Truffle-hunting in Piedmont

The true star of Piedmont is the tuber magnatum pico, commonly known as the white truffle of Alba. Rupali Dean goes digging for some of this white gold.

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The hunt for the white truffle was among my top priorities on my trip to Piedmont in Italy. Famed for its intense aroma and flavour, truffles can fetch as much as 5,000 euros a kilo at a connoisseur’s market, but one needs to beware of heavy, clay-covered or even fake specimens for the same exorbitant price.

The Alba truffle can be nero (black) or bianco (white), and is sniffed out of the ground by dogs. In the past, truffle hunters used pigs to find the truffle, but pigs that they were, they tried to pig out on the truffle right away. It is far easier to train a dog; besides, a dog is happy to sniff out the truffle, then patiently wait for his reward, whereas I’m sure it must be rather difficult to wrestle a tuber away from a 300-pound truffle-gorging pig.

The truffle-hunting dog
Though the best time for truffle-hunting is early in the morning, owing to the moisture in the air which helps the dogs smell the unique and beautiful aroma easily, lazy I settled for a more refined hour of 10am. Then off I set for Roddi near Alba, all geared in attire for a jungle trek.

Roddi is an area rich in all things that makes truffles, i.e. oak trees, hazelnut trees, and willows galore. My guide Monchiero Giovanni was waiting for me with Leila, a cross-breed white dog.  Don’t get me wrong, there is no racism here; the hunting dog’s coat cannot be dark, else he’ll get lost in the dark, which is primarily when all the truffle hunts take place (wee hours of the morning… remember?).

From squirrel droppings
The Giovanni family has been in this business since 1880 and Monchiero is the official truffle-finding dog trainer in the area. Before the hunt began, Monchiero shared with me that truffles are 90% water and are simply mushrooms that come from scattered squirrel droppings. I also learnt that the truffle has the reputation of having empowered Napoleon to conceive his only legitimate son; so, it isn’t a wonder why so many revere this ugly, underground mushroom.

We walked in the woods for two hours and a half, up and down the hills, hunting for truffles. Leila would sniff around and when she found something, she would get very excited, wriggling and wagging her tail, and then dig passionately like a maniac. Monchiero rushed over each time so that she didn’t get the truffle in her mouth. He handed me a pick so I could unearth the truffle.

A mixture of smells
The truffle in my hand felt knobbly, its flesh compact and the brown coloring veined with white. It was quite mature and exuded an intense aroma; I could smell garlic, hay, wet earth, mushroom and spices all together. Absolutely pleasurable and divine.
All in all, Leila found truffles eleven times, all white. With mucky shoes and a hungry stomach, I headed to a nearby restaurant for a hearty lunch of fresh fried eggs with a topping of shaved truffles and tajarin (egg-yolk-rich hand-made noodles) accompanied with fresh white truffles which made it exquisite. Happily I hummed... “It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog.”

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