“Have you ever tried holding back a 300 pound pig from eating a 500 Euro truffle when he’s hungry? Good luck with that.” Gianni Vaira, a master Alba truffle hunter, is enlightening us on the finer points of hunting Tuber magnatum.
“Dogs are much better. And mutts have the best noses. They simply want to find the truffle and collect a treat.”
On this glorious fall day just outside of La Morra in the Langhe, Gianni is taking us through the woods near his home, hunting the spectacularly expensive white truffles that grow in these parts of Piedmont.
Locally they’re called trifola d'Alba Madonna, and right now they’re going for about $2,000 per pound for high quality whites.
Gianni’s trusty companion to sniff out truffles is Dick. That's right, Dick the dog.
Truffles live underground, growing symbiotically on and around the roots of oaks, poplars, wild hazelnuts and beech trees. Their unmistakable aroma is masked when they’re in their native habitat, and it takes an ultra keen nose to find them.
Dick’s nose is awesome.
“Dick & I work together as a connected team. I have my secret hunting grounds where I’ve found abundant truffles in past years, and I turn Dick loose to sniff them out.” Gianni is rightfully proud of his pooch and the rather arcane skills required to find truffles.
Once Dick has zeroed in on a possible truffle, the dirt starts flying and Gianni watches carefully for just a hint of truffle color poking through the soil. Once he sees it, Dick is pulled back and handed a tasty dog treat in exchange for his good work. Check it out:
“If you’re going on a truffle hunt, you need a guide who can connect you with an experienced Trifolao,” says Anna Savino, my guide for today’s hunt. Anna is a Napa transplant who’s gone native in Italy and living a dreamy life in the Langhe, taking truffle fans like me on truffle hunts with expert hunters.
“Some truffle hunts aimed at unsuspecting tourists are rigged. This year we heard about hunts with pre-placed truffles from Eastern Europe.” Anna explains to us that finding truffles is a challenge and not guaranteed. If the truffle dog just scratches the surface and out pops a truffle, you know you’ve been had.
With prized truffles going for hundreds of Euros each, there’s a lot of money at stake. Alba runs the annual Alba White Truffle Fair where hundreds of thousands of Euros exchange hands every year, with Alba’s exquisite truffles destined for restaurants around the world.
“The Truffle Fair is a good place to see the quality of what’s coming out of the forests, but many Trifolao sell their best truffles privately. It’s all about who you know.” That’s Italy for you.
Eat ‘em fast.
Truffles are never better to eat than at the moment they’re unearthed in the forest.
There’s folklore out there that you can preserve a truffle, but sadly truffles lose most of their earthy sent within a few days after harvesting them.
“When you shave a truffle over a delicate dish like tajarin or scrambled eggs, you have to shave fast and then EAT! EAT! EAT! right away,” says Arnaldo Rossi, my Sommelier buddy in Tuscany who loves fresh Alba white truffles. “The essence of the truffle floats away if you let it sit for more than a minute. EAT! EAT! EAT!”
And I hate to break it to us Americans who believe in truffle oil: All aromatic ‘truffle oil’ bottles you find in the markets are made with synthetic truffle aromas. You simply can’t infuse and preserve the smell of real truffles in olive oil. And yes, those truffled fries you love so much are drizzled with synthetic truffle aroma.
“When I tell people this, it’s like telling them Babbo Natale (Santa Claus) doesn’t exist.”
That’s okay, Arnaldo. Some of us still choose to believe in truffle oil.
If you’re heading to Piedmont and want to experience a Truffle Hunt in the Langhe for yourself, here are a few guidelines to keep in mind:
- It’ll cost you about €30 per person, and you’ll join a group of 5-10 fellow truffle fans. Avoid guides that gouge you with €50-100 per-person rates, unless it’s just 2 of you.
- White truffle season usually starts at the end of September and often can be found through December, though November is the best month. Black truffle season starts in early-mid Summer and runs to late October.
- Dress for a mess. You’re going to be in the woods, with wet ground covered in slippery leaves, and you might dig in the dirt. Wear hikers or similar sturdy shoes. Tennis shoes will end up filthy and you’ll probably throw them away afterwards (wisdom from personal experience).
- You don’t get to keep the truffles unless you found them unaided, or if you buy them from the Trifolao. Remember, these are insanely expensive funghi – your entry fee gets you the experience and not the treasure.
- Tip the Trifolao and your guide. If you had a good time, be gracious and tip them €5-10 euros each. Pet the dog, that’s all he needs.
I recommend that you find and use an experienced and trustworthy guide. Anna is fabulous, and a great choice. She and her husband Claudio can also take you on a private guided wine tour of grand Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera producers, and can also host cooking classes and winemaker dinners.
You can contact Anna on her website, or email her. When you’re on the ground in Piemonte, you can call or text her at +39.392.223.5448. Tell her I sent you. She’s also tweeting away on her Italian life as @winesavi.