Midnight in the Piedmont: Chasing the Wild Truffle
By Jacqueline Harmon Butler
in the distance a church bell chimed the midnight hour. A heavy mist made
visibility along the valley road challenging.
Nearing our rendevous site
we spotted two small nondescript Italian cars
hovering by the side of the road. The drivers flashed their lights at
our mini-bus, then with a squeal of tires, sped off along the twisting country
Our driver, not intimidated by their speed, followed closely behind as
we bumped our way into the hills near Alba in the Piedmont region of northern
Italy. We were in search of the legendary "White Diamonds,"
tartufo bianco, or white truffles.
At a market price of nearly $2,000
a pound, truffle hunters are willing to go to amazing extremes in secrecy
as to where these incredible tubers are located.
Making a sharp right turn, the drivers lowered their headlights as we
left the main road and followed a small dirt track further into the hills -- at
a much slower speed. The moon shimmered through the mist
illuminating the scene with a ghostly glow.
Abruptly the two little cars swerved into a wide space beside the road
and turned of their engines. We had arrived. Our "Trifulaus"
(truffle hunters) emerged. The two men of indeterminable age were dressed in rough outdoor clothes and carried long pointed walking sticks. They
introduced themselves, Stefanino and Mario, in whispers and cautioned
us to remain quiet and calm during our expidition.
Then, cautiously looking around, they released their prized truffle hounds,
the rather ordinary looking Toby and Dora. Neither dog appeared to have
a distinct lineage.
Stefanino told us that truffle dogs are usually a cross mix, with no distinct
genetic background. However, the pups of a successful truffle hunter are extremely valuable. Training begins when the
pups are about six months old and continues until the dog reaches maturity
at two years. These dogs are not household pets. They are trained professionals
and treated with great care and respect.
I was a little disappointed to find out pigs are no longer used for truffle
hunting. Mario explained that it was far easier to train a dog than a
pig. He pointed out that it was sometimes very difficult to
wrestle a tuber away from a 300-pound truffle gorging pig. A dog is willing
to sniff out the truffles then sit quietly wagging it's tail waiting for
a doggie treat as reward.
Stefanino gave a low whistle and scampered into the bushes after Toby, closely
followed by Mario and Dora. My little group of friends stumbled up the
embankment in hot pursuit. Our assorted flashlights dimly illuminated
the landscape of trees, bushes, boulders, broken branches and a variety
of holes in the ground made by digging or borrowing animals and by Mother
Nature herself. I immediately stepped into a rather large hole, and promptly
Fortunately I didn't get hurt. Gee, I thought dusting myself off, this
truffle hunting isn't a
simple stroll in the woods after all. My friends and I were in Alba for
the famous Fiera del Tartufo Bianco, truffle fair. We spent the day wandering
the aisles of the fair and learning all we could about these pricey little
We examined, poked, squeezed and sniffed a great variety of truffles.
The high point
was when we actually go to taste some of them shaved on fresh fried eggs.
The taste was incomparable and delicious. We also made arrangements to
actually go on a truffle hunt later that night.
Romans and Truffles
The aphrodisiac properties of truffles were well known as far back as
the Roman times. Apicius exalts the amazing effects of truffles in his
famous discourse on cooking, "De re Coquinaria," and lists six
different ways of using them. When the Roman Empire fell, the magical
of truffles were forgotten and it wasn't until the French started raving
about their miraculous qualities in the 17th century that truffles once
again became popular.
In his "Physiologie du goût," Brillat Savarin dedicates
six pages to the truffles' exotic possibilities. Black
truffles are found in many places but the most valuable ones come from
the Perigord region of France and around Norcia in Italy. However, the
king of truffles is the white one found in the Piedmont region of Italy
and the best known and prized are often referred to as the White Diamonds
The main difference between the black and white truffles is not the color
but the smell and taste. The black truffle has a pleasing wet leaf earthy
smell and is usually added during the cooking procedure of a
dish. The white one has a more enigmatic smell, mixed with notes of fermented
honey, hay, garlic, spices, wet earth and ammonia, and is usually finely
shaved on cooked or raw foods. Consequently, the taste of the white truffle
is more complex and, to some, more desirable than the black ones.
Choosing a Truffle
Choosing a truffle is an important process. Examine it closely, squeezing
it gently. The best truffles are light in color, fairly smooth and hard,
never soft or sticky. To store, wrap in a paper towel
and place into closed, tight jar and refrigerate. Change paper towel every
day and use truffle within ten days of harvesting. The common suggestion
of storing truffles in rice is not a good one. Truffles are almost 82%
water and the rice will drain the moisture from it.
Truffles are often found under the same trees, usually willow, year after
year, and are harvested between late September through November. That's
why all the secrecy. No one wants anyone else to know exactly which tree
produces the best tubers.
To fortify ourselves for our truffle hunting adventure, we had eaten a
wonderful dinner and enjoyed the local wines at the Ristorante Brezza
in nearby Barolo. We feasted on Alba-style raw veal topped with olive
oil and sprinkled all over with fresh truffle shavings. This was followed
by a flaky vegetable and cheese tart, then by great bowls of fresh house-made
Agnolotti with a rich meat sauce. The secondo piatti was fragrant oven-roasted
guinea fowl basted with Barolo wine and stuffed with local herb infused
selection of Chardonnay, Barbera and Barolo wines accompanied each dish.
Nougat mousse or glazed pears with zabaglione were our dessert offerings.
By the time we poured out the last drops of the incredible Barolo wine,
I have to admit my friends and I were feeling very well fed and perhaps
a tad sloshed.
We trudged on into the dark night, following the now distant sounds of
Stefanino and Mario and the hounds. Someone let out a loud yelp of pain
as she hit her head on a low branch. Someone else cautioned her to keep
quite or she would scare away all the truffles, which dissolved the
group into giggles. Try as we may we couldn't keep quiet and soon we were
howling with laughter.
Obviously we had scared someone away because we heard disgruntled mutterings
and rustling in the nearby bushes, the slam of a car door and then the
screech of tires as someone sped off into the night.
By the time we caught up to our Trifulaus, the dogs had begun excitedly
digging into the rough earth. Stefanino poked the ground with his walking
stick and right before our very eyes pulled up a small but
nicely shaped white truffle. Because it had been a very dry year, the
truffle crop was
expected to be minimal, thus driving up the price. Passing the nugget
around, Stefanino estimated its cost to be somewhere around $350.
Under a nearby tree, Dora was frantically digging, tail wagging and making
soft growls. Mario knelt down and gently patted the dog and commanded
her to sit, then he reached down and pulled a beautiful white truffle
from the hole Dora had dug. The men thought it was worth about $200.
Later, sitting in the wine cellar of our hotel, my friends and I opened
another bottle Barolo and discussed the day's events. We all agreed that
being a Trifulau might be kind of fun. All that bustling about in secretive
darkness trying to remember exactly where one found truffles last year,
the excitement of the chase after a hound on the scent and the ultimate
reward of actually finding a pricey little rootlet all had a certain appeal.