I was lured back to Tuscany for the launch of Toscana Resort Castelfalfi’s new golf clubhouse, but the highlight turned out to be truffle hunting, which is, unusually, year-round.
Matteo, 39, a third-generation hunter, has exclusive use of Castelfalfi’s woodland – which is, fortunately, heavy in oak and sparse in grass. His eight-strong dog pack, all males, always operate in the same pairs. They rush off, their tails working overtime until they detect a smell something 30 to 40 centimetres underground. Using his vanghetto long-handled dibber, Matteo rushes up, allowing the dog to scrabble madly too. Within five minutes the first beauty is unearthed, €60-worth of the most valuable white fungus (€2,000/kilogram). In 40 minutes Matteo had two white and two winter black (€800/kg) in hand, saying the the rain 10 days ago helped.
Only one truffle comes up per tree per year. From January to April Matteo might find small whites, while May to August is summer black season. He normally starts pre-dawn, will hunt for four hours and then go home for breakfast – say ham, bread, perhaps eggs and old cheese topped with honey and truffle crumbs, and invariably a glass of local red wine. Truffles must never be frozen. Instead, they must be kept in the fridge, used within a week and cleaned with a nail-type brush and a little water, immediately before using.
I flew into Pisa, but Castelfalfi would also have picked me up from Florence. Oh Castelfalf… what a unique gem! The 1,200-hectare rolling landscape estate includes a one-time Medici village turned lock, stock and barrel into a community with two hotels, 40 homes, plus boutiques and restaurants. It was bought up by TUI over some 20 years and, apart from the residences, is 100% owned by them (at least three TUI board members love the idea so much they have bought residences). The top hotel is the 120-room Toscana Resort Castelfalfi, a TUI Blue property and a member of Preferred. Its GM, Isidoro Di Franco, who moved here after years with Marriott, is a livewire impresario who is continuously around, and can mastermind and arrange anything.
We reach room #811 after a 10-minute art-lined walk, go up one floor then down another, roundabout, past as many labelled originals as in Sydney’s Powerhouse – I later discover it took only three minutes to reach the lobby by walking outside and around a terrace with modern sculptures posing among olive trees.
My room had a balcony with seating, all the better to look out over thousands of olives and vines to the distant hilltop lights of Pontedera, home of Vespa owner, Piaggio. I shall always remember the room not only for its four-wall cartoons of Pisa’s Leaning Tower, but for its bed, which has arguably the world’s best mattress (from Dorelan, an artisan studio near Florence).
Yes, I could have played golf – there is an 18-hole mountain course, and a flatter eight-hole course. I could have swum in the indoor or one of the three outdoor pools that are open to the public. I did join locals in enjoying walking the village street, now pedestrianised. The boutiques lining the sides offer rent-a-bikes, plus goods from wines through to tooled leather bags, bespoke shirts, fresh loaves of bread, fruits, and the best Tuscan gelato, hams and truffles one could imagine.
Back at the hotel, I did yoga, used the 24/7 Technogym fitness centre and had a blissful grapeseed rejuvenating facial. I learned how to make, and then eat, pizza. Throughout, I ate divinely, simple but quality products, prepared with obvious passion – and it certainly helps that Castelfalfi’s own wines seem to be available whenever. Even – as the truffle-master showed – at breakfast.