Journeys: Truffle Pursuit

  • David Lyon

"Tasta, tasta! Snufia, snufia!” Giorgio Romagnolo whispers insistently to his white hound in the Piedmontese dialect of northern Italy. (“Taste, taste! Sniff, sniff!”) “Cerca, cerca!” (“Search, search!”)

We are deep in the woods in the dark of night. Nose to the ground, Romagnolo’s dog, Diana, flashes like an apparition in and out of the undergrowth. Silent as a snake, she dashes beneath shrubs and snuffles around an ancient oak’s root line, pausing at a clump of lindens before bolting into a gully. Romagnolo and I follow by starlight, slipping and sliding on the wet leaves and muddy loam of the hillside.
 
“She smells it,” Romagnolo says in French, our common tongue. “Watch! Here she comes.”

The dog sprints up from the gully in a dead run, following a drainage line to a towering oak at the edge of a clearing. She stops as if she has hit a wall, then digs frantically at the roots. Romagnolo dives for the dog, restraining her by the collar and cooing softly to calm her. He switches on a flashlight and probes the earth with a small pick.

Thrusting his hand into the soil up to the wrist, Romagnolo twists his fingers, tugs gently, and extracts a lump that is a little smaller than a golf ball. He examines it under the light and motions for me to join him. The tawny tuber is still damp, but its bouquet, already spreading throughout the woods, announces a successful hunt. “Tartufo bianco pregiato,” Romagnolo pronounces: the precious white truffle. He dabs delicately to brush off the mud, folds the truffle into a clean white handkerchief, and tucks it into his vest pocket.

The white truffle (Tuber magnatum Pico in Latin) is by far the rarest and most pungent of underground mushrooms. Even the scent of the storied black truffles of Périgord in France seems coarse and insipid compared to the complex, ethereal aroma of the Piedmont whites. Alba, about 40 miles southeast of Turin, is the principal marketplace for the fungus, and the town has been synonymous with white truffles ever since Pliny the Elder praised the wines and truffles of Alba Pompeia (as the Romans called their outpost) in the first century.

Alba and its surroundings abound with gastronomic delights. The vineyards of Barolo and Barbaresco produce Italy’s greatest red wines from the Nebbiolo grape, named for the clouds of morning fog that cling to the vines and keep the first frosts of autumn at bay. The region’s hillsides yield sweet hazelnuts, spicy mountain honey, and wild porcini mushrooms, and the marshlands are fertile ground for Carnaroli rice, which is used for risottos. In the city, on cool evenings in the fall, a mist laden with aromas of chocolate and hazelnuts permeates the air as fumes from the Nutella factory condense into clouds.
 
But all appetites in Alba turn to the exalted tubers during the peak of the truffle harvest season in October, when the city hosts the Fiera Nazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba (Alba White Truffle Festival). The celebration includes a vigorous truffle market in the courtyard of a medieval cloister, and throughout the city, the tubers’ pungent musk beckons from the beaded doorways of shops with all the subtlety of a courtesan. Unlike other harvest festivals, the Alba event is devoid of beauty contests (Miss Fungus? Not likely), children in colorful costumes, folk music, and other ancillary traditions. Yes, there is a donkey race, and politicians give speeches wherever a crowd gathers, but the focus remains on white truffles.

The white truffle is as perishable as a cut flower, and it begins to lose its mysterious pungency the moment it leaves the ground. Even chilled and wrapped in absorbent cloth, the fungus keeps for no more than 10 days. Climate-controlled air-shipping brings white truffles to the United States, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and other distant markets—where the tubers command thousands of dollars per pound—but distance and time exact a toll. The white truffle tastes best close to its home.

