“Where are you?” asked our driver impatiently.
“Near the albergo [hotel],” came an equally exasperated voice over the phone.
The black Jag crept down an alley so narrow that we nearly scraped the worn stucco walls that hemmed in the car on either side. Just as it seemed that we could go no further, the alley widened by an inch and we emerged onto a dirt road running alongside a vineyard afire with crimson grape leaves.
It was 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning at the end of October, and and a heavy silence hung in the foggy air. We were in Italy’s Langhe, the hilly home of Barolo, Barbaresco and other storied wines. We were late, not because we’d been drinking–that is, not wine–but because we’d been trying to find a cup of espresso to start the day.
Waiting by the fence were two slightly agitated men: Marco, the trifolao or hunter, in his mid-forties, camouflage cap pulled low over hooded eyes, a faint smile playing around his lips. Next to him, his friend Roberto, a hulking older man leaning heavily on his cane.
A third party was also present. Tongue lolling out of his mouth, he rolled on the ground, luxuriously scratching his back, then stood and stretched from head to tail before giving himself a good shake. His name was Roky. His mission? To sniff out the tartufo bianco, the coveted white truffle of Alba.
In perfect English, Roberto gave us a whirlwind lecture: No, tuber magnatum is not a tuber but a fungus that grows underground, usually feeding on the roots of oak, willow and half a dozen other trees. In Italy hunters use trained dogs with keen noses to find the intensely aromatic white truffle, which grows mainly in the Langhe. It is so delicate that it is never cooked, only shaved raw over tagliatelle, risotto and other mostly warm dishes.
There had been little rain this summer, so the tartufi were smaller than usual and harder to find. “The authorities requested hunters to put off the hunting for a month, so we started just a few weeks ago,” said Roberto.
The sky had darkened and it was beginning to mist. We followed Marco and Roky as they ambled into the vineyard. Even in late October, there were bunches of dark purple dolcetto grapes still dangling from the vines. The hunter plucked a few and gave them to us to taste. They were sweet with a puckery tang.
“The vineyard belongs to an old friend of Marco’s,” explained Lucia, the ebullient guide and translator who had arranged the hunt. “He’s 90 years old and doesn’t care about keeping up with the industry. He grows just enough grapes to make wine for himself and his friends.”
At this point I should mention that strolling through a picturesque vineyard hunting for truffles on a Sunday morning is strictly for amateurs. (That would be us.) The serious hunting takes place in the dark of night: the trifolao and his dog skulk through the woods, laying false tracks to confuse other hunters who are out with their own dogs on the same piece of land.
“Friends by day, enemies by night,” joked Marco in Italian. He claimed that when he’s on a night hunt, he sometimes sleeps standing up against a tree while Roky ranges far and wide, returning only to let him know when he has picked up the desired scent.
As we walked through the vineyard, the hound waggled his way down one row of vines and up the next. He kept his nose to the ground, but was not particularly interested in any of the aromas exuding from the damp earth.
This gave me time to study him. Short-haired, with pale café au lait ears and splotches on his white coat, he had long legs, a stubby tail, and sharp, intelligent eyes. Like his master, he had a languid air—though that would soon change.
Mutts make the best truffle hounds. Like many, Roky is a mix of five or six types of hunting dogs crossed with a yellow Lab. He started his training even before he was born. “While they are still in the womb, the mother is fed pieces of truffle to introduce the babies to the scent,” explained Lucia. After the litter is born, some breeders rub the mother’s nipples with truffles so that the pups begin to associate the taste with their mother’s milk.
As they grow older, the dogs get bits of chopped up truffle in their food—usually black truffles not considered fit for human consumption. To discover which dogs have the keenest instincts, truffle-scented treats are hidden in a room and they are let in to ferret them out. The same process is eventually repeated outside.
“By two years,” said Marco, “the dog is trained.” At this point, they may be put up for sale. But when I asked Marco how much, he smiled and shrugged. “It depends on what you want. A nice quiet dog for strolling around or a young dog who is eager for the hunt.” A 6-week old dog might bring just 100 euros while a 2-year-old fully trained hound as much as 3,000 euros.
B and I debated telling Nick, our much loved, very spoiled springer spaniel to get a day job. Actually, said Marco magnanimously, the breed makes very good truffle hounds.
As the mist turned into a cold rain, we reached the edge of the vineyard and plunged rather suddenly into a wild tangle of oak trees and grasses. Roky scampered down a steep, barely detectable path. As he bounded in and out of view, now clearly more excited, we half-walked, half-slid down the muddy hillside. At one point Marco put his arm around me as I was about to whoosh past him and laughed, “We’re dancing the tango.”
We stumbled along, tripping over tree roots, barely keeping our footing. After a while, a bit of tension began to surface. Roky was aimlessly running here and there, not finding anything of interest. Lucia tried to explain that in the rain, it was harder for the dog to pick up the scent of the buried fungus.
