Story and Photos by Jacqueline Harmon Butler.
Somewhere in the distance a church bell chimed the midnight hour. A heavy mist made visibility along the valley road challenging. Nearing our rendezvous 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 road. 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 on a midnight truffle hunt 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 secretly go to amazing extremes to find and retrieve these incredible tubers.
Making a sharp right turn, the drivers lowered their headlights as we left the main road and followed a small dirt track farther 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 off their engines. We had arrived. Our “Trifulaus” (truffle hunters) emerged. The two men of indeterminable age were dressed in rough outdoor clothing and carried long pointed walking sticks. They introduced themselves, Stefano Grosso and Mario Aprile, speaking in whispers and cautioned us to remain quiet and calm during our expedition. 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 successfully trained truffle dog command a high price.Truffle hunting 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, treated with great care and respect and earn their keep especially during a midnight truffle hunt.
I was 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 its 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 fell over. 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, learning all we could about these pricey little tubers. We examined, poked, squeezed and sniffed a great variety. The high point was when we were treated to a taste of some shaved on fresh fried eggs. Incomparable and delicious. We also made arrangements to actually go on a truffle hunt later that night.
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 properties 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 of Alba.
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 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 the 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 explains all the secrecy. No one wants anyone else to know exactly which tree produces the best tubers.
To fortify ourselves for our midnight truffle hunt 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 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 rice. A 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. 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 of 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.