Italy the Beautiful, the Delicious, the Confusing! entry #9

Italy has more than enough of what it takes to be a successful country: locally grown agriculture surrounding every city; light industry; fashion; advanced secure banking system; deep water ports; popular cuisine; never ending coast line; art; history; culture; tourism and an incredible reputation for craftsmanship (Made In Italy). Yes there are too many outdated and inefficient rules and laws and traditions which frustrate citizens from being law abiding. Yes everybody believes they are unable to excel in their chosen field unless they have special contacts, friends and family, on the inside of the government. Yes there is too much government confusing corrupting conflicting with the average person’s interests. But all of her deficits can be easily overlooked when you consider the shear beauty of the country. The awe you feel living among these ancient structures is inspiring. Important and beautiful art is everywhere and the casual visitor is provoked, emotionally moved. But there is little to no new architecture happening here, and every innovation in art is happening everywhere else and not in Italy. To the local people Rome is a dead place, a museum (I think of it more as a zoo). Everything there based on some historic importance. The Italian culture which we Americans are so in love with is stuck in the past, rooted if you will, and stuck. Labor laws, banking laws, building regulations, music, art,  design is all reflecting backwards, existing more for an administration’s ability to grant favors. And this is unexpected for a country whose citizens have historically contributed to innovations in every field of technology, science and art.

The only areas where this lack of progress is really useful are tourism and food, while food dominates the Italian social landscape. It is more important to the citizens than soccer, politics, religion, you name it. In the end the Coliseum is just a stadium, but how you properly prepare a plate of carbonara, this is relevant to daily life. Food, and its preparation, is number one in Italy. My wife and I run a Holiday Farm in Umbria where mostly Italians vacation with their dogs, so I meet a lot of really friendly people and all of them are experts on food. very few exceptions. We often share meals together and they explain the way each dish is done in their region of Italy. Way more detail than I am able to keep track of. And each of them swears that their way is the best, no, the right way to do it. Men, Women, boys and girls. Everyone cares about ingredients and recipes as if their identities depended on it. I found this obsession with food strange for many years, but not any more. It is reasonable and fun to highly prioritize food since we are always eating, preparing to eat, or cleaning up after eating. I am convinced that the reason why so many more people visit the Colliseum in Rome than the Pyramids in Egypt is the likelihood of having a taste bud shattering meal afterwards.

Italy has a mind boggling number of specialty items unique to its tradition. But so does France and Turkey and even North Korea. There is something special about Italy and her Truffles; Parmigian cheese, mozzarella di Buffalo, Balsamic vinegar from Modena;  Wines; Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and insulin suspending variety of deserts. The list can go on and on. It is like this in every region of the country. For the most part these items are available from small farmers who you can know personally which increases the likelihood that you will be purchasing fresh and authentically produced products. Big companies are not able to inspire this sort of confidence in customers any more. Shelf life, rather than freshness, is the chief concern of large industrial corporate kitchens whose tens of thousands of daily produced items are made with synthetic nutrition added after the fact. Their use of questionable ingredients in terms of quality is a nagging concern to consumers, not to mention the additives and preservatives and artificial coloring etc that worry (with good reason) so many shoppers at the grocery store. Italians are busier than ever, have less disposable income, and they are turning American in that economics and lack of time compel them to forego their commitment to freshness in favor of price and shopping convenience. Getting to the farmer’s market becomes another task to plan in the busy life of a working parent, while the supermarket is just around the corner and has everything for a better (read lower) price. Recent higher obesity rates here are probably linked to this evolution in life style.
The easy to satisfy priorities of the Italian people (fresh ingredients, good soccer on television, and dramatic political material to discuss at the coffee bar) ought to trigger their post war mentality of “eating well is all that matters”, but they have seen the promise land of good living: Warm homes with roofs that keep the rain out; designer clothes made with quality materials by expert hands; vacations in far away exotic places. And post war no longer means WWII, and instead means Iraq or Kuwait. Italians are disillusioned and discouraged with their national condition. But its not like they don’t have enough money to shop for groceries, cook and eat everyday! Having a plot of land in the countryside is something nearly every Italian has because of the utterly confounding property laws which in effect leaves the property of a dead relative to numerous beneficiaries who then go to war in the courts for twenty years. There is a serious financial crisis here that has effected the national sense of humor, and the “I couldn’t care less” attitude, the “I am oblivious to those around me” attitude has grown darker and more cynical each year over the last five or so.

