WORLDFOOD – The Hunt For White October

14 Jan 2002

This piece could begin in one of Alba’s elegant truffle stores; their shelves lined with even rows of truffle products; truffle scented polenta, truffle oil, truffle pasta, truffle honey and, of course, the gnarly fungi themselves, nestled into white cloths in a display cabinet at the front of every shop.

It could kick off in a nondescript cafe on a cold dawn in the town of Asti. This is the home of the unofficial truffle market, a meeting place where weathered men in padded jackets congress, throw back thick coffees, parlay in dialect, then head to a set of scales on a side-table. There they dig into their pockets pull out their find, exchange fat wads of lira, whistle to their dogs and march out into the day.

But instead, it’s going to start on a foggy October morning, in a thick forest in the Langhe region of Piedmont in Northern Italy. With a cold Australian scrambling through the damp, humid bush, dementedly trying to write notes, take photos, keep out of the way, not trip over, and understand what on earth was going on.

We were looking for truffles. Remingo Oberto, a 79-year-old trifulao, or truffle hunter, his dog Lulu and me. We had set off to find the famous White Truffle of Alba, Tuber Magnatum Pico, which will henceforth be referred to as TWTA.

TWTA is the most highly prized truffle in the world. It sells for upwards of 328.47 Euros per 100g. How and exactly where it grows remains a relative mystery, it demands highly specific conditions or it just won’t grow; it’s as simple and as complicated as that.

There are a number of classified species of truffles, the most renowned being the TWTA, and then, in no particular order, the Perigord Truffle (Tuber Melanosporum Vitt), the Scorzone or Black Summer Truffle (Tuber Aestivum Vitt), the Black Truffle (Tuber Uncinatum), the Bianchetto Truffle (Tuber Borchii) and the Black Musk Truffle (Tuber Brumale). About two thirds of the world’s truffles come from Umbria. But it’s the TWTA that really whips the gastronomes into a frenzy.

In ancient times, it was thought that they appeared where bolts of lightning struck the base of certain trees. Pliny the Elder, wearing his naturalist’s hat, once said that the truffle, ‘nature’s greatest miracle … is one of those things that has been born but was not seeded’.

Today’s scientists don’t know much more, only that truffles pop up spontaneously under certain trees with the blessing of three conditions; soil, season and surrounding environment. The soil must be soft, humid and calcium-rich with large, open pores. Weather-wise, summer must have delivered a specific temperature range so the soil doesn’t get too warm, just humid enough and not short of oxygen. And then to the trees. TWTA will only grow near oak trees, but it is said that a couple of birch trees in the vicinity will do the world of good for soil conditions.

Farmers and scientists have long been falling over themselves trying to grow white truffles but TWTA remains elusive and just as the growth of truffles is a complicated, mysterious business, so is finding them. You might come across a cluster under one oak tree and not one under its neighbor, and nobody could tell you why.

What is known is that only place in the world you’ll find a perfect amalgamation of these conditions is here, in the wooded hills of the Langhe and parts of the Monferrato district of Piedmont. The hunting season runs from the beginning of October to the end of December.

Truffle hunting is a team effort between man and dog, though it was, for a while, the domain of female pigs, which are particularly partial to the scent – sexually aroused even. But the trifulau found them too difficult to train, and just as likely to eat the truffles as find them. So they began using dogs. A good truffle dog should be white, so the trifulau can see him or her in the dark forest. Plus, of course he or she must have an exceptionally good nose. Females learn faster but males have a more receptive sense of smell.

Remingo and Lulu are a great team. They move through the forest together: he clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth, she responding to his lead. There’s a connection between the two. He’s constantly watching every snitch of her nose, guiding her to the clearings and tree bases he thinks will yield, letting the dog scratch and find the spot. When she does show particular interest in one tree, Remingo falls to his knees and pulls out a small digging tool, gently pulls the soil away, lunging forward to inhale the earth. He digs a little deeper sometimes producing a small golf ball-shaped tuber, sometimes a marble-sized find, sometimes nothing. ‘It’s not easy,’ he keeps telling me. I believe him.

I get the impression that Remingo and Lulu prefer to work alone – particularly when Remingo tells me he prefers to work alone. This is a secretive, mysterious affair, a business contract between man and dog.

Ideally, the pair set off at night, this way there are no distractions for Lulu; she can be calm and focused on the job. And, of course, there’s no danger of meeting the authorities.

