Last weekend, while wearing white jeans, white trainers and a white-ish jumper, you would have found me squatted over rich black soil, burrowing with my bare hands, in the pursuit of black gold.
I was on a trip organised by the glorious David Rowan (ex-editor of Wired magazine) called Voyagers, which brought together a group of neuroscientists, activists, product designers, ex-Anonymous hackers, entrepreneurs, behavioural economists, actresses and other fascinating folk, to a beautiful palazzo in the little known region of Marche on the Eastern coast of Italy near San Marino.
It was a weekend full of fascinating discussions, games, food, cycling, pottery making, and wine… but the highlight was absolutely the trip to a local truffle farm. We got to follow a truffle dog as it rushed around an orchard and occasionally furiously sniffing and scratching at a certain spot on the ground. We’d rush over with a shovel, and start digging around the spot the dog was sniffing. We had to do it carefully, for fear of chopping the truffle in half. So instead, we’d dig around the spot, and then use our hands to rub the black soil to see if there was a truffle in it.
I cannot begin to describe how thrilling this was. There was something deeply primal about using a dog to hunt an ancient and rare fungus with a pungent aroma, and using our hands to scrabble in the soil to find it. Occasionally our guide would sniff the soil, to see if we were getting close. There was an aroma of musty velvetness in the air.
And then EUREKA! We’d come across a nugget of blackness, which didn’t dissolve in our hands like the soil around it did. We found the truffle! We’d gently sweep away the soil, and then bring the nugget to our noses to breathe in its heady aroma.
But we’d be off again, running after the dog as it sprinted to another spot, and the burrowing in the soil would begin again. I found myself not caring at all that my hands were black and my jeans were stained. I was intoxicated with the primal delight of using my hands to find these little treasures. Indeed, it felt like I was a Goonie following a treasure map to discover buried gold.
After we’d collected – what we were aghast to calculate – several hundred pounds worth of fresh truffle, we went back to the farmstead – picking up a basket of eggs directly from the chicken coop on the way – and watched as a lovely Italian mamma hand-kneaded pasta using flour and these eggs. She then hand cut the pasta into tagliatelle ribbons. And then we hand-grinded the truffle into powder, fried it in fresh butter, and then tossed the pasta in.
We were then served this pasta, with exquisite wine and crusty bread with fresh tomatoes and olive oil. It was the embodiment of bliss.
The blissful state was temporarily interjected with hilarity. There was a woman who joined our group who was friends with one of the farmstead workers. She was Russian, and dressed like a stereotypical Russian: washed denim waistcoast with lavish fur collar, bedazzled jeans, etc. She wasn’t talking to anyone while we were nibbling antipasti out on the porch ahead of our meal being served, and after a while, she turned to me and said in a thick Russian accent “You like music?” as she held out her phone. I said “Of course, yes, I like music!” thinking she was about to put on some fitting classical music to accompany our blissful state.
To our wide-eyed surprise, she puts on some tinny Euro-pop trance music with shrill auto-tuned vocals, totally disharmoniously to the setting. She further takes our breath away by proceeding to start dancing. On her own. To this music, while surrounded by serene Italian countryside. Then she smiles at me, and says “You like? It is my music… *my* music!”, and I realised she meant this was her song, that she was one woman singing above the tinny trance sounds. That I was meant to express awe and praise when I was actually trying to hold back a chuckle. Thankfully, I could muster up a “Wow, really? That is wonderful!” because having to turn away and hide my smile as she continued to bump and grind to her own dance song, playing on her phone, in the middle of the serene Italian countryside. Bless.
I felt a little ill at the end of the day, no doubt because of my slight over-indulgence of the rich truffle pasta and delicious Italian wine. But it was worse every wave of nausea, every muddy stain on my white clothes, to have experienced the bliss of this day.