It is a lovely autumn day in northern Italy and Ezio Costa and his dog Jolly are doing something they don’t usually do — truffle hunting during the daytime.
Although it is easier to hunt during daylight hours, at Cdn$4,000 (€2500) per kg, most truffle hunters take great pains to keep their hunting sites a secret from the thousands of other hunters in the Piedmont region — hence the evolution of the after-dark hunt. On this day, Costa is breaking tradition and taking his dog out on private land to let our small tour group experience a real truffle hunt.
A truffle is a fungal fruiting body that grows underground in woodland areas near the base of trees. There are many different species of truffles, but the most highly sought after is the white truffle (tuber magnatum pico) that grows abundantly in the forests near the city of Alba and a few other places in the world. These gourmet delicacies are so highly prized that people commit crimes to possess them, top chefs pay small fortunes to purchase them, and connoisseurs travel halfway around the world to enjoy their magical qualities in the place that is famed for producing them.
Jolly, a small yellow mixed-breed dog, looks relaxed as Costa explains the growth properties of truffles and what he looks for in a hunting site. As he describes his methods for identifying and training a hunting dog, she wanders off the path and starts eating tall sprouts of green grass — no doubt cleansing her palate in preparation for the big hunt.
After a few moments, Costa shouts a command in Italian to Jolly and we all follow her into the forest. At 62 years of age, Costa walks with a cane and lags a bit behind his dog. He’s been truffle hunting in the woods near Alba since he was a small boy and he says it’s a family tradition. “My father still hunts for truffles and he’s 82,” he exclaims proudly with the help of a translator. “My son lives with me and he is also a truffle hunter. We own four hunting dogs.”
Once inside the forest, Jolly sniffs at the base of trees searching for the pungent earthy scent of truffles. Costa and our small Canadian tour group hike through the brush a little behind the dog.
Eventually, Jolly stops at a spot near the base of a tree and begins to paw at the ground. Costa gets down on his hands and knees, takes out an odd looking spade and starts digging to uncover the treasure his prized hunting dog has sniffed out.
We all gather around to take a closer look. About 15 cm under the surface, he uncovers something that looks remarkably like a small dried turd, but it is actually the world’s most expensive food. On Costa’s advice, I place the lumpy brownish-coloured clod up to my nose and breathe in its garlicky aroma. Although it is an intoxicating scent, I’m not sure I can agree with Costa when he claims it smells better than Chanel No. 5.
It will probably take a few more truffle hunts before I come to realize that he is right.
If you go:
• The Piedmont region of Italy is famed for the production of white truffles and peak hunting season falls between October and early December.
• Joining a truffle hunt may be difficult to arrange, but your best bet is to contact the tourist board in person in Alba at Piazza Risorgimento 2, 12051, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by phone at 39-0173-35833. Even if you can’t join a hunt, Alba and the other towns of the Piedmont region of Italy are well worth seeing and dining in during the white truffle season. Alba’s annual truffle festival takes place annually in October and early November.
• Truffles rely on spores to propagate and you will often find them in the same spots year after year. This is why truffle hunters work so hard to keep their hunting spots a secret. After uncovering a truffle, a hunter will carefully replace the soil to preserve the spores and cover the ground with leaves to conceal the dig site.
• Whatever happened to truffle hogs? Historically, truffle hunters used pigs to help them locate truffles in the forest. Female pigs have an innate ability to locate truffles, because there is a compound inside a truffle that is remarkably similar to a pheromone found in boar saliva. Unfortunately, hogs also like to eat truffles and if a truffle hunter isn’t quick enough or strong enough, the pig will beat him to the prize. Today, most hunters use trained dogs to sniff out the underground tubers.
Truffle Season in Alba
Nestled amongst snow-capped mountain peaks, Alba is a picturesque city that has become the darling of the culinary world. Famed for the production of tantalizing white truffles and velvety Barolo and Barbaresco wines, it is a place that excites the senses on many levels.
At Tartufi Morra, one of Alba’s oldest and most respected truffle stores, the pungent earthy scent of the world’s most aromatic truffles nearly knocks you over when you open the door. The store ships fresh truffles around the world — with the largest truffles selling for the highest prices per kilogram. Store owner Alessandro Bonino shows me a 500-gram white truffle he just sold to an Italian restaurant in Paris for 2,000 Euros (almost Cdn$3,200).
Since truffles only keep for about 10 days after they are harvested, this one will be shipped by UPS to Paris immediately where it will be thinly sliced with a special truffle-cutter and served fresh in pasta, risotto, polenta, meat, fondue or with raw or cooked vegetables. “My favourite way to eat truffle is sliced thinly on top of sunnyside eggs,” says Bonino, who has owned the shop for about 15 years. “It’s the easiest recipe for me to prepare and it’s one of the typical ways locals enjoy fresh truffles.”
As we wander along the streets outside the store a short while later, I get a sudden craving for eggs. It shouldn’t be hard to find a restaurant in Alba with white truffles on the menu, but sunnyside eggs in the afternoon might be another story.
The record price paid for a single white truffle was set in December 2007, when billionaire casino owner Stanley Ho paid US$330,000 for a 1.5-kg truffle that was unearthed near Pisa, Italy.
Debbie Olsen is a Lacombe-based freelance writer. If you have a travel story you would like to share or know someone with an interesting travel story who we might interview, please email: DOGO@telusplanet.net or write to: Debbie Olsen, c/o Red Deer Advocate, 2950 Bremner Ave., Red Deer, T4R 1M9.