Image: Truffles
Raf Casert  /  AP
After cleaning a handful of truffles found in August 2010 in Amelia, Italy, some were used for a pasta dish and some were put in olive oil for the trip back home.
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updated 11/8/2010 2:52:57 PM ET 2010-11-08T19:52:57

Zara made sure we had a sumptuous dinner that night. Zara the dog, that is.

The cocker spaniel was our purveyor extraordinaire of black truffles.

Have them shaven over your dinner with a silver slicer by a coat-tailed waiter at any Michelin-starred restaurant, and you are in for a very expensive meal. But Zara just dug them up from the dark damp earth, carried them gently in her mouth and dropped them in her master's hand whenever Fausto Ostili shouted "porta."

Then Zara became the unwitting victim of one of the most lopsided economic transactions in history. She delivered the prized "tartufo" that went for 600 euros a kilo (almost $1,000 U.S. for 2.2 pounds) in a nearby shop and all she got in return was the tiniest portion of an industrial hot dog sausage.

Yet, her tail didn't stop wagging and Fausto's smile was one of deep-seated contentment during the two-hour hunt through the Mediterranean oak trees and mossy rocks dotting the verdant hills.

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Happiness in Umbria is what looks at first like a clump of dirt and smells like wet earth.

And unlike that other luxurious gastronomic pleasure, foie gras, this one comes without a side order of guilt. Even better, it turns you into a vegetarian. If only momentarily.

In Umbria, all you need is fresh pasta, the virgin olive oil from the same hills that yield the truffles, some onion and garlic to glaze. Mix it all, sprinkle it with age-hardened Parmigiano-Reggiano and have some local dry white Orvieto ready to wash it down. It might not have been the ideal food-wine pairing, but "tartufo" was king that evening.

The experience takes some discipline though — including rising in time to hit the woods at 9 a.m. In summer, it is easy — it is even good to beat the midday heat. But when the hunt is on for the black Norcia truffle from December to March, getting out of bed requires more discipline. For white truffles, the most expensive and highly prized of Italy's truffles, the hunt takes place in northern Piedmont, September through December.)

But even with a double dose of Lavazza espresso, there was no way to replicate the joy of two dogs jumping out of a four-wheel drive, the twisting of their truncated tails matching the pitch of their feverish breathing.

The dogs were sisters, but they could not have been more different. Zara did all the work, sniffing each patch of damp moss, scratching under stone after stone. Cita meanwhile specialized in playing with whatever scurried through the undergrowth.

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Zara came up with her first black truffle right in between the farmhouse where we were spending our vacation and the adjacent swimming pool. Basically every morning we were treading on black gold.

A big swath of the farm was surrounded by wire fencing to keep out boar and other creatures that know a good thing when they smell it. At one point, Fausto also found a porcupine quill under a tree next to a freshly dug hole, another sign truffles are special to man and beast alike.

Still, there were plenty left. Now, what to do with a black lump, sticky with mud?

Toothbrush was the answer. We went up to the local alimentari to buy one so we wouldn't have to use the ones we brought with us. Before cleaning them, we briefly put them in the fridge. Anyone doubting their origins only needed to open the fridge door half an hour later. That divine smell of wet earth immediately wafted right into your nostrils.

Since we didn't have a truffle mandolin, it came down to slicing it as thin as possible with a mere potato knife. When the shavings on top of the steaming pasta gave dinner its luxurious luster, anticipation was high.

If you go ...

My wife Reine's version was excellent — yet something intangible was missing. It didn't quite match those memories of the truffles we had the year before at Dimicla, a humble pizzeria in Tuscany's Loro Ciuffenna, where the smell under the awning every balmy night immediately drew you toward that part of the menu.

It didn't dampen the magic of the day: Something straight from nature, wild from a dog's mouth, highlighted a dinner at night. Still, over the next few days, the question lingered — why didn't we get that full opulence a truffle deserves?

With all the riches in and around Umbria, it was easy enough to get distracted. Rome, with over two millennia of history, was a short day-trip away. Orvieto, Cortona, Perugia with its medieval relics were also within striking distance.

The question came back one night illuminated by a full moon over Lago Trasimeno, when we were having one of the best dinners of our vacation in the eagle's nest of Castiglione del Lago. At the Ristorante Monna Lisa, our daughter Clara had picked a cheese-stuffed ravioli topped with "tartufo" and, suddenly, the absolutely right smell hit us.

This time we had to know. We called over owner Maurizio Bracci.

Yes, Maurizio said, we were right not to cook the truffles from the start, but no, just putting them on top was not good enough either.

"Saltare. Saltare," he said of the Italian word that roughly translates to leap and jump. Realizing he faced some linguistically challenged tourists, he put his hands together and started swaying like you do with a pan carefully flipping pancakes. That way pasta and tartufo mix perfectly.

