to participate in a truffle hunt. Truffles grow in France, Croatia, Africa, and the United States, so you can make them a part of your next travel experience. Many truffle hunters and restaurants offer truffle tours, allowing you to get your hands dirty while searching for these buried treasures. But before you go out on the hunt, remember Giulio’s words of advice: “To do hunting, you must love this life.”