Hunting for the white truffle from Alba
The white truffle from Alba is precious. People gladly pay 80-130 euro for 100 gram and professional truffle hunters will go to extremes to protect their territory.
From September to January everything around Alba revolves around the white truffle. People talk about truffles, sniff truffles, hunt for truffles and eat truffles. At gourmet restaurants the master chef makes his appearance by the table in order to slice 10-15 grams of a cream coloured, white veined Tuber Magnatum Pico thinly over a plate of plain spaghetti. And from mid-October to mid-November the International Alba White Truffle Fair attracts thousands of buyers and visitor from all over the world. The white truffle from Alba is a five star attraction.
Especially if you get a chance to participate in a truffle hunting excursion.
Tall tales and legends
We had been promised a guided walk with the trifolao, Marco Varaldo, from La Morra and savoured truffle anecdotes and trivia up to the event.
Over dinner one of our hosts entertained us with a truffle fairytale about little white fungi trapped underground with no chance of seeing the world. The fungi considered shouting for someone to find it, but it could not block out the rustling of the leaves. It tried to produce an inner glow, but it wasn’t strong enough to shine through the chalky layer of 10-15 cm cold, damp clay. So in the end, it decided to cause a stench, and when the spores matured it exuded an odeur of earthy mould mixed with hay, honey, mushroom, garlic and spices. The first hog that passed by found the smell so irresistibly delicious it started scratching at the base of the tree. And finally, when the last layer of earth was removed, the white truffle could glimpse the beautiful colours of the leaves on the trees and the stars in the sky, but only for a few seconds. Then it was eaten by the hog.
Since then, our host emphasized, Italians have not used hogs for truffle hunting. Instead they train dogs to sniff out truffles, and every year during the truffle season 2-3 of the most successful trifolaos’ dogs go missing or are assassinated by jealous competitors. And no one ever reveals his favourite truffle hunting grounds or shares the content of his secret truffle diary with anyone else. Around Alba truffle hunting is tough business.
A man and his dogs
The next afternoon we met Marco and two of his dogs on Serradenari’s truffle grounds. According to provincial laws truffle hunters are free to roam through uncultivated ground and woods older than 15 years. And here are the highest point of the Barolo there are 8 hectares of wild woods with durmast oak, white poplar, willow, linden, and hazel. The ideal habitat and microclimate for white truffle.
Like police dogs, truffle dogs get exhausted after a couple of hours sniffing, which explains why Marco has brought two of his dogs along. One is left in the car, while the other roams freely in a radius of 5 metres from Marco, who walks with an iron-tipped stick that can be used to scrape off top layers of soil. The dog seems happy, focused, and totally unaffected by the 10-15 strangers following its trail, and within five minutes it has caught the scent of something.
Three white truffles in less than an hour
The signs exchanged by dog and trifolao are so discreet, they are almost imperceptible, but Marco kneels down by the foot of an old oak tree and starts digging. All the while the dog keeps its nose to the ground, and when he gets close Marco pockets his metal tool and ease out a dirty-white, knobbly lump of 2-300 grams. The perfume is incredibly intense and highly unique, as we realize when Marco and his dog dig out their second and third truffles in less than an hour. Each truffle has its own particular aroma depending on the host tree, the microclimate and the chemical composition of the soil.
After a yield like this we assume that Marco and his family can live from truffle hunting, but that is not the case. The white truffle season is too short and too fickle to ensure a proper annual income, so most trifolaos are hobby workers.
Still, it can be a highly rewarding hobby. Not least for diners like us, who see the ultrathin slices of perfumed fungi melt over our handmade spaghetti leaving an intense aroma and a wonderfully complex, mineral taste.