"The pasta has to get drunk with the tartufo," he said, explaining the process should not take more than 30 seconds and not involve additional heat.

"The tartufo has to feel the heat. Just a little heat."

Related: Bon appétit! Dining well in a foreign country

Point taken. On to our next quandary: Such was the excess of the hunt, that we were not going to eat them all but wanted to take some home up north.

Deep freezing seemed too cruel a fate for such a noble tuber and too complicated to take home on a 1,000-mile (1,600 kilometer) trip. Olive oil provided the solution. Reine shaved the truffles thin, put them in glass and filled it up with fine oil to the rim. Close it up with a lid, look at it, and you think you caught the Italian sun in a jar.

Now that little bit of summer warmth and memories stands in our kitchen cabinet, waiting for the dead of winter. We hope to use it for a risotto with duck's breast or a mix with dried funghi porcini we had brought from a previous trip.

And if it doesn't work out, we'll have to get back. Perhaps in time for the NeroNorcia truffle festival in the Umbrian medieval town of Norcia, traditionally held the last weekend of February and early March.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Rome, “The Eternal City”

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  1. Open for business

    Tourists walk in the Colosseum near the hypogeum (underground) on October 14, 2010, in Rome. The underground, never before available to the public, is now open for visitors. (Franco Origlia / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Underground tour

    Gladiators, wild beasts and ... tourists? Yep. People visiting the Colosseum can now walk around the underground chambers where lions and tigers were caged and gladiators waited to hear their fate. (Ettore Ferrari / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Roman hot spot

    More than 18,000 people visit the amphitheatre every day. The newly opened areas will be accessible to guided tours of a maximum of 25 people at a time. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Colosseum

    The Colosseum is one of the most recognized structures not just in Rome, but in all of Europe. The building, which was inaugurated in 80 A.D., is visited by several million tourists each year. (Alberto Pizzoli / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Papal Basilica of St. Peter

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  6. Roman Forum

    The Roman Forum is located between the Palatine Hill and Capitoline Hill. The ancient city's most important and oldest structures were situated in or near the Forum, including many shrines and temples. (Doug Pearson / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Piazza del Campidoglio

    The Piazza del Campidoglio was designed during the 16th century by Michelangelo Buonarroti. The piazza is located atop Capitol Hill in Rome. The structure seen today dates back to 1560. (Filippo Monteforte / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. City hall

    Two tourists rest next to a statue in front of the Campidoglio, Rome's city hall. The statue, one of a set of two, was built by Italian artist Matteo Bartolani in 1588 and is meant to represent Rome's Tiber River. (Gregorio Borgia / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Castel Sant'Angelo

    Castel Sant'Angelo, sitting above the Tiber River, was built by the Emperor Hadrian as a tomb for himself and his successors. The Mausoleum was later completed by Antoninus Pius in 139 A.D. (Robert Harding / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Trevi Fountain

    Legend has it that if a visitor throws a coin into the Trevi Fountain in Rome, he or she is ensured a return. About 3,000 euros are tossed into the fountain each day, according to the BBC. (Sharon Lee / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Capitole Museum

    Antique statue fragments sit inside the Capitole Museum yard, located at the Square of Campidoglio, in Rome. The Capitole Museum contains an antique collection began in 1471 by pope Sixte IV. (Gerard Julien / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Basilica's interior

    Shafts of light fill the interior of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican. Tourists who plan to visit the basilica should take note of a strictly enforced dress code, which includes no shorts, bare shoulders or miniskirts. (Kazuyoshi Nomachi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Sistine Chapel

    The ceiling of Sistine Chapel was painted by Michelangelo Buonarroti. Images on the ceiling depict scenes from the book of Genesis, and the walls are covered with Renaissance frescoes created by other artists. (Jim Zuckerman / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Vatican Museum

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  15. The Pantheon

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  16. Museo D'arte Contemporanea Di Roma

    The Museo D'arte Contemporanea Di Roma (MACRO) houses a permanent art collection that includes "some of the most significant expressions characterizing the Italian art scene since the 1960s," its Web site claims. (Paolo Cordelli / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Villa Medicis

    Villa Medicis is a 16th Century garden located on the Pincian Hill at the top of the Spanish Steps. The gardens are complemented by statues and fountains. (Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Villa Borghese

    The area now known as Villa Borghese was originally started as a vineyard in the 1500s, but was purchased by cardinal Scipione Borghese, nephew of Pope Paul V, in 1605 and turned into a park. Rome obtained Villa Borghese in 1903, and it was opened to the public. (Will Salter / Lonely Planet Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Piazza Navona

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  20. Rome from above

    This aerial shot of Rome shows the Vittoriano Monument, dedicaded to the Italian king Vittorio Emmanuelle II, in the background. (Patrick Hertzog / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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  22. Spanish Steps

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  24. Vittorio Emmanuele II monument

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