If dreary days of self-isolation have you day-dreaming of la dolce vita, you’re not alone. After all, sheltering-in-place is infinitely more appealing if the destination is a villa in the Tuscan countryside. But given the current restrictions on American travelers abroad, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to upgrade our quarantine abode anytime soon. There’s no need to despair, however; Not only is misery as counter-productive to la dolce vita as running out of wine, but we’ve also found a remedy for our summertime blues. Recreate the ambiance and atmosphere of a Roman holiday from the safety of your home this summer with the webinars and wisdom of Giulio Benuzzi—better known as Giulio the Truffle Hunter.
Giulio Benuzzi is a truffle-hunting legend and pioneer, founding his iconic Truffle Experience just over twenty years ago, in Tuscany in 1999. I had the pleasure of hunting for truffles with Giulio last June, searching the hillside of Fiesole on a beautiful summer afternoon. The experience began (as every experience should) with a round (or two) of Aperol Spritzes on the terrace of Il Salviatino, a magnificent 15th-century villa whose Renaissance splendor overlooks the city of Florence —and where Giulio leads tours on the private grounds of the estate. Fortified by tangerine liquid courage, we followed Giulio’s trusty canines, Eda and Maga, as they chased the scent of truffles throughout the exquisite gardens of the Italian countryside.
Giulio shared bon mots and wry wisdom as we meandered through a magical world of olive trees and lavender fields. I felt myself crossing into an alternate, parallel universe of a life well-lived and days well-spent under the Tuscan sun. (Afterward, we would enjoy the fruits of our labor—not to mention the bounty from the hotel gardens—during a luxurious multi-course dinner at Il Salviatino.) Perhaps it is because the experience defies reality so much that it is so often captured on reality television (as seen in the 2018 season of The Bachelor, Top Chef, and the ill-fated Very Cavallari). And today, that sense of bliss, that picture-perfect Roman Holiday moment in time, seems more inaccessible than ever. Though it was merely a year ago, it seems to have been decades. When I first met Giulio last summer, his effervescent spirit and unbridled love of life—and wine, and truffles, and his wife, and so on—was so inspiring to me then. Now, post-lockdown, it feels like a distant dream.
To that end, we reached out to Giulio Benuzzi for his distinctly Tuscan guide to life, love, and the pursuit of happiness—after all, there is no better time to mentally transport oneself to the Italian countryside than while quarantining at home. And who better to consult on la dolce vita than the godfather of Tuscan truffle hunting, after all? And especially one who moved cities and switched careers and overhauled his entire life in the name of love—and managed to achieve the good life somewhere along the way? But we don’t want to give too much away—read on to learn more about truffles, Tuscany, and Italian cinema. After all, why bake bread from scratch at home when you can churn truffle butter instead? Buon Appetito!
I know you have a beautiful story about how you ended up living in Tuscany and hunting for truffles. Could you share what brought you away from your corporate job and into this line of work?
When I was younger, I was a managing director of the famous Le Api restaurant in the center of Milan. The restaurant was closed during the weekend, and my second mission was to go to Tuscany to find authentic organic products. During one weekend in 1980, I meet a girl that later became my wife. So, for love. I destroyed my career as a manager in the restaurant market, and I came to live in Florence without any idea of what doing! In the mid-90s, I opened the first bed and breakfast specializing in daily wine and food experiences in the south hill of Florence. The first Italian catalog of food experience was signed with my signature in 1997, so I can be’ considered the father of the food experience. The bed-and-breakfast became an important place to visit for a lot of wine and food lovers from the US.
You’ve mentioned you moved to Tuscany for love, and in many ways, the Tuscan countryside is the perfect place for that. Why do you think makes Tuscany unique, not only in Italy but in all of Europe?
Tuscany, as well as the whole of Italy, is a land rich in water and minerals of volcanic origin too, which is why we have infinite varieties of wine grapes as well as fruit, cereals, cheeses, and truffles. The recipes of Tuscan cuisine are many and all delicious! In addition, Tuscany is the cradle of the Renaissance. It’s rich in historical and artistic sites, museums full of riches, spectacular architecture of churches, and ancient villas up to medieval towns that have remained intact. The beauty of the landscapes, the countryside with long rows of vines and olive trees, the coasts on the sea with its romantic islands, make it a rare pearl.
What first motivated you to become a truffle hunter? And what’s your favorite part of your job?
During the ten years of Bed and Breakfast, at the end of their stay, I always asked American customers if they knew about truffles. The answer has always been the same: “we eat them occasionally, but we don’t know anything” When unfortunately 9/11 arrived, the Americans stopped traveling, so my Bed and Breakfast found itself without customers. It was then that I risked everything by deciding to close the B&B activity by transforming the structure into the “House of the Truffle,” becoming a truffle hunter. I sense the potential of this new activity and “reborn” Giulio, the truffle hunter. I have a great passion for truffle hunting, which allows me to spend most of my day in the woods with my dogs. Every day I am happy to meet groups of visitors from all over the world and to be able to share my truffle culture and the beautiful stories of my Italy with them.
The lifestyle in Tuscany is very connected to the beauty of the countryside, and truffle hunting is, of course, an exploration of that landscape. Do you think that Tuscany is the best place in Italy to hunt for truffles?
We can say that Tuscany is one of the most important regions of Italy for truffles. Just think: We have four different seasons for truffles, so for each season, we have a different truffle to look for! (Specifically three types of black truffles and two types of white truffles.) Obviously, Piedmont is the region famous all over the world for the Alba White Truffle, but perhaps not everyone knows that many of the truffles sold in Piedmont come from Tuscany.
