Nicola and I pulled the Citroen SUV we had rented under the large tree at the back of the villa. I pulled the parking brake to secure it on the sloping Tuscan landscape. We were on the four hundred acre property of Tenuta Di Sticciano, an estate that has developed from the union of farms which were built on ancient settlements of the Etruscan and Roman periods. Not long after we arrived, a Suzuki 4x4 pulled up beside us. A man named Stefano greeted us with a big smile before looking behind us with a reluctant look on his face.
"I don't think your car will make it down to the the riverbed."
As much as I had looked forward to this, he was right. It just wasn't worth dealing with the headache of trying to get the Citroen out of the Italian forest should it become stuck, or the insurance nightmare that would surely follow.
"You can ride with me, but there is only one seat."
Not to be defeated by the circumstances, I responded happily, "let's do it."
As soon as we drove into the woods, I was very glad I hadn't taken the Citroen. It would have been a disaster. The embankment was steep and the road small. Time and the elements had ensured that every couple hundred meters the dirt trail appeared as a piece of lasagne might appear after being sliced by a knife, with giant slanted divots separating one side from the other. With Nikki on my lap, we gripped the handlebars along the frame of the car tightly as we jostled about. I looked over and noticed a worn, tin candy box with ornate lettering across the front of it. It sounded empty as it bounced in the cup holder and looked like it hadn't been opened in thirty years. I thought it peculiar–why would Stefano not have thrown it away by now?
Eventually we got to a clearing, parked and stepped out. Stefano swung open the trunk and unlatched the door of the crate as a black and white peppered pup burst out, wagging his tail happily. His happiness enhanced my own, as with any good dog.
"This is Pepé!" Stefano said.
I began to pull my gear out of the Suzuki and Nikki and I balanced the load between us. We had our hands full as we began to walk down the steep slant to the riverbed. It was late September and the ground crunched beneath our feet, every step having the potential to send us sliding down the steep grade. We followed Stefano's steps carefully, using the light stands to push back the brush at our eye line. Eventually we reached the riverbed. It was completely dry with a four to twelve foot embankment on each side, depending on which section of the river we were at.
Pepe began sniffing around, panting excitedly. It was quite the game for him.
"BADACI!" Stefano yelled to Pepe as he waved his hand.
Pepe immediately darted away.
"So how will we know if he finds something?" I asked.
"He will get very excited."
"He looks excited now!"
"Haha, you will understand soon!"
We began walking down the riverbed in Pepe's direction. Large logs had fallen across the top of the riverbed and into it and we had to climb over and under them as we spoke about truffle hunting and Stefano's past. It was nostalgic, taking me back to the days of my childhood in Gainesville, Florida wandering down Hogtown Creek.
"So what do you use the spear for?"
"We call it a 'vanghetto'. It is used to gently excavate truffles from the ground. Not to mention, when walking deep into the forest there are all kinds of wild animals. There is a pack of five wolves that are known to roam this property. I'm lucky that the only time I've encountered them was when I was getting back in my car."
I became immediately more aware of my surroundings.
"Where do you get one of those?" I said, looking to distract myself from the idea of being eaten alive.
"This was my fathers. When I was young he would take me with him. My first memory of it was in 1982, but I actually got my license five years ago when he fell ill. After he passed, I kept his jacket, which he received from a friend, as well as his vanghetto and began finding myself wandering the woods, remembering him and finding time to be with my thoughts."
As boys, when we are with our father, it is as if we can never die. Then they do and we are suddenly confronted with our own mortality. Even after death, we continue to seek their guidance. Our first instinct is to reclaim the moments when they were alive and we took them for granted. So we walk around with their vanghetto and jacket in the woods, knowing we can't get those moments back but trying to relive the moments that made them who they are so we might draw closer to them. We hope Wisdom might greet us in a way we could not have possibly seen before, because the security of their presence only gave and never asked of us.
"That's beautiful. So that's when you got Pepe too?"
"Yes, Pepe was born in 2015. My father bought him in a livestock auction, training him first in our garden, hiding small truffles here and there and after a few months went to the woods. Dog training has to be felt as a game for a dog so every time he finds something you have to give him a reward, which is usually a cookie."
Just as he finished his sentence, Pepe seemed very focused on an area about six feet up the wall of the embankment. He became very still and you could hear his nose sniffing and see he was trying to sort it out. Out of nowhere he began digging wildly. It was as if he was digging to breathe. To survive. He had no good footing on the steep wall but was managing to somehow balance himself and dig effectively as dirt flew in all directions, covering us as we tried to step out of the way.
"You see?" Stefano asked.
"I see!" I said as we all laughed.
Stefano let Pepe dig for a couple more moments and then pushed him to the side as it was Stefano now sticking his whole face into the dirt. I laughed even more as Stefano told us,
"Come, come! Put your face here!"
Reluctantly, but not one to be rude, I obliged.
I put my face in the same spot as Stefano and understood perfectly.
It was as if I was tasting it. "Wow!"
Stefano grinned happily.
He took his vanghetto and slowly began digging, gently brushing away the dirt as an archeologist might dig for ancient artifacts. Pepe, possessed by the smell, was still trying to wedge his way back in as Stefano held him back.
A few moments later, Stefano pulled out a truffle about the size of a ping-pong ball. It was much larger and the smell was much stronger than the truffle he had shown us at the beginning of our journey.
"It smells wonderful."
"Yes, it is a nice one" Stefano agreed.
He continued, "Every kind of truffle grows in a different period. From January to April the Marzuoli (quite fine), in May truffle hunting is not allowed, from June to September for the Scorzone (I don't hunt them), and from September to the end of December is the White Truffle, the best of them all. That is what we have here."
"What do you do with these when you find them?"
"I love to cook with them, but will also sell them to private buyers and restaurant owners. By weight, they are some of the most expensive food products in the world. A good truffle can go for more than $5 per gram, or $2,000 for just one pound."
"Stefano, I think I'm in the wrong profession."
We continued walking and chatting for some time. We passed an old van that had been abandoned probably back in the '70's. I thought of the people who might have owned it and what Italy would have been like back then as the owner came to the river for a swim.
It felt like quite the adventure and my curiosity had allowed me to completely forget that I was there to make an image, which is arguably the best way to be as a photographer; present.
I began looking for a scene but the woods were very busy and the light was peppering the ground in spots as it shone through the tall trees above. We reached a hard curve in the riverbed where you could tell the current had been strong because the wall was much taller and the river had carved much deeper into the embankment. The light was more even here and I had a little more space to set up the massive modifier I had brought with me.
"This looks like our spot."
We began setting up as Stefano rested against the wall of the bed, smoking a cigarette as Pepe rolled around beneath him.
After finishing setting up, I realized Stefano had already inadvertently made a shot for me. I snapped a few frames as he sat before walking around the area, photographing different locations until I found a few that I was satisfied with. Stefano had an amazingly unique countenance and I felt lucky to have such a strong subject.
We began hiking the two hours back to Stefano's 4x4. When we piled into the SUV we had three nice-sized truffles to show for our efforts. It felt like a great success. The Suzuki crawled back up the bumpy grade just as the sun began to set. I couldn't help but want to get a dog and find a way to do this in the United States. It was much more fun than I ever expected.
I was thinking about the places in America that might be suitable for truffle hunting when I heard the clanking once again. I turned and looked at the empty tin box, bouncing around in the cup holder. "Why?" I asked myself. Then, like a curtain being lifted, I understood. With Nikki still on top of me, I grabbed it and held it up, looking at Stefano as he switched gears.
He looked me in the eye, smiled and nodded,
This would not be the last time I would see Stefano.