Italians are more different from we Americans than you would think considering how many Italians became Americans in the last hundred years, and how many Italians helped to build a great America, and how much we Americans love Italian history and food. The Chinese helped build America too, and they have awesome food which we are crazy for, and an incredible national history, but Americans don’t have a love affair with China. There is undeniably a special connection between The USA and Italy that we have never seen with any Eastern culture, not Japan, Korea or even Hawaii! We Americans like to believe that we have a lot in common with Italy, when in fact it is not as true as we assume. Living here reveals this reality.
Americans are generally optimistic about the future even when we are fearful and exaggerating in our responses. We are less tolerant, indignant (angrier?) and a more violent nation. Italians are less of all these characteristics, and this is hard for us to reconcile. We all remember how Robert Deniro playing Vito Corleone in The Godfather murdered the Dark Hand in his stairwell during the San Genaro festival after twisting off the light bulb to make a hiding place in the dark. How could the Italian people not learn to be more violent and fearful of violence after that! Well, they didn’t because they are different from us. Even after a hundred years of Mafia killings and political bombings Italians are not overly fearful and reactionary. Perhaps their anxiety comes out in another way.
Italians generally expect that everyone is corrupt, and at best merely out for themselves. Integrity in business is laughable to them. Italians talk over each other routinely and we Americans find this rude. They don’t respect lines (rude again). They are consistently late for everything and have little sense of having offended. Their tolerance for imprecision is remarkable and frightening since they produce cars which need be precise or passenger may die. I can see some engineer saying “va bene, it is close enough”. I can imagine the Ebola virus winning in Italy “Its nothing! I only got a little bit of it on me!” Their lack of regard for efficiency and precision is frightening until it is applied to you with the “piano piano” approach to life. “A little at a time” “slowly slowly” is the literal translation, but it means things take time to develop, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”. e learned greater patience and tranquility from having to embrace this philosophy, having had it applied to me and my failures so many times by gentle loving Italian family members.This attitude is helpful when launching an undertaking because it reduces stress, and sometimes stress can become an activity we Americans engage in in order to feel we are busy doing something: worrying in this case. Digging a hole can be done with worry or without, you still have a whole afterwards. A work place with less stress is what many corporation spend time and money to create. This corporate policy is the best evidence of “Less is better. But only when it comes to stress.
There is no category that demonstrates better the differences between Americans and Italians more than food culture. We Americans generally eat food as a source of energy, and we like our salty fats and every kind of sweet thing. It is safe to say we are addicted to fats and sweets, and this dependence (or preference if you like) limits our ability to understand Italy. The Italian diet is based on appreciating all the flavors in moderation. We eat until we are stuffed, and if that state is not achieved then it was an unsatisfying meal. Quantity trumps quality for us Americans. Italians instead appreciate freshness, variety and complicated processes of preparation. Sour and bitter and spicey flavors are welcome and necessary. And Italians almost never overeat. Being stuffed to near explosiveness is inconceivable to them. They sit ten around a table crafted for six, extra chairs squashed up against each other, elbows pressing on elbows, in the most constricting and uncomfortable seating arrangement, and then numerous plates are brought to the table each with something delicious on it, but so little of it that you are desperate for the plate to arrive to you so that you don’t faint from hunger later that evening. After you empty the serving dish that you greedily nabbed, you start to notice that everyone else is taking just the tiniest portion from each plate and passing in on to the next diner. Everyone is getting a taste, but no one is going to get full at this table. Panic strikes in the heart of the American guest who is now certain that fainting will be a featured part of the evening’s festivities. But that is how they rock a dinner. Moderation. It is their post war touchstone. And the children are taught to allow the guests to have the best pieces of everything (which we Americans are all too grateful for).
Americans look at food as something we have to do. Italians get to do it. Americans eat at restaurants so we can spend time focusing on our friends. Young Italians invite you to their home so you can cook together, each contributing his or her specialty, and then they prepare the table and clean up as part of the social experience (although it is true that woman do nearly all the cleaning while men do a lot of the cooking). Whereas American men think of cooking as gay, or woman’s work, unless it is a paying job at a restaurant, in which case women aren’t really suited to perform adequately. The two countries have this misogyny in common in the professional field, but at home, when guests arrive, recipes and food preparation is the one crossover point between the sexes. All Italian adults can talk for hours about food. But when it comes to truffles they are about as ignorant as we Americans. Except that they have a basic idea of what a truffle is. They are not as a culture obsessed with gambling, or drugs, or porno, or tv or theater or photography. They have their hobbies which a huge thing in Italy. Or some obscure interest that they dedicate their free time to rather than watching the pathetic game and variety shows with half naked girls used as “screen dressing” for comedians who perform the most pathetic really lowbrow humor ( weird accents and making faces while wearing wigs). There is nothing worse than Italian television and they are all ashamed of it (and those who aren’t should be!). What is most un American about Italy is their gentle culture based on being patient and forgiving with children, caring for the elderly in home with the support of extended family, and their buracracy which is by any standard heavily layered, and is still essentially based on a sense of social responsibility in which people ought to be helped. This value, health care as a right, is completely un-American, even after Obama care, because we are more strident, less patient, more black and white. Italians are pretty non committal, until they aren’t, and then changing their minds is an exercise in futility.
“Getting rich” is the driving characteristic of the American culture, and “Making money” is what we have to settle for. This affords us a unique creative flexible view of things. Potential matters to us because change is possible. Not in Italy. What are the drivers of the Italian culture? Are they the same as the American ones? I don’t think so. Yes people want “more” of everything good, and less of everything bad. This is what drove us out of the trees and on to the ground millions of years ago. It explains why America is so successful at creating wealth. But how do we explain Italy (Rome was “the USA” of two thousand years ago)? There is no explaining it, no understanding it. You either enjoy it, or survive it, depending on your own character.

