Hunting for the perfect truffle: Europe’s pearl of the land

March 12, 2024

The truffle has long been the king of culinary extremes. Occasionally, you will wander into a fine restaurant during truffle season and be graced by the bouquet of this magical “fungi” wafting through the restaurant.

Wikipedia defines the truffle as “the fruiting body of a subterranean ascomycete fungus” (say that 10 times quickly with a mouthful of pasta!). Not for the faint of heart or those operating on a tight budget, the white truffles of Alba in Italy have fetched up to 130,000 euros for what is likely the world’s largest and most expensive truffle. The black truffle grows throughout much of Central Europe, but the white truffles are the very best, found in the secret forests of Alba, in the Piedmont region of Italy. Historically hunted in France by the use of pigs to root out their prizes, the French quickly learned that the pigs got to the truffle faster than the hunter/gatherer and, more often than not, had gobbled up the prized truffle before the hunter could arrive. Over hundreds of years ago, the pigs were replaced with dogs with a particular talent to find these catches without consuming the results of their labour.

I had the wonderful pleasure of truffle hunting in Alba recently. Whereas some see black truffles as a delicious accompaniment to a fine dish of pasta, the true aficionado turns up his nose at these alternatives and patiently waits for white truffle season to arrive. This is when you can expect the appearance of the revered and delicate white truffle: pound for pound likely one of the most expensive food ingredients in the world.

The magical fungus goes back to the first century and has graced the tables of Kings and Queens, and political and business elite since then. Every year in Alba, between October and December, this town of 30,000 inhabitants swells to capacity with buyers and visitors, anxious to purchase and taste these treasures, which run on average 4500 euros/kg.

The value of the truffle is largely due to its scarcity. This ingredient is a rare beauty that cannot be cultivated and takes an average of 10 years to mature. They typically grow within the roots of Oak and Poplar trees fuelled by the clay and marl soil of the Piedmont region. The secret locations, which tend to yield truffles year after year, are jealously guarded by the truffle hunters, who pursue them with a vengeance often in the cloak of darkness in the evening so as not to be followed.

I had the chance to visit Alba and did so during the “Stagione del Tartufo” (truffle season) and hunt with one of the area’s better-known truffle hunters “Luigi” and truffle tours operators “Truffle Hunting Alba“. No firearms here, and not hunting as we think about it, but rather a wonderful brisk walk in the forest observing the the dogs and handler working their magic. The scenting ability of these specialized dogs is something to behold, as they root out their truffle prey and can smell them up to 18 inches underground as far as 50 meters away (unlike regular mushrooms, which grow above ground).

Following these dogs, as they excitedly pursue their quarry, is simply exhilarating. As they discover a truffle or truffle patch, the dogs get increasingly agitated and, when they reach their destination, they gently paw the earth almost as if pointing to the source of their excitement. The handler kneels by their side as they are then released to dig into the clay soil to unearth the white gold destined for the market or the table.

As they get closer to the source of their desires, the handler has them back off (typically bribing the dogs with a treat) and then gently removes the last soil away as if unearthing a precious treasure in an archeological dig. The prize is gently unearthed and displayed with pride, then carefully wrapped in a cloth to preserve its integrity and slid into the pocket of his hunting jacket for safe keeping. In our outing, we found 10 truffles, which was considered an excellent day. The pungent earthy aroma of a white truffle freshly plucked from the soil is like nothing you’ve ever experienced.

A good pair of walking boots and a walking stick are essential tools for the day. Being in decent physical condition is helpful, as this is not a leisurely stroll in the park. Watching the relationship and the affection between the truffle hunter and his dog is a beautiful thing to behold. There’s a very special bond between a man and a dog in this time-honoured tradition, which adds to the wonder of the day of the field.

And when all is said and done, as you retire from a long day in the field, you are greeted in one of the local Alba restaurants with a culinary masterpiece. A server approaches your table and proudly presents you his “truffle box”. He opens it as if he is about to present you an expensive piece of jewelry. And rightly so! And then the magic. White gloved, your server shaves the truffle paper thin with tremendous speed and enthusiasm and almost with a crescendo, laying a fabulous coating of white truffle over your pasta. Best appreciated without the complexity of other sauces, a simple oil and garlic fresh pasta, smothered in Alba, white truffle is an experience no food aficionado should ever miss.

As the sun began to set on the day of our “hunt”, I queried my guide Luigi with his kind and weathered face on what he loved most about what he did. He replied in Italian: “It’s the joy and love of my dog’s smile when he proudly looks up at me and his expression says ‘I found a truffle for you’.”

As much as I appreciated the sentiment and the experience, the real magic happens on the plate and on your palate, as you indulge yourself with the earthy, pungent and ever-so-magical White Truffles of Alba, as well as friendship and conversation that are naturally accompanied by a fabulous big red from Barola.

Buon Appetito!

Photos by Thomas Pigeon & Unsplash.


Story by Thomas Pigeon

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