Thriller set in Spain, both in the past and in the present
Tom Benjamin talks truffles in BOLOGNA
18th June 2021
THE TROUBLE WITH TRUFFLES
Tom Benjamin’s The Hunting Season digs up the dirt on the Italian truffle business
There’s a TV advertisement for a huge Italian sofa chain, the equivalent of the UK’s DFS, in which beneath dappled light a pair of grey-bristled men in brown aprons carefully upholster a chair. The men, it turns out, are from the sofa company, and the implication is that every one of their products is made with the same handcrafted care, something laughably improbable.
But this respect for the nation’s artisanal roots runs deep, and in a sense is symbolic of modern Italy: how it would like to see itself, and how it actually is.
What has this got to do with truffles? The seeds of my second Daniel Leicester mystery The Hunting Season were sown when my pal Paolo told me about his grandfather Enrico, who lived in a small town in the hills around Bologna.
Having fought as a partisan during the war, Enrico enjoyed rearing Lagotto Romagnolo dogs as part of his peacetime hobby truffle hunting. In those days, truffles were mainly a local delicacy, and Paolo’s grandmother Agnese used to get so fed up with them she would fling the excess fungi through the open kitchen window. Paolo remembers there was always quite a pile outside as he was growing up.
But one day the young Lagotto Enrico had been painstakingly training over the year to sniff out truffles went missing. He never found it. Instead, Enrico, a stoical ‘man of the mountains’, got hold of another pup, which he began to train, only for this one to go missing six months or so later. He gave it one further go, but the next dog only lasted a few months before it was snatched. At which point he gave up – the Nazis might not have defeated Enrico, but the Lagotto poachers had. Truffle mania had taken over and Agnese’s garbage pile had long since been spirited away.
The truffle trade now dominates Paolo’s hometown and has made what was once a humble community of hill farmers exceedingly rich. But just as Enrico discovered – where there’s money, crime follows close after.
And it’s not just the misbehaviour of the truffle hunters themselves – the stolen or poisoned dogs, the (illegal) hunts at night to avoid being followed – truffles have gone global, and that brings a whole other dimension of dodgy dealing into play, in particular, the encroaching threat of ‘counterfeits’: truffles smuggled in from abroad, thereby lacking the provenance and, connoisseurs would argue, refinement of the real thing.
What in the old days used to consist of no more than a chap turning up at the back door of a restaurant with a pocket full of Albanian truffles and a cheeky smile, has now turned into a major criminal enterprise, and legitimate truffle traders and restaurateurs have to be on their guard.
In The Hunting Season, my Bologna-based sleuth Daniel Leicester is tasked with finding a missing truffle ‘supertaster’ hired for precisely this purpose. With the aid of a glamorous TV reporter, the trail takes him through the city’s trattorie and on to its surrounding countryside – commonly known as the calanchi, or ‘badlands’.
It was a joy to write The Hunting Season because not only did it give me an excuse to sample plenty of truffle dishes in Paolo’s hometown, which, for the purpose of ever being able to dine there again, I have rechristened ‘Boscuri’, but I was able to learn much about a phenomena that has yet to emerge from the shadows – everyone, it seems, has a vested interest in keeping quiet.
Yet just as my debut, A Quiet Death In Italy, sought to explore the tensions around the gentrification of Bologna with Daniel’s investigation into the death of an ageing political activist, so behind what I hope is an entertaining and pacey plot, The Hunting Season is also trying to say something about a modern Italy that seeks to market itself upon authenticity but in the process risks selling its soul. And that’s no laughing matter.
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