Ciao Oprah! entry #8

Last week’s big news was that Oprah Winfrey was in Umbria pretty much in the area where I live, hunt and train truffle dogs. I heard Oprah had announced a bucket list, a list of things one wants to do before kicking the bucket (read dying for our foreign readers who will not be familiar with the phrase). My high school friend Carrie Genko wrote me a month before Oprah’s top secret arrival that I should contact the media mogul and invite her to visit my family’s holiday farm, Agriturismo Il Cucciolo. I took for granted that Oprah would end up in the more northern region of Piedmont because they historically have done such an outstanding public relations campaign over the years and have become synonymous with the words “White truffle”. Sadly for Piedmont there is very little truth to the claim that they are the most important region regarding the precious white truffle as nothing could be further from the truth. They have the oldest White Truffle festival and little more to offer truffle lovers. Kudos to Oprah for not believing the hype, and instead visiting the most important truffle region in Italy, and for that matter the world, Umbria, which is the only place on the planet Earth where you will find all four of the world’s most delicious and valuable truffles. Nuff said.
Oprah planned to visit the right place for a truffle hunt, but of course she didn’t want to be mobbed and bothered by people like me, among others with more sinister intentions I like to imagine, so everything thing was arranged in top secret. I remember the day my truffle hunter friend told me about a secret vip he had been hired to take on a hunt. I remember saying to him that there was this American woman who wanted to do a truffle hunt in Italy… he didn’t recognize her name so I gave him a short history and ended with that she may very well be the most influential woman in the United States given her faithful and obedient public, and her role in helping the first Black U.S President get elected. But neither of us even considered the possibility that his secret vip could actually be her!
He was concerned and embarrassed about his dog’s name, Dick, and didn’t want to make a feaux pass by opening any pornographic doors in front of his as yet unknown vip. I laughed with him as I explained Dick is a nickname for Richard and then listed a few famous Dicks he might know, Burton, Nixon, Tracey, Moby, and then explained there is also a pornographic component to the name, but not to worry, someone might make a little joke but it would be in good fun. As it turned out, the dog would later be introduced to Oprah as ”Nick” as I discovered when reading the various articles about her visit, and laughed about a second time on the phone with my friend when he told me all about his encounter with the dynamic big O.
I never got to meet Oprah and her traveling companions. They have moved on to the rest of their trip heading for Africa. I am still here, smiling, dreaming, training dogs to find their first virgin truffles in the forest. The joy of experiencing that first authentic find, a truffle that Mother Nature placed under the earth instead of Breon with his shovel and disposable rubber gloves, is like seeing your child take her first steps. It is a truly joyous moment both for me and the dog’s owner with whom I share a special bond afterwards. Some of my clients are very hardened men, men of few words, who only believe their own eyes and approach things, especially American truffle dog trainers, with a doubtful disposition. It reminds me of how I so often felt during my childhood.
All my life I have felt a self imposed burden of having to prove myself to people around me. As a kid I fought a lot because I was one of a small hand full of white kids in a mostly black and Puerto Rican neighborhood in nyc, and the common thinking was black people were cool and white people were soft, weak. I was a “white boy” but not a weakling, and I became a bully. As I got older, in my early teens, I stopped being a bully and transferred my confusion to the need to prove myself at sports. I played football in a sandlot league in the Bronx for the Coop City Rams in 1976 and 1977. The team was probably 90% black kids 9% Puerto Rican, and 1% white. The perfect ambiance for perpetuating my insecurity and need to prove something to others. Every time I left our home street (94th) to play basketball in another neighborhood, I felt the need to prove to everyone (other players as well as spectators) that I didn’t suck because I was white. I still have similar feelings of needing to prove my capacity each time I take a puppy’s owner into the woods to search for truffles. The only result that brings total satisfaction to the dog’s owner is when the pup finds a truffle. That is the ultimate proof that my job was done well. It is the result I want for every puppy I train. But it is not easily achieved with the precious white truffle. There are so few places where it grows, and there are so many hunters passing through these places with dogs. High unemployment in Italy has created a throng of truffle hunters, mostly in need of experience and a better trained dog, but full of unreasonable expectations. Putting a newly trained puppy in this environment, searching in this overcrowded forest, is almost a formula for failure. And it has happened two times that a student of mine did not succeed when I went into the forest with the owner, and the expectations the hunter had on drop off day seem, to me, to be dashed.
For other truffle dog trainers it is common that the puppy work better (read sniff the ground a lot) but doesn’t find truffles after having been trained. My reputation is based on speed of training (a week to ten days) compared to my competitors who require three months and don’t have anything resembling my success ratio either. I have been relieved when on the two occasions that a puppy didn’t start finding virgin truffles immediately, the experienced owner says, “don’t worry Breon, she is really working now, and it is only a matter of time before she finds something. You gave her focus. You calmed her down. You stopped her wandering, she comes when called, ” etc..
Just last weekend I took a dog into the forest with her owner. I had trained her six days and felt she was ready to search for virgin truffles. She was 18 months old which means for 12 months someone else was trying to train her without success. Probably screwing her up, accounting for her high degree of timidity. Most of the clients bring me their dogs at 6 or so months for training and haven’t done anything more than feed the pup ground up truffles to eat with their kibble, or tossed them whole truffles to retrieve. This particular pup worked really well, but didn’t find anything for an hour, and I was starting to be concerned that she might become discouraged with no finds. The truffle hunter acknowledged she was working better than before the training, but he was also frustrated that she wasn’t finding. I felt that expectation from my childhood, wanting to prove how bravo I am. I knew if she could find a truffle then I would be held in awe by this guy. And then she did it! A beautiful piece about thirty grams with a pretty good perfume. We were like brothers, friends for life, parents gushing over our child’s brilliant first words. An interesting way to spend time with another man I don’t really know so well yet. Soon after she signaled another find, and there were two pieces in the same hole! A rarity. She was on a role, and I was on cloud nine, anticipating the hunter would give me some of the truffles out of appreciation for what I had done for him. No way! These country guys are ordinarily very cheap, here we say “their arms are short” intending that they can’t reach their pockets where the money is.
I would like to have shared this strange world of dogs and truffles and country folk with Oprah. But in truth I would probably have felt a little awkward with her too, having something to prove, but what? No, celebrities always make me want to impress them. I resist going in the opposite direction and being hostile or negligent, and instead have learned to treat them like any other person, with respect and kindness, never allowing myself to accept less than I deserve in turn. I would need to take an emotional step backwards to gather myself, remember that I am me, not perfect, and neither is anyone else. That I am lucky to be able to do what I like to do, and fortunate that other people are interested in it, including her. Then just enjoy myself in my perfect imperfection. It will be lovely like this when you come and explore the fascinating and delicious Italian Truffle culture with me.


The Ideal Truffle Hunter. Entry # seven

This past Sunday, the 28th of September, the Precious White Truffle season (known here as Trifola) opened in Umbria. It opened three weeks ago in Tuscany, and since my license to hunt truffles permits me to do so anywhere in Italy, I went to Tuscany and found a few real nice pieces, several with an immature scent and a couple with a perfect perfume. Walking through the fields and forests of Tuscany, where there is less forest than field, I started noticing that I suffer from a prejudice of a sort about who is a truffle hunter.

When I imagine what a truffle hunter looks and acts like I envision an older guy, someone that respects nature, moving slowly and silently through the woods with his faithful companion who’s nose is gliding across the earth whiffing and sniffing and snorting in a geometric search pattern, missing nothing, while the old-timer meanders along communicating telepathically. This mythical truffle hunter never talks to anyone about how much he found, or where, because he is so utterly self contained he has no need to impress, or even engage other hunters.