Truffle hunting is forbidden – unless you go through the lengthy process of applying for permits, registering every find and paying a hefty tax on it. Giovanni, Remingo’s nephew, tells me that easily 90% of TWTA are undocumented. This is an ‘informal’ economy.

We’ve finally come in from the cold, have left the forest and are sitting by the fire in the home that Remingo shares with his relatives. The family produce a couple of bottles of their own smooth Barolo wine, trays of salty sausage squeezed over toasts, cubes of cheese, and the big treat: white truffle shaved over a fondue sauce, scooped up by thin bread pieces. And the talk naturally centers around truffles.

Marissa, Remingo’s daughter-in-law, explains why the price is so high this year. ‘It’s the weather, we didn’t get enough rain, so there are less truffles to be found.’

‘It has been difficult to find truffles so far this season,’ Remingo agrees, adding that, ‘The art of truffle hunting is dying out.’ Indeed, my undercover sojourns at the Asti dawn market revealed that most of the trifolau were well over fifty. Giovanni, a member of the younger generation, explains why. ‘We just don’t have time to go truffle hunting, everyone works now. And frankly, I couldn’t be bothered, I’d prefer to find truffles in my favorite restaurant.’

Remingo tells a different story. ‘When I was younger, we needed extra money for courting. The women paid for nothing, so it was an expensive business finding a wife.’ Now, according to Remingo’s reckoning, dating has gone Dutch – and the lads are no longer forced to scramble through the forest for extra cash. Now it’s mostly retired farmers who go hunting for truffles every day.

If the will to find them is slowly decreasing, the demand for TWTA is rocketing. Proof of this is the annual Truffle Festival in Alba. Every October, this town, pinched between the hills of the Roero and the Langhe districts, puts on its party frock and shuffles out the truffle trolleys. Stroll through the porticos on Via Vittorio Emanuele, then across a gravel path and you come to the peaked white marquee that houses the festival’s official truffle market. The place is packed and is pervaded by an overwhelmingly warm scent of truffles. Lined with stalls selling fresh white truffles and truffle products, you can join the continental visitors crowding small raised bar tables in the center of the tent and knocking back boiled eggs scented with white truffles for around 25 euros a pop.

Locals are amused by the hype now surrounding their TWTA, but it is, I am reminded, their own doing. Local legend Giacomo Morra recognised the tourist power of TWTA back in the thirties when he organised the first Alba Truffle Fair. He also thought up the idea of donating the best truffle of every season to a celebrity. Thus, back in 1954, an enormous truffle weighing 2520g was sent across the Atlantic to the US President Dwight Eisenhower. Since then, Joe DiMaggio, Marilyn Monroe, Nikita Kruschev, Sofia Loren, Alfred Hitchcock, Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, Gianni Agnelli, Luciano Pavarotti, Rudolph Valentino and even Prince have all been lucky recipients.

Last November, history was made when a dog called D’Oro sniffed out the Langhe’s most expensive truffle ever, which eventually sold at a local auction for 7,390 Euros. The auction itself was one of the region’s biggest events of the decade and was held in a grand castle. English restaurateurs rolled up with financial advisers in tow, Japanese buyers joined in by satellite link, guards and security vans waited outside. In the end it was a buyer from Jolly, the international hotel chain, who pushed the furthest.

More of an aroma than an ingredient, truffles should not be cooked – ever. They should be also be eaten fresh. Remingo reckons within five days is best; after that they begin to lose pungency.

Ask any Piedmontese what they do with a white truffle, and they’ll probably answer ‘Sell it’. But if pressed, they’ll tell you that white truffles should be shaved over egg-yellow tagliatelle slicked with butter, flaked over a simple omelette or sprinkled on a thin layer of carne crude, very finely minced raw beef. You could even make gnocchi, coat them with a rich Raschera cheese sauce and dust the whole dish with truffle flakes; that’s good too, I’m told.

It’s hard to find an explanation for the TWTA’ success, why some spend so much on them, why they taste so good and why they have such a mysterious hold over the tastebuds, gastronomes and the town of Alba. Unheeding of all that, Remingo and Lulu will continue hunting for truffles throughout the season, and much to their relief, they’ll be going alone.

Sophie Herron, an Australian journalist, previously a features writer for Australian Table magazine, is a member of the Slow Food Internet Office editorial team

In the photo: Remingo and his dog Lulu (A. Fernald)

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