In the Umbrian village of Pettino, at the Chiacchiarini family farm, where truffle dogs and sheep remain companions for the day – In conversation with the founder of Wild Foods Italy
Nathan (Mac) fell in love with Francesca and the way of life in Pettino, he decided to stay and never meant to leave. He and wife Francesca saw the potential of the farm and the opportunity to make it grow, they started running the estate and they ideated the birth of ‘Wild Foods Italy’, centuries of experience handed down through the family. According to Mac, «being a farm means work, it takes time and years hunting for truffles and the sheep». To keep the farm, they wake up at 5.30 am. «One of the perks of living in a village is that we have the freedom to organize our day, working or not, we get to take in the environment, the view of the mountains and hills with their changing colors every season. Being there, isolated, allows us to work together with the family». The majority of their visitors are foreigners, from North America. They come for the ‘Wild Foods Truffle Hunt’ experience. «Truffle hunting is an age-old job, handed down from generation to generation. People start at a young age. Francesca’s cousins have been hunting truffles since they were children. They hunt every day, during the season and when not in season. Being from New Zealand I wanted to share it with people from other parts of the world and introduce them to this life. The ordeal with truffle hunting is that we have to be ourselves, this way visitors get a glimpse into the way we live and observe our daily routine. We erase the snobbery truffles exude».
Due to the combination of soil and climate, Umbria produces a number of black truffles in Italy. There are a variety of truffles harvested in Umbria that can be found throughout the year, but summer is for truffle hunting. «The weather plays a role in the quality of truffles, here truffles have been growing for hundreds of years and we do not have truffle plantations. In the US they say, a quality truffle is big and aromatized, but this does not hold true. The flavors and the smell is what one must look out for». When it comes to categorizing truffles, Mac tells us that the result of a truffle depends on the tress in its surrounding. When asked about the role played by the dogs in truffle hunting, Mac explains, they are looked after at the farm and are a fundamental part of their lives. «Truffle hunting dogs, wolf chasing dogs, sheep herding dogs and pet dogs – we need them to survive. Truffle dogs are trained and when they go hunting, we trick them with biscuits, for them it is like a game in which truffles get involved. When they match the scent of a truffle and find it, you give them a snack so you get the truffle and they get the biscuit. A dog who does not learn to hunt is uncommon» says Mac. «At the farm our dogs are looked after. We have a close relationship with them. When they get injured, we nurture them back to health. When they turn old, it is the dogs that tell us it is time to retire. We hunt on a daily basis and if a dog decides he does not want to hunt on a given day, we let him retire».
Guests who spend the day in Pettino are consumed with the village and explore the Apennine Mountains in search of truffles or visit the sheep while tasting pecorino cheese with Prosecco. The experience starts in the barn where the sheep are milked twice a day. One is welcome to give it a try – it is a way to understand the health and well-being of the flock. There is a visit to the 900-year-old cheese aging room, where the process and tasting of cheeses from two months to over a year old can be witnessed. The truffle hunt starts from the mountain village of Pettino, the dogs lead the way and must be followed in order to witness the sniffing-out of truffles. Stopping at a spot in the hills, you can experience the first taste of a dug truffle savored with a glass or two of Prosecco. The shepherd, flock of sheep and the wolf-chasing dogs join for company on occasion. After a truffle hunting adventure, strolling the countryside with the truffle hunter and the dogs, guests return to the farm for a mid-day meal. Luca and Alessandro, the truffle hunters, light up the barbecue and prepare sausages for lunch or dinner and wood-fired bruschetta is made with olive oil made in-house to taste. The family’s culinary delicacies from salami and prosciutto to dishes like pasta with truffles or pesto made by Francesca are savoured. Giovanna (Nonna Giuseppina), Francesca’s grandmother, has inherited the family recipe of making pasta and specializes in gnocchi while Francesca is adept at tagliatelle. An opportunity to contribute in the kitchen while preparing the meal is offered while techniques handed down over the centuries are revealed. In 2016 Mac and Francesca opened the ‘Black truffle lodge’, an accommodation made of two suites equipped with a Jacuzzi. The suite comes stocked with a rack of local wine, Prosecco and cuts from cured meats – salami or capocollo. «At a point we realized that the experience we were offering was not restrained to truffles or food» reveals Mac. «We opened the Black truffle lodge because of the number of people visiting us. We decided to create a couple of lodges for limited guest. We wanted to provide a rustic place, to familiarize the rawness of the farm with the comfort of the lodge». Mac continues. «From the lodge looking down the valley, they have a view. Patrons can have a stroll in the village and immerse themselves in the Umbrian world».
At Wild Foods Italy, apart from offering truffle hunting and culinary experiences, they partake in the production of wool in partnership with Lanificio Fratelli Cerruti, based in Biella, Piedmont, that deals in the production of wool processing and wool clothing. «The family has Sopravissana sheep, one of the two varieties of wool growing sheep in Italy. Francesca’s grandfather used that breed of sheep, and I, coming from New Zealand, my grandfather had sheep. We have been working on a program to grow quality wool in Italy. With Fratelli Cerruti we found common ground. It was about wool, but entails delivering something pure, revealing the source, uniting two traditions. Lanificio Cerruti are craftsman by tradition and make fabrics. Here we have a tradition of growing quality sheep. We wanted to tell the story of people living in a contemporary world with traditional businesses. People can follow every step of the production and learn where the materials come from and understand the story of the people involved». Wild Foods Italy actively partakes in collaborations that look to reduce the environmental impact. «Having a small-scale business, it is natural for us to have a low-environmental impact». Due to Covid-19, no tourists came to visit, as most of their guests arrive from overseas countries. «During the lockdown we took advantage of the time we had to think about projects in development. We had time to do what we had been procrastinating – building structures for the sheep». Thinking about new projects is part of their DNA, they have ideas they would like to work on and partnerships they plan to build.
Wild Foods Italy is a farm in the Umbrian Region, in Italy. Founded by New Zealander, Nathan McMillan Ryde who has been living in Italy for over twenty years and his Italian wife Francesca Chiacchiarini, whose family is from Pettino, have been living here for hundreds of years, dating back to 1486 when they bought the land.IMAGE GALLERY
Wild Foods Italy
Via di Pettino, 91