I have met a fair number of truffle hunters. Most of them are young men, traipsing through the wood doing whatever they want , adhering only to the secretiveness of the sport, spreading false information and, chopping down bushes to access difficult places, and refusing even to perform the basic courtesies and rules of the sport: ie to refill their enormous holes in the earth after extracting truffles, preventing the death of future truffles in that place. Are they hunting a rare but renewable food, or are they eco- assassins? The reality of who hunts truffles does not match the icon from my imagination. But there is one fellow comes near to fitting my description, even surpassing it, my mythological figure of “The Truffler”.

I met Ishmael one afternoon last  February (2014) in  the pine forest of Calzolaro, a very tiny, nearby village (if you will). I had just had a very unsettling experience while working with a young puppy in the last stage of training, searching for real truffles instead of those I had planted for him. All of a sudden I looked up and saw four enormous black wild boar running silently towards me. Panic!  I thought to climb a tree, but this forest has only pines whose lower branches are all dried out and sharp, and it would have hurt me much  more than the boar were likely to. I decided not to climb since usually wild beasts avoid us humans whenever possible, and when I stood up and turned to face the four horses of the apocalypse, they had already made a 90 degree turn and were running away from me and my sweat drenched scent. I suspect they hadn’t seen me from a distance as I was on the ground with the pup, being present with him while he dug at the earth.

The pup was unfazed by this exaggerated amount of nature we had just encountered, while I wanted a shot of something strong, so I headed back in the direction of my car, parked a hundred meters from where I was hunting, and I saw Him moving toward me, silently like the boar had, at a speed I wouldn’t have considered possible for a guy his age in a forest this dense. All of a sudden he was upon me, and it occurred to me, the wild boar were his heralds purveying the tract of land ahead and bearing witness to his imminent arrival. He spoke to me just as I heard voices in the distance to my right a ways off where my car was parked on a white top road that gave access to this wood. He said “ you are a foreigner aren’t you?” , I answered that I was, but that I lived in the area and spoke decent Italian.

“Yes I know, I have heard you with other men, and also talking to the dogs. I am happy to make your acquaintance, I am Ishmael.”

The name suited him perfectly, mature, even old, but healthy and limber, formal but friendly. Of course I thought of the first line of the famous book, and smiled. He smiled back as though he knew what I was thinking, and I was certain it was so.

“You are a reader then!” he exclaimed.

“ I am, yes sir I am. It runs in my family, even my son has the gene.”

“May I ask your name?”

“Of course, forgive me” I apologized easily. No one is accustomed to meeting people in the forest and I forgot my manners with this unusual person.” I am Breon. Breon O’Farrell”

“You are Irish then?”

“No, I am American from the United States.”

“Ahhh splendid! I enjoy Americans, You are so enthusiastic! And you liberated  my country from the old Fascist threat, and then sort of saved us from the Communists, a debt we Italians can never repay. May I shake your hand?” I was taken aback by all of this as meeting people in the woods while hunting truffles was an unspoken violation of space and considered particularly intrusive, a little like being in Central Park late at night, you just don’t speak to strangers unless you are in The Rambles for a reason. But this Ishmael was utterly charming and didn’t seem at all to be hitting on me, and his dog was ignoring my puppy’s unceasing energy and I was getting a kick out of the situation.

All of a sudden our hands embraced, and I felt very happy to be meeting him. His large hands and firm grip revealed his strength, incongruent to his age, but their softness confirmed he was not a farmer or any other type of laborer. Perhaps a surgeon or a violinist I guessed as I played that game in my head. He had a face whose mouth was always about to smile, but never seemed to break out in full teeth. Just a hint, a glimmer of humorous interest in everything. His eyes were ready to follow his mouth in mirth, and just as quickly as his bright face appeared, he announced that he would enjoy it if we met again in the forest some day, he called me by my full name and he was off. His Lagotto, pleased to be rid of my puppy, trailed him as he passed from one bit of forest to another as though he knew there was no use even pausing to allow his dog to sniff for truffles.  Either that or he had somewhere important to be.

The voices of the other approaching trufflers revealed themselves as they drew closer. A couple of them were guys I knew, local guys whose dogs I had trained. They approached me with wonder in their eyes and voices. As I kneeled and greeted their dogs, one of these guys, a real young dude who I didn’t really know but had seen around, a sort of a big mouth, and  joker, said “What the fuck just happened!”

“What do you mean?” I responded, annoyed but pretending not to be..

“Was that guy talking to you?”

“Ishmael?” I asked.

“He told you his name?”

“Yes. Why?”

“That guy never talks to anyone. Even if you see him at a bar having a drink. He is a total asshole. I can’t believe he told you his name. Why did he talk to you?“ They all pressed me.

I told them he was interested in me because I am American and you don’t see many Americans in the forest hunting truffles, do you?

“Especially not Americans from New York.”

No, never from New York. But really no Americans at all.

“You are the only one I ever saw Breon.”

I don’t fit my own idea of a truffle hunter , but being one makes me feel special because I am one of a kind here in Umbria. As a Truffle Dog Trainer I am even more rare, like the truffle herself. But not as expensive. I have held an honored place in the community and many of the men respect me and want my knowledge if not my support. Their working dogs have great value to most of them, both emotionally and economically, and I am a part of that experience with all my unusual doggie ideas. Even the guys who are too proud to ask for my help are curious about what I might be able to do for their truffle dog. They like knowing a foreigner, but they even more enjoy having one as a sort of friend.  And I don’t mind a little male attention as long as it is not too competitive. That bores me something terrible.  But I was sure this Ishmael would not bore me. Encountering him made me feel relaxed but curious, and I didn’t mind so much that I had only five minutes earlier been terrorized by four wild boar, then inappropriately approached by a stranger in the forest, then verbally abused by some local guys all while musing about another discovered  prejudice in myself, why do I have these silly preconceptions? My actual question to myself is, Who is a real truffler? Not me for sure because I am not committed enough. But perhaps I had just met the ideal truffle hunter in Ishmael.  Unfortunately the forest is a big place and I didn’t expect to ever see him again since I had never encountered him before. But wait, he said he had heard me talking to people and to dogs. “Where?” I wondered. Perhaps we had met in a group, or stood beside each other at the bar of a cafè while ordering a drink. “Maybe we will meet again after all” I thought to myself. And we have.

