Sniffing the ‘tartufo bianco’ in Alba

For those who let the summer holidays in Italy pass by: think of October. In Alba, among the northern Italian hills, the white truffle moth begins. That rare and above all delicious fungus can only be traced with trained dogs. Journalist Liza Karsemeijer did a truffle tour last season.

“Rocky, fermo!”” shouts truffle seeker Piercarlo Vacchina. “Stop!” We walk along a leaf-covered forest path in Le Langhe, a wine region in the Piedmont region. Moments before, his dog disappeared among the trees. About 100 yards away, he’s digging. Rocky stops. Vacchina rewards him with dog biscuits and pulls out tools from his pocket to further excavate the truffle. “If you don’t get there in time, the dog can damage the truffle, or worse, eat it.” The dogs are trained from a young time. This way they get bits of the fungus through their chunks. There are rumors that some truffle hunters smear the nipples of the mother dog with truffle oil to get the newborn pups used to the taste. Piercarlo presses the black truffle into my hand: “Smell it.” I smell onion, forest mushrooms and nuts.

As we walk further, Rocky suddenly shoots across the forest path. More focused, more determined than before. “Rocky!” exclaims Vacchina again. We follow the dog about 300 meters uphill this time, and find him in a clearing, frantically digging. Even as his owner gets closer, he doesn’t give up. “This must be a white truffle,” Vacchina exclaims, delightedly as he tries to lure Rocky away. After a few attempts with a lot of chunks, he succeeds and digs on himself. A strong, garlic- and musky smell rises from the earth: intense and refined, not comparable to the smell of the black truffle we found. At about 20 centimeters depth, Vacchina finds what he was looking for: a small, light brown chunk that fits on the palm of your hand: tartufo bianco di Alba.

More expensive than gold

Le Langhe, the area around the town of Alba, is suitable for the growth of all kinds of truffles due to its wooded valleys with mineral-rich soil. They grow there all year long between the roots of the trees. As soon as they are ripe, they give off a strong smell. The most precious and rarest of them all, the white truffle, grows only from September to December, cannot be grown and is only picking freshly tasty. During the truffle season, alba’s Fiera del Tartufo Bianco (the white truffle fair) takes place every weekend, italy’s oldest and most important truffle market that attracts visitors from all over the world every year. In that period you can taste plenty of tartufi bianchi. For that, you have to bring a well-stocked wallet, because these underground mushrooms are not cheap.

“The price of the white truffle fluctuates,” says Silvia Orione, tourist guide and truffle expert, as we walk through the small centre of her hometown of Alba. “The amount depends on what the tartufai, truffle seekers, find, and that catch again depends on the weather conditions and temperature.”

That amount can change by the day and they need to be sold quickly, because white truffles can last up to seven days. For example, wetness is disastrous for the smell of the dogs, so if it has rained for a few days, the supply is smaller and the price rises. Shape and size play a part: the bigger and more even, the higher the price, because large pieces are more popular at restaurants. Tourists also influence the price, says Orione: “Every local knows that you should never buy in on weekends, during the truffle fair.” So you prefer to wait until Monday, when the tourists are home and want to get rid of their ‘old’ stock.

Silvia Orione and I take the test and step inside tartufi Morra, one of Alba’s oldest truffle shops. In a glass display case, different types of truffles are displayed as jewels on a checkered handkerchief. A lady from the village chooses a 10 gram piece, with which she can provide two plates of white truffle pasta that evening, and charges 25 euros. That price is on the low side: on average you paid 3750 euros per kilo last season and during alba’s famous international truffle auction a Hong Kong buyer even broke the record last year by buying a tartufo bianco of a kilo for 120,000 euros. Such large truffles are very rare: the vast majority is no heavier than 500 grams.

Truffle King

The truffle shop is named after the man who made the truffle world famous and wanted: Giacomo Morra. In its time – early 20th century – the truffle harvest was larger than today: due to the lower temperatures and more heavy rainfall at that time, the fungi thrived better. Tartufi were therefore a lot less rare and certainly not a delicacy: the local, mostly poor population ate them like potatoes.

Still, Morra saw bread in the white truffle and the romantic story of truffle hunters and their dogs. He knew that the truffles were already loved at the court in the Middle Ages, and wanted to make it a symbol of good taste. He opened a shop, later a restaurant and organized the first truffle fair in 1929. After the war, morra gained international attention for the truffle by gifting it to celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe and Winston Churchill. By the time he died, in 1963, the white truffle was world famous.

Protected heritage

If you want to bring home a real tartufo bianco, you should have it judged first by a jury at the truffle fair. Silvia Orione was part of that last year. “It starts with the smell,” she says. “It should be garlic-like and a little cheesy, but definitely not ammonia-like.” A good truffle is light brown on the outside and white on the inside. It feels sturdy when you squeeze it, and a fresh one is 80 percent water. If a truffle complies with all these guidelines, he will receive a certificate.

The truffle sellers aren’t the only ones bound by rules. As a truffle hunter, you must have a permit, for which you have to take an exam. This shows that you know the rules. So you can’t put it on a grave yourself: then you risk taking away the traces of the truffle, so that no new ones will grow. There are about 5,000 registered truffle hunters all over Piedmont who keep their best spots in the forest hidden from each other. That’s why they usually search at night and sometimes travel miles on foot so that their parked car doesn’t betray them.

Small company
That evening we dine at Hotel Tota Virginia, among the vineyards for which Le Langhe has become so famous. We choose an appetizer of egg, cheese and white truffle and a classic tajarin al tartufo, a typical Piedmont kind of ribbon paste that is prepared with just butter and white truffle. For a plate of truffle you usually pay about fifty euros, depending on how much tartufo you want on your dish. Often the truffle is grated on a scale on the spot. The waiter comes to the table with a perfect, round piece of truffle. I think back to what Piercarlo Vacchina said today about the small, strangely shaped and debuted pieces, which he always keeps for his own consumption. “They’re no less comfortable.” His best advice for those who want to try the tartufo bianco? “Make sure that your table group consists of as few people as possible.”

Out & Home

Transport
Under normal circumstances, flights to Turin depart daily. By train you can go via Paris to Turin and from there by train or bus to Alba (from Rotterdam about 11 am).

Overnight
Hotel Tota Virginia in Località Baudana, near Alba, is located among the vineyards of Le Langhe.

Tests
At Alba’s oldest truffle shop Tartufi Morra you can get acquainted with all kinds of truffle during a tasting.

Self-searching
Hunting with a truffle hunter and his dogs? Check out tour.langhe.net or langheroero.it for tour providers.

Truffle fair
Tastings, cooking demonstrations and workshops. fieradeltartufo.org

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