In the milky half-light of early morning, in a thinly-wooded valley of slender birches and knobbly oaks, the dog snuffles excitedly over a patch of earth. We hold our breath. He had been intently nose-to-ground the minute he sprang from the farmer’s car, sniffing his way across half a mile of leaf-strewn grass. But this is different; something is definitely happening. Nose glued to the spot and tail waving madly, he starts digging. His owner steps in with a trowel and they dig together.
And then there it is, triumphantly held aloft between soil-covered fingers – a white truffle. It’s like seeing someone pull money from the ground. This is only a small one, about as big as a grape, but it’s still likely to yield its finder about €30. If he can find one as big as a lemon, he’ll get €300 or more. As big as a small pumpkin, and he’ll be looking at thousands of euros. Still wagging, the dog looks up at the precious find now lying in his master’s palm. “Bravo, Pluto! Bravissimo!” the man whispers with a grin and slips a truffle-oil-soaked sliver of bread into the dog’s salivating mouth.
I’m following a hunt for one of the world’s most expensive, subtle and mysterious foodstuffs, here in southern Piedmont where the uncontested best are found. Tuber magnatum pico, to give it its proper title. The legendary white truffle, often literally worth its weight in gold – and sometimes auctioned for much more. Chefs and gourmets around the world are dazzled by this uniquely pungent ingredient, and of course its rarity only heightens its appeal.
Far more aromatic (and ten times more expensive) than its cousin the black truffle, the white truffle is a subterranean fungus akin to a mushroom. Prized for its powerful flavour since ancient times, various supernatural theories explained its creation – most commonly that a truffle formed when lightning struck the ground. It’s now understood that a truffle grows very slowly in woolly filaments around particular tree roots. And it can’t be artificially cultivated, alas. Typically 10-15cm underground, the precious growth can be detected from above by only the very sharpest nose.
Which is where our canine friends come in. Popular imagination pictures pigs as the great truffle-snufflers, and indeed these animals do hunt truffles in France, but in Italy they only ever use dogs. Why? Because they’re easier to train. (And much easier to fit into the back seat of a car.) A pig will often quickly munch any truffle it finds, while a dog has better table manners and obediently steps back to allow his owner to scoop the trophy. A kind word, a morsel of flavoured bread, and man’s best friend is happy.
Trifolau – the Piemontese dialect word for truffle-hunters – usually hunt in the small hours when a truffle’s scent hangs strongest above the ground. They also appreciate the cover of darkness. With financial rewards so high and truffles so few, trifolau are keen to keep their discoveries private – especially as truffles are known to recur in the same spot. Subterfuge and trickery are rife. Shamefully, it’s not unknown for poisoned morsels of food to be left lying in wait for other hunters’ dogs, which is why truffle hounds wear tight metal muzzles. It’s not to stop them biting, it’s to stop them eating anything that might kill them.
A cold-season foodstuff, truffles are only available during the Italian autumn and winter, the hunting season lasting from November to early March. In southern Piedmont, that means crisp, clear days, the few remaining amber leaves rattling gently beneath an eggshell-blue sky. Beyond the rolling hills dotted with old castles and small medieval towns, a line of snow-peaked Alps are usually visible off in the distance somewhere.
When it comes to eating white truffles, it’s best to keep things simple. As an amiable restaurateur told me, “The truffle does not like grand theatre, it likes simplicity.” It is never cooked, nor even washed, just brushed meticulously clean. Then it’s shaved in paper-thin slices over mild-flavoured dishes such as poached eggs, pasta or risotto – instantly turning them into the food of the gods. The bland base-dish allows the full impact of the truffle to hit you, undiluted by other strong flavours.
Most of a truffle’s flavour actually lies in its aroma, which can be very heady indeed. Walk into a room in which there’s a white truffle somewhere, and you’ll know about it. This is a smell so pervasive that it can leech through a hermetically-sealed plastic box to perfume whatever lies around (as I discovered after bringing one home in a professionally sealed container inside my suitcase, now full of truffle-flavoured clothes).
Each individual truffle has a slightly different balance of aromas and flavours– from a range including garlic, sweet hay, mushroom, honey, petrol, ammonia, spices and damp earth. Some gourmets talk of truffles smelling of human body odour, of sexual scents, even the smell of death. Never detected those last three myself! Perhaps your nose finds in a truffle what’s already in your mind.
The men trawling the pre-dawn and early morning fields with their trusty hounds care little for such gourmet pontificating. To the trifolau, white truffles are a livelihood not a luxury. They don’t eat anything they manage to find after hours of hunting, but hurry it to market instead. They might strike a deal with a local restaurateur, or find a truffle broker sent from abroad to snap up truffles for foreign restaurants. The precious finds might end up in the month-long public truffle fair in Alba, or the fabulous, exclusive auction in Alba’s medieval Castle of Grinzane Cavour – the glittering climax of the truffle season.
Alba’s truffle fair has been held every year since 1923, and draws huge crowds to this elegant, comfortable little town pitched in the heart of white-truffle country. It’s a fun and fragrant affair, with dozens of traders’ stalls displaying truffles laid out like fine jewels on velvet cloth inside glass showcases. As well as truffles, you can buy truffle-infused olive oil, truffle sauce, truffle-studded pâté, truffle vinegar, truffle butter, and truffle honey. When I stopped for an espresso, I half expected the option of truffle coffee.
The fair is full of locals, visitors, restaurateurs and chefs, all milling about and doing deals. I arrived with a single egg-sized truffle burning a hole in my pocket and went from vendor to vendor, surreptitiously asking what they might like to offer me for it. “Oh, it’s a very low-grade specimen,” one told me, “not worth more than €70.” “It’s premium quality,” whispered another, “I’ll give you €200 for it.” Sold! Fifteen minutes later the truffle was in the dealer’s case, the pricetag reading €280.
But for truly inflated prices, for unbeatably flamboyant truffle-dealing, there’s really only one place to be: the annual charity auction in the Castle of Grinzane Cavour – an exclusive, super-glitzy event attended by the international super-rich, and, um, a few scruffy journalists. In an ancient banquet hall in the heart of the castle, garrulous Italian celebrities brandish truffles on reverential silver platters, inviting bids from the glossy audience. We are told the name of the dog who found it, and under what type of tree. Two beauty queens pass amongst the seated crowd, offering sniffs of each truffle and, in true Italian style, a kiss for the successful bidder. The action is relayed by satellite to various cities round the world, and many bids bleep in by mobile phone.
Wholly fun and jovial, the atmosphere is of a refined carnival – never snooty or genuinely competitive. Everyone is smiling and enjoying the colourful game of it all. I watch about twenty truffles auctioned over the course of the morning, each one bigger than the last. The figures eventually reach six digits, with a 750g monster going for €145,000. How to recover from all that excitement? A good long lunch, obviously. Sucking a mouthful of magnificent Barolo from my glass, I watch the waiter slide a fat truffle over a special slicer and fragrant shavings drop down over my pasta. My nostrils filling with Piedmont’s glory, I think ‘Yes, bravo Pluto. Bravissimo.’