Pig vs Dog ? You Decide. entry # 6


Many people are under the impression that pigs are used for finding truffles. Not in Italy they aren’t! It is against the law to use a pig here. Perhaps they are still used in some archaic fashion by two little old dudes wearing berrets in the countryside of France, but that is it. Dogs are the truffle finder of choice in the modern world. And I am a dog trainer.

Pigs are born to eat truffles and other underground roots. Dogs are not, so you lose some number of truffles to your pig, and this must really be upsetting. Point for the dog.

Both animals are intelligent, and can be trained to perform tasks for Man, but you will probably have noted in your daily life that dogs get all the choice gigs while pigs are relegated to the occasional film acting roles, Green Acres and Babe for example. This may or may not be attributed to the dog’s greater intelligence contrary to what is said in animals rights, and pig lovers circles. The dog’s superior intelligence is most evidenced in the fact they he is man’s best friend while the pig is…. Thanks to the multi tasking dog we can continue to enjoy the pig for his greatest  contribution to mankind: the BLT sandwich and Chinese spare ribs.

Note the big stick in the hand of the old French dude in the picture. Pigs are desperate to eat truffles,, and the hunter has to hit the poor little guy over the head when a truffle is located so that he can safely put his hand in the earth and extract the precious edible diamond without having his fingers bitten off. Most old French dudes have only eight or nine fingers because they didn’t whack the pig hard enough! I wouldn’t want to hit this little pig. Take another look at the photo. He is the cutest thing in the world and it is really sad that he is not as bravo as the dog at helping his owner put truffles in the pouch.

Sadly, in Italy most truffle hunters train their own dogs with ancient methods handed down from grandpa (whose grandpa used a pig), and they feed their small puppies a mixture of kibble and ground up truffles so the puppy will think of a truffle as food and search it out in the forest… and try to eat it! A competition ensues between man and dog, a race so to speak. Give me a break, why create the same problem in your dog that the pig presented. This dilemma has more to do with man’s stupidity than either the pig’s or dog’s.  But since a dog generally won’t bite his owner’s fingers off, it is a stark motivation for switching beasts, and another point in favor of the dog. But contemplate how many truffles are mangled or entirely consumed by dogs instead of placed into the truffler’s pouch. It is a lose of millions of euros and quadrillions of titillated taste buds per year, all because of backward thinking and refusal to explore and accept new fangled ideas, like positive reinforcement.

I find myself once again in the right place at the right time (luck of the O’Farrells) as the local’s backward thinking has made me the best truffle dog trainer in Italy (I have crowned myself so) and if not, at least I am meeting an impressive number of guys who do the difficult part of the truffle industry’s  chain of production: taking them safely out of the earth. The other difficult part is having connections in urban centers where people are eating truffles. Ding again. Light bulb!

The most obvious reason to chose a dog over a hog is laid bare every day when we see the tracks that wild boar (first cousin to the pig) leave behind in the forest after they have found and eaten truffles. They dig up an exaggerated amount of soil with their snouts and eat all the truffles. Damn them! Of course eating all the truffles is bad enough but they also leave the all important mycelia exposed to the elements which ensures the end of truffle growth in that location permanently. So the pig’s wild cousin destroys future growth like no one else, more so  even than  the hundreds of new, greedy and disinterested truffle hunters who have emerged on the scene in the last few years since the economic turn down (here in Italy we call it a crisis).  They all take the required exam in order to earn the truffle hunting license, and this course achieves little other than emphasizing how crucial it is to refill every hole your dog makes. Even a foreigner couldn’t leave the class without being clear on that. And still the forest is like an 18 hole gold course at the tee box with divets left untended, not to mention the prominent hole on every green.

In order to be fair to both the pig and the wild boar who are held in contempt by the truffle hunter,  you must dig a little deeper to discover they are also providing a service to the circle of truffle life. After they eat truffles they shit in the woods. Spores are spread and new truffles will be possible in ten years. Not bad right? Talk about delayed gratification though.

In any case the boar and the pigs are less damaging to the environment than the truffle hunter and his species, Consider his refusal to fill in holes, his insistence in cutting down trees without knowing if truffles are growing on their roots, and his refusal to shit in the woods to spread spores. Damned uncivilized if you ask me.



The Meaning of Food. entry # 5

Perhaps I don’t have the right to discuss the topic of Haute Cuisine. I certainly am no expert on fine dining.  I haven’t even been a contestant on a reality show. Yet.  No, I am just a truffle dog trainer who likes to hunt and eat the precious treasures. I know what I like, and that is a good start when it concerns food. I also have a very wide breath of experience having eaten in numerous fine restaurants over the years, both here in Italy and in New York. But during my childhood, adolescence and young adulthood I permanently tarnished my reputation, and all but eliminated the possibility of ever being taken seriously as a source of information about food.

I have eaten many hundreds of burgers and fries beneath the golden arches, and untold drumsticks of Kentucky’s Fried. Foods prepared with less than fresh, less than high quality ingredients. And the worst part of it is that I enjoyed every bite. My childhood friends and I couldn’t wait to get to the newly opened plastic restaurant where the food arrived fast, was cheap and delicious, especially those fries. We were seduced by the speed and price of a meal, less than a dollar (99cents). We felt comfortable in the  artificial environments of these restaurants as they were more welcoming to our kind of people. We thought our loud and raucous behavior would be tolerated, that we wouldn’t be criticized for not knowing which fork to use first. Our boistrus entrances were followed by silence as we stuffed our faces, even dangerously so when measured on a choke-o-meter. Then another loud display of our youthful confidence on the way out.