In Alba and its surrounding villages, the humblest cafés and the stuffiest restaurants alike offer truffles in season, usually as an extra. The night before my truffle hunt, I visited the popular osteria Vincafé along Alba’s main street, via Vittorio Emanuele II (named for the king of Savoy who led the 1861 unification of Italy). The menù degustazióne—antipasto, pasta, saddle of hare roasted with sweet peppers, dessert—was a modest 21 euros. Ten grams of shaved white truffle boosted the price by another 30.

In typical Albese fashion, the antipasto platter included a mound of carne cruda (minced raw veal); a salad of frisée, radicchio, shredded celeriac, and carrot topped with lumps of tuna; thin slices of seared veal drizzled with tuna-caper sauce; and baby artichokes with the region’s famous bagna caòda, an anchovy-garlic sauce whose recipe dates to the Roman era.

I requested that the truffles accompany my next course, which consisted of tajarin—hand-cut tagliatelle made solely with flour and egg yolks—served swimming in the cheeselike local butter. The waiter made no great fuss, but other diners turned to watch as he whipped out a truffle mandoline, with its scalloped blade, and proceeded to reduce a small white lump into enough gossamer-thin slices to cover the large bowl of pasta. With a texture akin to shaved almonds, the truffle possessed a flavor I never would have expected of a fungus. The composer Rossini called the white truffle “the Mozart of mushrooms,” and I immediately was convinced of his analogy’s accuracy. Did I want cheese with that? No thanks.

White truffles grow only on the roots of oak, linden, willow, and poplar trees in the countryside east of Turin and a few other pockets of northern Italy and adjacent Croatia. The fungi reek of pheromones—complex aromatic chemicals that function as sexual signals—which may help explain why they evoke such a gastronomic frenzy. French scientists claim that the black truffle (also found near Alba but accorded little respect) exudes the same pheromone as a boar in rut. The French, therefore, sometimes hunt Périgord truffles with sows instead of dogs, but the system has one major drawback: It is difficult to prevent an amorous 800-pound sow from eating whatever she finds. The white truffle, on the other hand, smells more like the boudoir than the barnyard, and truffle dogs such as Romagnolo’s Diana are far more obedient than pigs.

Romagnolo and his fellow truffle hunters are a vanishing breed. In the late 1960s, the Italian government began to license truffle hunters, establishing a written test and setting limits on the harvest season. License fees since have risen to 140 euros per year, and the government levies taxes on all sales of the fungi. About 1,500 people (fewer than a dozen of whom are women) are licensed to hunt truffles in the hills around Asti and Alba, and many of them undertake the pursuit only a few times annually between late September and early January. During this period, Romagnolo hunts almost nightly—the dogs focus better in the dark, and by day he is busy at his high-tech telecom job.

Truffle hunters claim the harvest declines each year, but they could be crying poor to discourage the tax man. Romagnolo carries a few small truffles with him on every hunt. If he runs into other truffle hunters who inquire about his luck, he shows them the pathetic nubbins. He expects that they do the same.

During the festival, many truffle hunters bring the majority of their finds—ranging from the size of an acorn to that of a Ping-Pong ball and weighing from 15 to 80 grams—to the weekend market in Alba, which is conducted with a minimum of rhapsodic rhetoric. Despite spawning such literary giants as Cesare Pavese, Primo Levi, and Italo Calvino, the Piedmontese remain as grimly Calvinist as their Swiss neighbors. Their favorite aphorism, Falto due—e cuerpa (Do your duty—and die), might explain why their Italian countrymen regard the Piedmontese as dour and brooding. And while white truffles may stir chefs and food critics to purple prose, truffle hunters at the Alba market are here strictly for business. Early in the season, a consensus price is established, and each dealer at the market has a scale. In 2004—neither an especially good nor bad year—the going rate was three euros per gram, which translated to about $100 for a truffle the size of a small walnut.