Can you share with me some details about the program for the truffle hunting and the Truffle Academy?
When I created my truffle experience, I realized that I should have two programs: One for inexperienced people and the other for professionals in the sector, such as chefs, journalists, managers in the food sector. My truffle experience is a program for all those who know little but have curiosity and desire to learn more about the history, secrets, and potential of truffles. The Academy, on the other hand, is a much more technical program and also focuses on the methodologies and standards useful for restaurateurs and chefs to fully understand the correct usage and maintenance of truffles.
We first met at Il Salviatino, can you talk about your experience hunting for truffles in the gardens there?
The Salviatino Hotel was my first luxury hotel with which I started a precious collaboration. When I realized that truffles are growing in the park of the hotel, with the Director, we decided to offer our customers a unique truffle experience, and that was a great success. The customers come with me to look for truffles in the park, which the hotel chefs cook for them accompanied by the finest wines. There are not many hotels in Tuscany where you can do this type of activity within the structure itself, with the convenience of having a surprise at your fingertips without car transfers.
Pigs were once the preferred truffle-hunting animals in Italy, but you mentioned they weren’t the best coworkers. We can only imagine why, but do tell more.
Since the origins of this activity, both in Italy and in France, truffle hunters have always used pigs, especially for their extraordinarily developed sense of smell. The disadvantages consisted of the difficulty of managing a pig while searching. But above all for the fact that the pig digs invasively, often damaging the roots of the trees. For this reason, in the 70s, a law was introduced that forbids the use of pigs. And since then, dogs have been used.
What do you think it is about Americans in particular that they love truffle hunting in Italy so much? And truffle hunting with you in particular!
Americans are fascinated by truffles and love to come to Italy to go looking for them, never having done so. It’s a very mysterious activity, one that is full of secrets. I believe I have many clients/friends because I am friendly, and I know the world of truffles in-depth, but also because I have two fantastic, nice and determined dogs that everyone loves. And given my convivial and dreamer character, I write stories, poems, and songs with truffles that my clients ask me to read and sing. I wrote the songs together with a musician friend, Andrea Landi, with whom we perform the “Giulio the Truffle Hunter Show”, lots of music and stories dedicated to the king of kings the Truffle.
Tell us about your experience with Very Cavallari and The Bachelor! What was it like to be on those shows, and how did it come about?
In 2016 I was chosen by Airbnb for the worldwide launch of the Experience Catalog. During the shooting of my video, I was noticed by the American director of Panorama Films. According to him, he was struck by my extreme naturalness in front of the cameras. The video was a success, and thanks to Airbnb’s worldwide advertising campaign, I started collaborating with other directors and producers for American and British programs such as Travel Man (where I met Rebel Wilson.) And in the 2018 season of The Bachelor, it was decided that Arie Luyendyk would take Serine (one of the contestants) truffle-hunting. Being with them was a beautiful dream, an American troupe of 100 wonderful people surrounded me and made me feel like a star for a day since, with this massive arrival in the small town near Florence where I live, the word had spread that they were making a movie about me! In 2019 the news arrived that the production of Very Cavallari wanted to come to me with Kristin to look for truffles. Shooting in the rain made the job more difficult, but in the end, we managed it! Kristin is a woman of class and charm, a true diva that I hope to meet again soon!
How do you think the concept of la dolce vita is embodied in the Tuscan culture?
The concept of Dolce Vita is inherent in the Tuscan culture. That’s why—perhaps not everyone knows—the most important scene in the famous film Il Sorpasso by Dino Risi with Vittorio Gassman was shot along the Tuscan coast. (Featuring Vittorio Gassman driving a Lancia Aurelia dangerously, and at full-speed, daringly overtaking the road.) Maybe it’s inspired by the guide of the Tuscans? Another reference to the Dolce Vita is its symbol, the Vespa, the famous scooter star of many films of the time, produced in Tuscany, in Pontedera in the province of Pisa. The scooter still very popular today; it has become a must on the “Vespa Tour”, one of the most requested experiences. And the Dolce Vita continues to live in food and also in fashion, it is a lifestyle.
How can people incorporate a bit of that Tuscan mindset into their day-to-day lives, particularly now when many are stuck at home?
Recreating the Tuscan atmosphere also from the other ends of the world is easy. In the kitchen, for example, by ordering typical and genuine products online such as my fresh truffles and my highly appreciated all-natural truffle cheese, delivered in the USA in 24/48 hours, or by participating in my webinar on truffles where I also teach how to make homemade truffle butter. Finally, you can also feel Tuscany sipping one of our excellent wines listening to a piece of the great Tuscan tenor Andrea Bocelli in the background!
Given the pandemic, most vacations are currently on hold. As a result, virtual travel is more popular than ever. Tell us a bit about your webinars—after all, who wants to bake bread when you can make truffle butter?
Together with Mrs. Linda Sorgiovanni, a local tour operator of Florence, we introduce a small group of a maximum of fifteen people to learn about truffles. The live interactive webinar allows our guests to learn about all you need to know to become more expert. In the kitchen, I show them how to recognize the freshness and how to clean them. Later It will be’ time to prepare truffle butter and three simple recipes that always include the famous Tagliolini with fresh truffles. At only 37 euros per person, each household also has the opportunity to purchase fresh truffles before the webinar. Buon appetito!