Do you remember Tang the astronaut drink? Gallons. And Jello? so wobbly much. How about frozen t.v. diners? Hundreds. And frozen chicken pot pies, and canned spaghetti and meat balls by chef Boiardi? Canned soups of pop art fame, canned fruit cocktails, peaches and pineapple, For breakfast there was always some sugar coated cereal with synthetic vitamins added to the box after the fact. Shit, sometimes I ate chocks and Flintstone’s vitamins for breakfast. And enjoyed that too. Occasionally we ate something healthy: mush. Better known as Oatmeal, but even that was drowned in high fructose corn syrup poured from the slave maiden’s jug, void of any real maple syrup. When I was old enough to steal candy I went on a pretty regular diet of sugar, and then beer and pizza replaced that in my teens. So  when I purport to talk  about food with the timber of an authority, you can know how little credibility I have. I am on the record.

But given this history I must also admit to having never been a hillbilly. I came of age in NYC where everything is possible and yes it does happen. I have eaten all the fanciest foods, many times over, Caviar, lobster, patè, clams, special cuts of beef from Japan and Argentina. Sushi at Nobu, meals prepared by private chefs for wealthy families for whom I was a guest, every imaginable international cuisine, you name it. One could say food is the hobby of every new Yorker, but it would be more accurate to say judging restaurants is our passion because we don’t really cook much, and never invite guests to our apartments for a home cooked meal, we go out to meet with friends and to be food snobs.

Let me clarify that neither canned nor frozen foods are in themselves unhealthy. Here on our farm we freeze and can high quality produce and fruits so that we can eat them later in the year. Otherwise we would be overwhelmed with the arrival of so much produce all at the same time, and the bulk of it would go rotten. Fresh to frozen works. Fresh to canned does to. But not to the exclusion of fresh foods as part of our daily diet.

Without being an expert in nutrition I feel safe saying that it is the processing of food that raises health and taste questions. That and the many non food items that are to be found in small print on the label of a package. Things like colorants; preservatives; artificial flavors; stabilizers; and most anything that has a number, an unpronounceable name, is vague or unfamiliar to what ordinarily passes for food. Yet my own history confirms for me that we do not have to obsessively avoid anything that doesn’t pass the Politically Correct test. As foolish as it is for me to eat as I did in my youth, it would be an exaggerated swing in the other direction to insist on everything being locally grown and organic all the time. I want tasty food. My father used to say “Breon, you have to eat five pounds of dirt before you can die”, whenever something delicious would fall on the floor and before he would pop it into his mouth.

I am going to let you in on a little secret about truffles. It is not that their flavor is more delicious than any of your favorite dishes. What can compare to lobster claw in melted butter? Or a good clam chowder soup, or a  lamb chop or anything with garlic on it. Bacon! Fresh figs, mozzarella di buffalo with balsamic vinegar on it.  No. Truffles are not more tasty than any of these dishes and ingredients. Instead, the flavor  of truffles is unique, different from anything you have ever eaten before. So if you are addicted to and only eat salt, fat and sugar, and don’t appreciate the other flavors for their own qualities, then you probably wont appreciate truffles. And that is fine. No law says everyone must like truffles.

The other remarkable thing about them is how scarce, and difficult to find they are. Only a specially trained dog can locate them (forget about using pigs!). Something so rare is more than a food. Truffles are an event, like hunting  dangerous animals must be. Truffles are like rafting a river that is presently  going to be damned up and disappeared.

There is still a bit of barbarian in me, and perhaps I have been a  savage in the past when it comes to food. I like to try new dishes, but I don’t like to mess around with things that don’t interest me.  I put truffles on my favorite foods to enhance my pleasure of them,  almost like a condiment.  Yesterday I hunted the forests nearby my home with the most well known truffle hunter in Umbria, author, activist, expert etc…. He has a dog with problems and wants me to help him. He made all sorts of wonderful suggestions about how to prepare the truffles I found, and instead of attempting one of his more elaborate recipes, I made Penne with garlic in my own extra virgin olive oil, with a sprinkle of our own dried, spicy hot, pepperoncino, covered, no buried, no smothered in an enormous amount of fresh, Black Summer Truffles. Perhaps the last ones we will see for a year as the season closes on Sunday and I may not get into the woods again before then. Hot pepper and truffles? My expert client frowns. His recipes are delicious. Silly me, but yummmmm…. I know the meaning of food.

Remember Charles M Young entry # 4

The telephone. “Hey Bree, you want to go to a concert” Many of my phone calls with Chuck started off this way. He was a Rock and Roll writer and started his career in the 70’s with Rolling Stone Magazine, so he was always getting comps to this event or that concert. This particular phone call was exceptional because John Cougar Melloncamp was coming to Jones Beach and we were getting there by Limo, and going backstage to meet the star, an old friend of Chuck’s., There were plenty of perks in being the best rock and roll critic in the game, and Chuck knew all the coolest, most rebellious celebrities like John Belushi, Patti Smith, the Ramones.

After three quarters of the ride out to Long Island the Limo driver turned around all of a sudden and yelled out ” you’re Charles M fucking Young, I can’t believe it! You are my favorite critic….” He went on to speak badly about the featured act as he had delivered him to the arena earlier and thought he was stuck up like most celebrities are, ” But not you Charles, I can call you Charles can’t I?…

” Call me Chuck, andtell me what  Melloncamp did to you. He is a friend of mine so I can bust his ass about it later”. He was always for the common man.

