Picking their way carefully over the uneven ground, William & Mary student Lauren Weiss and her fellow Umbra Institute students followed Matteo Bartolini – and his truffle-hunting dog, Sole – as the farmer showed the class around the woods and meadows of his farm, nestled in the Tiber River Valley in northern Umbria.
As Sole sniffed out truffle after truffle, Bartolini demonstrated how he used a medieval-looking shovel to carefully dig the fungus from the ground. When Sole found the rare white truffle, he was rewarded with cubes of parmesan cheese.
“We think of truffles as elite food,” said Bartolini, as he scrubbed a truffle with a toothbrush after the tour. “But it was the hungry farmer who first tried the food on his pasta centuries ago.”
Thirty-six-year-old Bartolini is not only a truffle hunter and farmer but one of Italy’s representatives to the European Union agricultural committee in Brussels. Umbra Institute Professor Zach Nowak deemed Bartolini’s tour ideal for the course he is teaching through the institute’s Food Studies Program (FSP).
“The field trip was a great opportunity to reinforce themes we’ve talked about in the classroom: foraging for wild foods as an integral part of the Italian diet, as well as the rural economy,” Nowak said after the class enjoyed a four-course meal made complete with pork cutlets and a rich pasta dish, both cooked with the same truffles they had dug from the ground earlier that day. “It was also simply fun for students to learn about the truffle, which composer Rossellini called ‘the Mozart of mushrooms.’”
His students agreed.
“Seeing the amount of work that has to go into finding and preserving such a small mushroom was eye-opening,” Weiss said. “The lengths people will go for flavor! My favorite part of today was definitely the meal; I was surprised how many different ways the truffle could be incorporated into the meal,” she continued.
Nowak’s course, “The History and Politics of Food in Italy,” fulfills the Umbra FSP’s goal to encourage students to think about how, while we eat three times a day, we rarely consider the basic questions of how or what we put in our mouths. Where does the food come from? Is it important that it be “local” or “organic?” What do the labels really mean? These questions are fundamental to life in our globalized world, Nowak explained.
One bus ride later, Weiss was back at the Umbra Institute, which is an American study abroad program located in Perugia, the central Italian city known for its chocolate and 35,000 university students.
*Reprinted with permission from the Umbra Institute Food Studies Program
Lauren Weiss ’14 International Relations major and Economics minor. This past summer, Lauren interned with Soluciones Comunitarias, a social business, in Guatemala. You can usually find Lauren at The Daily Grind either working or eating chocolate chip scones. I’m involved in the International Relations Club, Tribe Ambassadors, and Virginia21.