Prices at the truffle market pale in comparison to figures registered at the month-long Alba festival’s culminating event: a charity auction held at a castle above the village of Grinzane Cavour. The heap of Gothic brick, which dates to the 1200s, was the home of the 19th-century gastronome, oenophile, and statesman Camillo Benso di Cavour, who is revered for two great accomplishments: He brought Burgundian winemaking techniques to Barolo and Barbaresco, and he helped engineer the unification of Italy under the Savoy kings. Cavour’s heirs deeded the castle to the City of Alba and the Piedmont region, which promptly installed at the site the Order of the Knights of the Truffle and Wines of Alba—warriors of the truffle shaver and corkscrew. The Alba White Truffle Festival launches here in October with the award of the Grinzane Cavour Prize for Literature (the Italian equivalent of a Pulitzer) and concludes in November with the auctioning of enormous white truffles.

The charity auction is an international event. In 2004, parallel truffle auctions at the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York and the GUM department store in Moscow were linked to Grinzane by satellite, and the giant truffles on the block dwarfed any at the Alba market. The event began with a modest 130-gram truffle, which set off a frenzy of bids before selling for $4,000. By the time the fourth truffle came to the block, the entire room had transformed into a stock exchange pit of suitors shouting out their bids. The 360-gram tuber sold for $5,600 to an Armani-clad buyer for Sophia Loren.

At the end of the night, the auctioneer introduced a monstrous, misshapen orb, weighing slightly over a kilogram and resembling a cantaloupe with acne, and passed it around the room on a velvet cushion. The dog and the truffle hunter who found it—Rex and Signor Cerruti, respectively—were introduced to the pop of electronic flash and the glare of television lights. Bidding began at $19,000 in $1,000 increments.

Competing bids came in from all three sites. The Italians dropped out at $34,000, but participants in Russia and the United States continued to spar until New York restaurateur Francesco Giambelli bested all other bids for the giant truffle with an offer of $41,000. Without delay, Giambelli’s pungent, perishable prize was whisked off with an escort to the airport in Milan to catch that night’s flight to Kennedy. Within a matter of hours, the truffle would arrive at his East Side eatery, Giambelli 50th, where it was sure to be the focus of another dogged pursuit.

BEYOND TRUFFLES:
THE TASTES OF PEIDMONT

With its liberal use of mushrooms and hazelnuts with simple pastas, risottos, veal, wild game, and rich cheeses, Piedmontese cuisine is equally appropriate in casual and sophisticated settings. These establishments represent the range of world-class dining options within a short drive of Alba. Truffles are extra—and recommended.

 

TRATTORIA NELLE VIGNE,
DIANO D'ALBA
Piedmontese of all classes repair to this trattoria on weekends for five-hour meals in a setting that overlooks vineyards to the horizon. The owners offer a fixed menu consisting of four or five antipasti, two pasta and vegetable courses, a meat entrée (chicken roasted in hazelnuts, rabbit braised in grappa), and dessert. Make the first pour a floral white Arneis before moving on to a Barolo and finishing with a sweet Moscato.
+39.0173.46.85.03, www.trattorianellevigne.it

LA CONTEA, NEIVE
When epicureans of the world converge on nearby Bra for the Slow Food biennial, many make dinner reservations at this inn-restaurant in the medieval village of Nèive. Claudia and Tonino Verro’s eight-course menu exemplifies Piedmontese seasonal cuisine (in the fall: truffle mousse on new potatoes, veal tail braised in Barbaresco). Their Barbaresco Ripa Sorita, grown behind the inn, is an elegant interpretation of Nebbiolo.  +39.0173.671.26, www.la-contea.it

ENOTECA REGIONALE PIEDMONTESE CAVOUR,
GRINZANE CAVOUR
The wine cellar at Castle Grinzane Cavour features an excellent kitchen that showcases Piedmontese dishes and cheeses designed to pair with the local wines and truffles. The casual midday meal includes light dishes and a delicious cheese plate complemented by a vast selection of wines by the glass. The wine cellar also serves the formal dinner of the annual truffle auction; reservations are usually available until October 1.
+39.0173.26.21.59

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