We arrived early, and the band and a few stage hands were playing a pickup basketball game backstage. I stood back a bit as a few of them greeted Chuck warmly and invited him to join the game. Since he was pretty tall everyone wanted him on their team, but chuck had played football in college, and basketball was not his thing. He urged them to have me join the game, which didn’t enthuse anyone as I am not particularly tall and I was wearing sandals and had hair down to my ass. Little did they know I grew up on the mean streets where you played basketball 8 hours a day in order to avoid violence and drugs, and I was actually quite good at it. Basketball that is. In no time flat I had won the admiration of all the musicians who generally suck at sports because they are afraid of hurting their hands, and was dominating the other best player on the court whom I had immediately been assigned to guard. He was athletic but short, so I could easily block his shot and take all possible rebounds from him. I felt good about my performance.

As soon as the game ended Chuck asked me if I knew whose shot I had been blocking for the last ten minutes. Oh no! Poor Melloncamp, star of the show and best athlete among the musicians. I figured he wasn’t accustomed to being dominated in his circle. Chuck introduced us and he asked me about my sports background after complimenting me on my game, and then sped off to prepare for the show. Afterwards I told Chuck I thought he took it pretty well, but he assured me the star was very competitive and was furious, if not humiliated inside. Chuck couldn’t wait to tease him later.

John Cougar Melloncamp put on a rocking show, and as usual, after seeing a live show, I was enamored by the performer and wanted all the CD’s and a tee shirt too. We went back stage and Chuck was teasing me about how he was going to pop the great artist’s balloon about the basketball game. We got past the various levels of security and finally into his private dressing room where there was a line of well wishers excitedly waiting to plant their lips on the royal ass which was literally seated on a throne of a chair propped up on a small stage. HE was wearing a really expensive looking cowboy hat pulled down over his eyes a bit and reminded me of a super cool Mafia Don. Suddenly he called out “Chuck, get over here!” and the two of us cut to the front of the line. Melloncamp busted on Chuck for being a pussy and not joining the basketball game earlier. Chuck responded in all too loud a voice “At least I didn’t get schooled by a hippie!” to which both the rocker and I blushed beet red. He fumed while I trembled, hoping not to get too much on his bad side.

Having just been brought down a notch after his amazing performance, the artist was aglow as his super model girlfriend  entered the dressing room having missed the show and arrived late. This would be his trump card, the super hot babe on his arm while Chuck was my date. But even before greeting her fiancé, she cries out “Breon what in the world are you doing here!”  Poor Melloncamp. I had met this gem of girlfriend earlier in the day at the studio of a fashion photographer whose dog I trained. We had chatted for ten minutes and she was just the nicest person, the kind that would remember the name of a guy that has no relevance in her life. But I am sure the singer assumed I had slept with his girlfriend before they became a couple.

Thanks for showing me a good time Chuck, you sure were an excellent date! I will miss you brother.




Back to Nature entry # 3

I was born and raised in New York City during the 60’s and 70’s, when new York was a tough place to live despite all of its wonders and miracles. It was the time of the Black Panthers, Motown, and the platform shoe. But like all real new Yorkers I was conflicted, torn between the energy of the hustle and bustle, and the desire for a softer, gentler path. In the 1980’s I read a bunch of books about the ecology of our planet (Helen Calldicott particularly scared me) and I got concerned about how we were living. The hole in the ozone layer was large and growing, global warming was going to result in ever higher sea levels eventually flooding Manhattan, our exaggerated use of energy would bore a wound in our Mother Earth, and her tears would be precursors of our demise as a species. So I grew my hair long, put on sandals and linen clothes, started praying in the Sweat Lodge and shopping at the organic health food store. I wanted to get back to nature.
Being in synch with nature is not an event, it is a series of discoveries and disappointments. We city kids had central park as our main point of reference. I recall my upper west side neighborhood as a green place despite all the sky scraping residential buildings. There were many concrete backyards with dedicated areas for bushes and trees. Between the avenues there was a tree growing out of the side walk every twenty steps or so. My first feelings of being one with nature were at the roots of a city tree in front of the building where I grew up. I found an ant hill there.
Being part of nature is not really such a romantic experience for me. It means feeling cold in the winter and sweating my ass off in the summer. It is the combination of science and magic that propels me into the next project that interests me, believing that I am on the right path because there is a comfortable transition laid out in front of me. I want to learn from nature, see myself as part of it, and grow as a spiritual, emotional and intellectual being from the insights I notice. The Ant hill from my childhood has presented itself to me again as an adult, and it has taught me more about myself. I have held ants in quiet contempt for my entire life. With my adult mind I admire the way they work, their dedication and focus, how they never seem to worry about the results of their labor. They find purpose in the doing, in the process and not the result. But my childish mind acted naturally and reflexively by stomping on any ant hill I came upon. Ants and roaches and water bugs were all fair game even though the ant should most certainly have been placed in a more admirable category of insects.
Today I live in “the green heart of Umbria”, in Italy. The name attracts Italian tourists who are seeking a return to nature, even if for just a long weekend. Italy’s resources have been overexploited for two thousand years, but Umbria has been little touched over the last few hundred,  as it was effectively closed off from the other regions by the Church. My wife and I run a holiday farm where Umbrian ants, their location, their number and their direction, are an ongoing focus in my life. Italian ants are teaching me lessons that I never could have expected to learn from New York roaches.
When I discover ants in my pants, I mean, my house, I have to determine from whence they come so I can kill them at their source. Disturbing their assembly line does nothing to deter their efforts. I have learned to meld with nature in order to see the ants. I intentionally slow down my pace, release other responsibilities and obligations. I soften my focus during the search. When I do this, almost magically, subtle pathways appear in the grass and I can see easily where the little buggers are coming from. My daughter and I call this technique “using our magic eyes”. I use this technique in the forest when hunting truffles too and it is allowing me to better appreciate my surroundings. I am less afraid of getting lost because I can make distinctions among the trees now.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not indiscriminately killing ants like I did as a child. Only those that enter or come too close to entering the house will be killed. The fact is I have been killing ants my entire life just like the rest of you readers have. Something inside me beckons for their ruin. Ants, mosquitos, flies and roaches, not to mention fleas, tics, lice, crabs, wasps and bed bugs all of whom are acceptable targets for this seemingly natural urge, and I have at my disposal ever more potent weapons each of which is frighteningly more powerful and more effective than stomping. I am not intending to effect the overall ant population, this is not a holocaust. I can barely control their numbers and maintain order on the land surrounding my house. But this murderous state of purpose I go into every Spring and don’t resurface from until the winter, is not a bloodthirsty rampage as much as it is a meditative act. I intentionally enter a heightened state of seeing and then calmly use my vantage point to kill ants. Not for food but for comfort. It is not a very enlightened spiritual undertaking, but it is very Natural.
I do a similar thing with truffle dogs on a daily basis. Just, not the killing part. I enter into their world and their minds, understand their environment and way of seeing, and seek to know their motivations. I am a monster to the ants, but with dogs I provide a purpose and meaning to life. I give and get an intimacy that has value and importance in a world where even someone like me (like us), can kill other living creatures for my own comfort and still be a positive influence in the world. I must tread on the grass. But I will do so as lightly as I can, with respect , and without regret. With gentleness and forgiveness for the less than perfect, like myself. There is a sign on my front door “No ants allowed”.

