White Truffle Hunting in the Langhe
Fall colors and a crisp chill in the air; the smell of must as winemakers rake the bruised grapes from the fermentation tanks; fresh hazelnuts roasting: you will love touring the Langhe region in Northern Italy in late fall. Visit wineries, have leisurely long lunches, tour castles and stretch the legs on a brisk walk among the vineyards with snowcapped mountains in the distance. This time of year, it is also the season for the most prized tuber of all: White Alba Truffle!
Five years ago, following a five-day submersion in one of the best food festivals in the world, Slow Food’s Salone del Gusto & Terra Madre, held in Turin every two years, we spent a couple of days in the Langhe, just outside the historic town of Alba.
We'd arranged to go truffle hunting with a trifulau as truffle hunters are called locally and meet our third-generation trifulau Beppe (short for Guiseppe) and his dog Luna right after lunch on the main square in a small hamlet close to Grinzane Cavour castle, a short and beautiful drive from Alba.
The medieval castle is the setting for the international truffle auction that takes place every year during white truffle season. A limited number of perfect white truffles are auctioned off for stupendous amounts of money. In 2016 the auction raised $450,000 of which one truffle (weighing just over 2.5 pounds) fetched more than $100,000. These are not typos.
We follow Beppe as he drives his car down a dirt road with Grinzane Cavour sharp against the clear blue sky in the distance, park on the side of the road, put on rain boots Beppe brought and head off into a dense and very muddy forest. Minutes into the forest, scrambling to make our way stepping over and under fallen branches, Luna the dog picks up a scent. We hurry after her, trying not slip on the muddy ground.
Luna is a Lagotto Romagnolo, a breed perfect for the search of the high prized white truffle. They have a keen sense for searching, learn fast and, most importantly, have a terrific sense of smell. Beppe (who himself learned the tricks of the trade from his grandfather, and later his uncle as well, from a young age) trained Luna himself from when she was a 3-months-old pup. First by training her to recognize the scent of truffle, then by burying little pieces of truffle in his garden and then in the wild until he felt she was ready to hunt. Always, always there was a reward: when she found the truffle, she'd get a biscuit. Pigs, Beppe said, eat the truffle.
We find Luna digging. Beppe kneels down beside her and tempts her away with biscuits so he can examine the site. “Black truffle,” he says. The couple – hunter and dog – work closely together to unearth the edible gem.
"Bastardo" mumbles Beppe when he finely frees it from its wet clay bed. "I broke it." The tip of his pick hammer had scratched the surface.
The historic town of Alba becomes the epicenter of truffle in the fall, and you can smell it a mile away. Literally: the town seems drenched in truffle. During white truffle season, most local restaurants have at least one white truffle ready to be shaved fresh over your dish. There is a little risk involved: as you watch thin slivers of white truffle being shaved expertly over your carne crudo or creamy tajarin pasta and that enigmatic scent whiffs up, it can make you forget that you are paying by the ounce and at $6,000-$10,000 a pound it quickly adds up!
Smack in the center of the old town is the huge tent of the international White Alba Truffle fair. This is where truffles found in the woods of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato -- the same region that produces world famous Nebbiolo wines – are traded. Open on the weekends between early October and late November only, there are tastings and other events to fully appreciate truffle. The best part, perhaps, is to see the truffle trade in action.
While black truffles, porcini and other mushrooms are also on offer in the tent, the main attraction is the Tuber magnaticum Pico, or white Alba truffle. Arranged on soft cloth in glass cases, truffle traders display their treasures. Truffles are weighed and smelled; some go back into the case, some are sold. In the middle of the tent, on a raised platform is a quality control committee, if you will, that certifies the Alba White Truffle on provenance, flawlessness, size and weight: the more perfect the truffle, the higher the price. I witness one of the truffle traders bring his treasure up for a quality test. He hangs around nervously, flipping his hat back and forth. The guys on the raised podium weigh the truffle, hold it up to the light, studying its every detail and next wrap it carefully and put it away. There is a nod, a handshake, and the truffle trader walks away, his truffle – carefully wrapped -- left behind.
Back to our forest floor, Beppe cleans his black truffle. “Brava Luna,” he says but Luna is clearly not done yet. She takes off in a hurry. "She's on to something!" Slipping and scratching our faces against low hanging branches, we have a hard time keeping up with the fast dog. We reach her when she’s already busy digging and the wet clay she kicks up is heavy with the scent of truffle. The clay smells so strongly of truffle I am tempted to lick it. Luna has uncovered a white truffle and it puts a big smile on Beppe’s face. It’s not a big one – the size of a ping pong ball – but it will fetch a good price.
From Alba to Houston
If you fancy a taste of white truffle without an intercontinental flight, note that between November 3 and 12 Houston (along with New York, Las Vegas, Chicago, Miami, San Francisco and Portland) takes part in a closer-to-home White Truffle Festival organized with the patronage of the 87th Fiera Internazionale Tartufo Bianco d’Alba Festival by Urbani Truffles and Prunotto (one of the oldest wineries in the Langhe). Participating Houston restaurants include Amalfi Ristorante Italiano, Ibiza Food & Wine Bar, Osso & Kristalla, Potente, Sud Italia. Contact listed restaurants for menus and more information.