“Roky, Roky,” called Marco, trying to lure him to a spot where they’d previously found truffles. (Smart hunters always shake truffle spores back into the hole they’ve dug so that they will reproduce in the same place.) Roky couldn’t have cared less.
By now, almost two hours had passed and it was raining steadily. Marco spoke to Roky in Piedmontese, the local dialect. His voice was low and coaxing. Lucia, her own brow furrowed with worry, translated, “He’s telling him that they can go home and get dry and lie by the fire if he does his work.”
Suddenly the dog veered sharply to the left and scrambled through some underbrush. He stopped at the foot of a small tree, snuffled, barked, and pawed the ground.
Marco was there in a flash. With one hand, he tossed Roky a biscuit while with the other, he dug into the earth and, using a knife, expertly lifted a dirt-covered lump from the soil. It was a small, misshapen white truffle. He squeezed it gently. It was soft but not spongy—a good sign.
A dirty white truffle is not much to look at, but when Marco presented it to us, the rain-soaked hunt made perfect sense. The aroma was intense, wildly intoxicating, with irresistible umami-like odors. I was hooked. I couldn’t stop smelling it. (No wonder the tartufo bianco is said to be an aphrodisiac.)
Apparently Roky had hit pay dirt. A few minutes later, not far away, the whole procedure was repeated. He barked and pawed the earth, gobbling a treat as Marco dislodged another small truffle with an equally powerful scent.
The tartufi were small, no more than 12 or 13 grams apiece, worth perhaps 100 euros each on the open market–a far cry from the astronomical prices paid for larger white fungi–but B and I were thrilled. We were about to turn around when Roky barked again.
Marco began digging but after a moment he said, “No there’s nothing there. Probably just the smell of a truffle that a mouse has already carried away.” (Mice and other rodents like truffles as much as humans do and it can be a race to see who can get there first.)
But as he spoke, the knife dislodged another lump of dirt—a much bigger one. As he brushed the soil away, we discovered that Roky had zeroed in on a large black truffle. Alas: unlike the highly desirable tuber melanosporum (found in France), this particular variety does not make good eating. Its scent paled next to that of our two white truffles, which Marco had wrapped in a damp paper towel and now handed to me in a small plastic container, the lid carefully cracked so as let the air circulate.
“What will you do with the black tartufo?” I asked Marco. “Do you want it?” he queried. “Just wondering.” He shrugged. “I’ll take it home and give it to the new puppies I’m training.”
Back at the car, the rain had stopped but it was still cold and wet. B and I changed our muddy sneakers for town shoes, while Marco gave Roky a bowl of kibble and another of water. The hound inhaled his food in a minute, took a long drink and then jumped through the open hatchback of his master’s car, wagging his tail as if to say, “Let’s hit the road!”
As for us, we turned towards the village of Barolo, where we joined a crowd of Sunday diners at Matteo Morra, a restaurant where the fall menu offered a host of regional specialties made with local white truffles. In between the vitello tonnato and a tempting pumpkin-leek soup with toasted hazelnuts and crunchy focaccia, there were simple dishes such as homemade ravioli and fresh tajarin, or tagliatelle, both served with white truffles and unsalted butter from Alpeggio in the mountains.
Meanwhile our own tartufi were whisked off to the kitchen. “How long will they keep?” I asked Lucia as we looked over the menu. “Oh, only a day or two. You should eat them right away.”
In the end B and I shared one of our truffles for lunch, shaved raw over the ravioli and the tajarin. I know we had other things to eat, but I’m a little dim about the rest. What I remember is the delicacy of the pasta, the sumptuous mountain butter, and the heady aroma of the tartufo.
Of course there’s always a better way. At breakfast in our hotel dining room the next morning, two plates covered by silver domes arrived at our table. When the domes were whisked away, we were presented with mountains of the most brilliantly yellow scrambled eggs I’ve ever seen.
Now came the moment of truth: the eggs were accompanied, as requested, by a truffle shaver. Gamely I picked up our remaining tartufo and attempted to cut a paper thin slice. A dusky chunk tumbled onto the eggs.
Horrified, I asked our lugubrious waiter if he could take over. “Certo!” he exclaimed, coming to life as he expertly adjusted the sharp blade. As translucent truffle slices rained over the eggs, he casually asked, “Where did you get it? Did you buy it?” “We found it.” “Where?” “Near La Morra,” I said. “Ah!” he replied knowingly. “It’s very fresh.”
Later he confided to B that he personally loves to eat fried eggs with white truffles, especially after a little weekend hunting of his own with a friend who just happens to have a dog…
For further reading, here are a couple of articles I discovered after our return from the Langhe:
“Amid Hills of Wine and Truffles, a Mission to Give Truffles Room to Breathe,” Gaia Pianigiani, The New York Times, October 6, 2016.
“The Great Italian Truffle Hunt,” Mario Calvo-Platero, Departures, December 5, 2016