Hunting the underground truffle, or “tartufo,” is a competitive sport; selling them is a competitive business.
URBINO, Italy – When the sisters were both pregnant – both tired, and both full of hope – they moved their truffle shop to the center of town to draw in more business.
Now, a year later with their babies at home, Monia and Michela Costantini run a successful shop, Tartufi – Antiche Bonta, in the heart of Urbino.
“The world of truffles is wonderful,” said Monia, 34. “We are in love with this job.”
There are many places in Urbino that sell truffles, but there are a few things that distinguish this from other truffle shops, said Monia.
First, they buy their truffles directly, so there is no middle man, which keeps the costs low. Second, they have their own line of truffle sauces. Third, they teach their customers how to cook with the truffles and give out recipes. Fourth, they have a tasting room downstairs in the shop. Fifth, they export their truffles – currently, to four other countries. And finally, they are a family owned and operated business.
“Sisters work better together,” said Michela, 32. “We know each other better, so we work better together.”
Urbino has a saying, tartufo fresco tutto l’anno, which means fresh truffles all the year long. Different truffles grow at different times of the year. This area has land that is filled with all these varieties, so truffles can be hunted all year.
This fungus food is a rarity because of the way it has to be found. They grow underground near the roots of trees and can only be found by specially trained dogs. They then have to be carefully dug up. If the truffle is broken, its value decreases.
Truffle hunting can be challenging. Hunters could go out and not find a single truffle. In addition, the competition is grueling. When someone finds a great truffle location, they keep it a secret.
The sisters were introduced to the world of truffles by their father, a truffle hunter of 25 years. Growing up in Aqualagna, the truffle center of Italy, it was only natural for truffle hunting to be a family affair.
The family planted truffle spores on his land 10 years ago. It took eight years for a truffle to be produced.
Now, they work with friend Daniele Bellucci, who learned truffle hunting from his father when he was 8 years old.
“This is a hobby for me,” Bellucci said. “I have a passion for it.”
In this ultra competitive business, Bellucci works at the Benelli gun factory by day and truffle hunts at dusk.
The secret to truffle hunting, Bellucci said, is in training the right dog. It is all about understanding the dog. Dogs are easier to use than pigs because they are easier to train.
Bellucci also intends to continue to make truffles a family hobby. He is teaching his two sons to find them as well.
Michela and Monia’s business started five years ago in Urbino in a shop that was farther away from the center of town. They moved to the center of town to draw in more business from tourists and to open a tasting room. Being on the border of town created problems because of lack of foot traffic.
The current location was built in the 1400s, and still contains the original well, said Monia. It used to be one of the main central wells of Urbino at the time.
It looks like a small shop from the outside, but a window on the floor looks into the basement that they turned into a tasting room. The sisters also use this room to host events such as dinners and graduations.
“We choose all of our own products,” said Monia. “There is nothing in the store that we don’t like.”
With a passion for their customers and good food, they teach their customers how to cook with the truffles and truffle products.
They invent recipes but try to respect traditional dishes.
But at the end of a long day at the shop, both women have a second job, motherhood. Both 12-month-old Alessia and 9-month-old Nicolo keep these hard working women busy when they get home.
“Leaving my baby at home is hard,” said Michela. “But you can do it when you have gratification from your job.”