Of all the delicacies in the world, none excites my palate more than an earthy truffle. They can be white or black, from the Piedmont region of Alba at the foothills of the Alps, the Périgord region in France, or the Spanish hills of Somontano in the shadows of the Pyrenees. The divine, intense aroma and delicate flavor always sends me spinning. I had a chance to hunt for truffles the later part of February this year, traveling as a guest through Spain with the family owned wine group Gonzalez Byass, best known for their Sherry, like Tio Pepe Fino. We also visited the owners of Beronia in Rioja, Finca Constancia in Castilla, and Finca Moncloa in Cadiz, traveling through their vineyards and bodegas dotted throughout the northern part of Spain in Somontano with seasoned truffle hunter Mario and his trusted pup Theo.
Though most people think Italy or France when it comes to truffles, don’t discount the Spaniards with their black winter truffles found in far northeast Spain, harvested annually from November through February. Spain is also a country on the upside of an extreme culinary crescendo, made famous by chefs like Ferran Adrià of the remarkable El Bulli; his brother Albert Adrià; Juan Mari Arzak; and the youthful, charming Isma Prados. Hundreds more, including Carmelo Bosque, Head Chef of the Michelin-starred Lillas Pastia in the province of Huesca, specialize in these black winter truffles and prepared our 5-star truffle dinner paired with wines from Vinas del Vero and Bodega Blecua, Gonzalez Byass Somontano wineries. (That dinner I will divulge in Part 2.)
Every year, Gonzalez Byass brings sommeliers, chefs, and journalists to their estate in Somontano to experience a truffle hunt first hand: both to feel the excitement of a hunt, as well as to understand the ideal (or, in reality, less-than-ideal) growing conditions northern vineyards need to grow such delicacies as black winter truffles.
The day we arrive at Secastilla Valley, the base for Secastilla and La Miranda wines, seems perfectly fitting for a truffle hunt. It’s cold and damp with snow flakes starting to fall. We enjoy a hearty lunch among the vines with local cheese, grilled lamb, and piles of traditional Spanish tomato bread; then cozy up to fires made from pruned vine-canes of gnarly, 70-year-old+ Garnacha vines, while sipping concentrated, red fruit-filled, nicely rounded 2009 Secastilla wine. With full bellies and adrenaline for the hunt peaking, we set off, just as heavy snow and sleet starts to fall. Again, it seems only fitting for a proper winter truffle hunt.
Vinas del Vero allows Mario and his truffle hunting dog to work the property gratis, as this is necessary to maintain the natural gifts of the earth, similar to other produce scattered throughout their vineyard, like olive, almond, walnut, quince trees, and a line of bee hives. Vinas del Vero sees these additional goods as ancillary, allowing the small population who live around the vineyard to manage them throughout the year, and harvesting their fruits in the fall as their payment. Vinas del Vero doesn’t enjoy the benefit of these goods, understanding that they are in the business to make wine. This keeps a natural flow to the work, and allows vineyard workers to focus on the vines.
Like the untrellised bush vines growing throughout the vineyard in nutrient-poor gravel and rock-filled soils, truffles need very little rain and can thrive in poor soil. They grow at the base of oak trees just a few centimeters under the ground. As the group sets off on our hunt, we follow an excited Theo into the brush filled with juniper, rosemary, and thorny rose-hip bushes. The flow of Mario and Theo is seamless and obviously well-practiced. Surprisingly, Theo sniffs out our first black truffle prize. He paws and unearths it. The truffle is spherical and smells of wet earth—similar to that of a roasted beet aroma, not the forest and mushroom notes we usually associate with the delicacy. Though traditionally pigs were used to hunt truffles, today dogs are the best friends for the work, because they won’t eat what they find. Within half an hour, following closely in Theo’s tracks, we find five more round, unbroken black truffles, each about the size of a golf ball. Each is priced at about $100 per ounce.
Satisfied with the day’s work, we retire to the medieval village of Alquezar, originally an Arabic fortress dating back to the 9th Century. The UNESCO World Heritage Site is surrounded by hundreds of limestone caves, many filled with pre-historic drawings, making this an adventure-seekers’ paradise in the summer with rock climbing, hiking, and canyoning. In the winter, though, the sleepy town of 300 inhabitants remains rather quiet, and it’s ideal for a quiet walk through cobblestone streets. It’s a lovely thing to admire classic Spanish architecture and a lifestyle that takes you back in time.