Nose to the ground for the annual truffle hunt

The Apennine mountains near Bologna are rich in the world's most expensive fungus.
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The Independent Travel

In better weather, the walk up the wooded banks of the Cascate de Dardagne would be charming, with sun-dappled leaves and sparkling water. As it is, it's raining sporadically, and the mist has given the woods a Tolkienesque sheen. But even so, it's well worth it. There are many ways to be touched by the power of nature, and with the trees disappearing into clouds, mixing with the spray from the falls, it has a moody, muted atmosphere.

In better weather, the walk up the wooded banks of the Cascate de Dardagne would be charming, with sun-dappled leaves and sparkling water. As it is, it's raining sporadically, and the mist has given the woods a Tolkienesque sheen. But even so, it's well worth it. There are many ways to be touched by the power of nature, and with the trees disappearing into clouds, mixing with the spray from the falls, it has a moody, muted atmosphere.

About 42 miles southwest of Bologna, the Corno alle Scale Regional Park and the surrounding region of Emilia Romagna are parts of the Apennine mountains not that well known to British visitors. Here there are spectacular steep, forest-clad rocky mountains, the valleys joining up small towns and pretty villages. The creation of the park some 20 years ago not only has helped to protect wildlife habitats but also has encouraged tourism, and there's a good network of paths and tracks for visitors to explore.

One of the traditional rural industries here makes good use of the chestnuts which grow in abundance on the hillsides. Roasted, they are absolutely delicious, which I discover almost the moment I arrive at the Antica Locanda Alpina, a small pensione in the mountain village of Pianaccio. Heaps of chestnuts are being turned enthusiastically in a brazier of glowing red coals, and I'm encouraged to tuck in. It wards off the brisk chill of the night mountain air, but that's not the main way they're consumed. Harvested in October, they're spread out in the loft of a stone building called a casone, with a slow-burning charcoal fire beneath. It takes several weeks of gentle drying before they're milled into flour. It has a distinctive taste and texture which finds its way into everything from bread and pastry to polenta and soup. My favourite is ciacci, small, chestnut-flour crêpes, which come with various savoury fillings.

Sadly, what was once a major rural industry is now pretty much consigned to the history books. The casone, of which I pass a number on my walks in the hills, are now derelict. Even the village of Pianaccio, once with a population in the hundreds, reaches those numbers again only during the skiing season.

As you walk through the hills, it's very apparent that the vegetation lies in distinct layers. Lower down, the hillsides are clad with chestnut trees; higher up it becomes more mixed, with birch continuing up to the tree line. But there's more to be found in the woods than just trees. Walking from Pianaccio to Pogiolforato, I see a number of odd shapes lurking within. Every so often, just off the path, there are various works of art to be discovered: strangely shaped and strategically positioned stones supposedly demonstrating a synergy with their natural surroundings. If nothing else, it's fun trying to spot the next one.

But it's not just the hand of man you need to keep your eyes peeled for. There are wild boar in these woods, and I see plenty of evidence where they've been rooting about in the undergrowth. I don't see one and, disappointingly, I fail to see any of the pack of seven wolves that I'm told are also here. I do catch glimpses of red squirrels and deer, however, but I fare much better with the flora. The dark, dank forest floor provides ideal conditions for all manner of fungi. The woods are renowned for their porcini mushrooms, but they're not that easy to make out against the rest of the undergrowth. What stand out much more readily are the huge tamburo mushrooms.

When it comes to fungi, the ones that are underground are the most prized. This is truffle country, and I get the opportunity to see a truffle-hunter, or tartufaio, in action. Three months in every year sees Vallisi Corinto out in the woods with his dogs, sniffing out the pungent fungi, amassing as many as 95kg in a season. Keeping up with Vallisi involves much battering through almost impenetrable undergrowth and slithering down muddy banks. There are several false alarms, but eventually his dogs scrabble madly at the base of a tree. Using his special truffling stick, he extracts the truffle from between the roots. Cleaned up, it will fetch a good price from a local restaurant.

In fact, I get the chance to try some that evening in the restaurant Tibidi, in Lizzano in Belvedere, the main town of the area. I assume that perhaps the list of 17 courses is simply a menu from which I might dabble with two or three. But no, the idea is to work my way through everything. It features the local produce, much of it seasoned with grated truffles.

A dull and damp Sunday morning finds me in the cheese factory in Querciola. There are vats of yellowy-white liquids, strange aromas, but also a blaring TV set. Virtually everybody in the factory – the boss included – is gathered round, transfixed by the Japanese Grand Prix. Fierce national pride is at stake here. It may be a German driver leading the race, but he's doing it in a bright red Ferrari.

Having watched a world-beating Italian car, attention switches to their world-beating Italian parmesan, or Parmigiano-Reggiano, as they call it. Tangy tasting, it's matured on shelves for a good 18 months before being allowed out of the factory. I'd only ever tasted it grated fairly sparingly over pasta – now I'm eating it in huge chunks, washed down with local wine.

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