It’s early morning near the end of summer in Monforte D’Alba. The fog is still lingering from the night before. It brings an eerie, almost mystical atmosphere. And I’m excited! I am doing a late summer truffle hunt this morning with one of my trusted truffle hunters, and his gorgeous dog.
It was raining in the morning, and he calls to check that I’m ok to go out in the rain. Er, hello! I didn’t buy gumboots for nothing. I want the authentic experience (I never do ‘simulated’ truffle hunts). I ask – is it ok for the truffles? He says it’s fine for the truffles, so I say let’s go! And go we did…. in his old 4x4 fiat panda. These cars are purpose built – small and nimble, but with the 4x4 capacity necessary to navigate this hilly countryside. There is a lot of mud, and the car is slipping and sliding down a deep descent, surrounded by vineyards, into the little valley. I am a little scared but I feel alive!
We arrive in a picturesque spot, where there is forest all around and small plantation of hazelnut trees. Out pops his canine friend, Cheetah, a brown and white curly-haired dog of almost 6 years. She is relatively young, and exceptionally well-trained and you instantly see the bond between truffle hunter and dog. He talks of her affectionately, and rightly so, as it is her ability which is critical in being able to sniff out these underground delights!
He tells me this spot is relatively convenient and easy, but we are already jumping streams and ducking under foliage. (I’m interested to see the difficult spots!) But I am taken aback by the beauty of the woods – a very green and healthy collection of poplars, ivy, ground cover, and other very tall trees (oak, walnut etc). It’s all completely wild and natural, but you couldn’t have made it more attractive if you tried - an enchanted forest; all your childhood books blended into one experience.
Even while we are chatting about life as a truffle hunter, he has a keen eye on his dog. She is pacing around the forest floor, eager to please and scope out the hidden gems. Suddenly, she gets excited and starts digging. Then stops and quickly comes back to the hunter for a treat. He tells us that she has learned this technique, of finding the truffle, but not digging too much, because when they come at night, and you can’t see, she sniffs out the truffle, comes back and tells her master where it is, and then together they go, with torch in hand to collect the prize. It’s obviously important, particularly with the more precious and delicate white truffle, that the dog doesn’t dig too close for fear of damaging the outer flesh. The more perfect-looking and intact is the truffle, the higher the pricetag.
She has found a sizeable black truffle. It is the summer variety found in Italy between June and early September, not to be mistaken with another type of black truffle, sometimes also called ‘black truffle’ or ‘Perigord truffle’, which is a winter truffle, with darker flesh and white marbling. It is more highly prized than the summer black truffle, which has a paler, beige flesh. Neither of these, however, is as esteemed as the white truffle of Alba, found in the areas around Alba (the Langhe) and Asti. The season for the white truffle is from late September to January, but it depends of course upon the climactic conditions. For example, 2012 was too dry, and as a result, I am told, there weren’t many truffles, and the quality wasn’t good. Because of the scarcity, unfortunately this caused the price to skyrocket, although not because of the quality. In the height of truffle season the white truffle could fetch as high as EUR600 per 100g, although generally the price is more around EUR250 – 300 per 100g.
The truffle hunter tells me that he comes out two or three times a day (perhaps morning, after lunch and then during the night). This is because there is no way to know positively when the truffles will be ready. Evolutionary speaking, truffles (as an underground tuber) lost the ability to spread their spores through the air and instead rely upon fungivores (truffle eaters) to find the tuber for spore dispersion. That is why the sexual spores of the truffle have an attractive perfumed scent. But it seems that the precise point at which the sex spores are ready can be as elusive as the truffles themselves (is there no app for measuring this cycle??). As a result, he tells me that he sometimes goes over one section with his dog, and finds nothing, only to find truffles on the way back! With such uncertainty, and fine timing, it’s no wonder he comes three times a day or as often as he can. And for this, it is a job of real passion and patience.
After a couple more location changes and a fair few more black truffles in tow, we finish up. And so how does one best enjoy these fine delicacies? The truffle hunter swears the best way to enjoy the white truffle is with egg, with the freshest white truffle of Alba generously shaved on top. He explains that you should never cook the white truffle because it loses its aromas. (Check out my blog post on Piazza Duomo, where I report on the best place to eat white truffle in Alba, IMHO.)
A good day hunting? Perhaps - he says - but the epitome for our trifolau is in November or December, when it’s cold (possibly freezing as there can be snow) and he strikes gold and finds a big white truffle. It’s humbling to see a man of some years be so emotionally touched, still, by the search with his dog friend for the elusive white treasure.
I organise real truffle hunt tours leaving from Monforte D’Alba from the months of June – January, conditions permitting.
Eleanor Fletcher - living in the heart of the Langhe, Monforte D'Alba (Barolo). Searching for great eats, formidable drinks and fun times. Married to a Barolo and Barbaresco producer, plus a mother of two 'principesse'.