The Only One I See entry # 2

I have been living in Italy for ten years as of this writing, August 2014, and I have been hunting truffles with my dog Trilli (which means Tinkerbell) for seven years or so. I am the only American I have ever seen in the woods of Umbria and Tuscany searching for the precious tuber. Likewise I have been farming our land and doing all sorts of other handy type activities all the while being the only farmer I see wearing Ralph Lauren or Agnes B apparel. I am known in the area by all the local people because I am a novelty to them. That American who came “here” from NYC. “How crazy!” they say.
When Tourists talk about wanting an authentic experience in Italy, to do something off the beaten tourist track, they ought to consider going truffle hunting since there are zero foreigners doing it, and only the most local of locals can even consider becoming hunters because the locations where truffles are to be found are some of the most highly prized secrets in all of the world, right next to the launch codes of the U.S President’s football briefcase. Men have been tricked, lied to and mislead all for this information. They have been threatened, seduced and assaulted, their property destroyed and their dogs murdered, all over the truffle and her secret locations.
So how is it that I, an outsider here on the Umbria Tuscany border, am able to discover locations where truffles can be sniffed out from their underground hiding places. How do I convince these local guys, so many of them dressed in military fatigues, to take me to the locations they hide from their own flesh and blood relatives?
First of all I am a likeable sort of person. My friend, Rock and Roll critic Charles M Young used to tell me, “Breon, you are an unusual character. Girls like you but I don’t hate you for it”. But when my winning charm is not enough (which is often the case) I am saved by the fact that I am a dog trainer, and I use modern methods rather than the ancient wisdom of good old great grandpa for teaching dogs the skills they need to succeed. My methods are faster, more thorough and gauranteed to improve the dogs capability. The local truffle hunters like me because instead of kidnapping their puppies for a three month training session I require only a week to ten days to complete the task, so their rapport with the pup is not put at risk of detachment. Also, and perhaps most importantly, I am the preferred truffle dog trainer here because I am not a competitor. What interest does a local dog trainer have for improving a competitors capacity to find truffles? I hunt and eat truffle for pleasure, not money. And I am American so I take pride in doing a good job. Italy is a country where getting the best of customers is way too common an occurrence.
For whatever strange reasoning, the local guys come to me for support with their dogs, and part of their payment to me is information. I require a new location Where I can take their dog to prove to the owner that the dog finds truffles in nature, and not just in my personal dog run called “The dog garden” at our holiday farm. There is a difference between my dog garden and the woods.
When I visit a place as a tourist I enjoy going to the movies and witnessing how they experience cinema. I like comparing their culture to mine. I also like to go shopping in grocery stores and checking out all the unusual packaging and products. But truffle hunting is on an altogether different plain of experience. There is the magic of being in nature, the wonder working as a team with a dog, the find, nothing compares to the find, except perhaps the eating afterwards. Truffles are the only one I see.

cool breon

I am not just “an American in Umbria” Italy, but: a New Yorker; a dog trainer; a truffle hunter. “He’s got to have something interesting to say”, I can hear you thinking. Yes, I (humbly) do, but only if you are interested in New York, Italy, dogs or truffles. If you are, read on!
I came to live in Italy under strange circumstances. Don’t get me wrong I wasn’t blackmailed or Shanghaied. I had double pneumonia and collapsed while on a vacation in Omaha Nebraska (yes I can hear you thinking again). It was 2004, I was working my ass off because my wife and I had just had a second child and I was trying to earn enough dough to make it go. I ran myself ragged, and thought it was allergies instead of a deadly bacterial infection. I spent a week in the isolation ward of the hospital because of the blood spitting, and the docs wanted to rule out Tuberculosis which is very contagious. After a week in the hospital They told me to go home and recover there, “you are far too weak, and there are so many dangerous bugs you might catch in the hospital”. I went home but the antibiotics didn’t kick in, and I got worse. A second visit to the emergency room followed and the Doc told me I was having an allergic reaction to the antibiotics. I figured he meant the medicine might not save my life. Up till then I had always taken modern medicine for granted, with my “eastern ways are healthier, anti-western medicine” thinking. But our precious baby daughter was only six months old! If I die of pneumonia she will never even have known me. Even our three year old son won’t remember anything about me. Please God, I want a dose of western medicine! I made myself two promises then and there: If I survived this situation I would take the cure for another contagious disease I had carried for twenty years, Hepatitis C for which there was a scary, expensive treatment, one I was adamantly opposed to on irrational, rebellious, leftist, New Yorker principles. The other promise was that I would move our little family to Italy, to live in the dilapidated farm my wife had inherited and we routinely dreamed about retiring to “one day”. I kept both those promises.
Big thanks to the St Vincent’s Hospital, in Greenwhich Village where I was born, and then brought back to life 43 years later. It has sadly since closed and is no more. Unlike me.