12 Dec2016

Perhaps the main reason for our journey to Piedmont and the area around Alba, was to savor eating, and just as importantly, experience “hunting,” for the prized white truffles of the region. This is definitely one of the items crossed off my personal food bucket list. While our trip to the region fell two days short of the official start of the white truffle “season” for 2016, we were hopeful that we would be able to find something or at least experience what it would be like to traipse through the woods in search of fungus…

Mrs. MM had booked a private hunt through a tour expert that booked La Casa del Trifulau, and we ended up going with another couple of guests for an hour or more long trek through hilly woodsides. Truffle hunting is a passion and the skills are handed down through generations… in this case, our guides Natale and Giorgio having hunted truffles for decades and their ancestors did it before them. To be honest, I was a bit skeptical that the hunt would include “planted” truffles, but I really don’t think that was the case in our experience…

We entered the woods owned by the family of Natale across the road, these were once planted with grapes, and several decades ago allowed to return to wild forest and underbrush. It’s a continuing battle between wine and truffles in Alba, with the latter requiring natural forested areas to thrive. It is said that when it is a good year for wine (generally a hot late summer, minimal rain, etc. so you end up with very intense robust wines) it is a horrible one for truffles. Truffles prefer wet, damp and cold conditions and this year it was not that at all…

So the key is man’s best friend, the dog, in our case his name was Brio. They once used pigs to do the sniffing, but they were rabid about eating their finds so dogs were trained instead. The dogs help locate the truffle, and are more easily distracted/rewarded with a grocery liver treat while yielding the truffle to their masters. In this case, our wonderful companion was Brio, a mixed breed of English(?) pointer mine with a local Italian breed. Truffle hunters work with their dogs from birth, and the first two years are really spent training the dogs how to find the elusive white truffles.

The first clue is that truffles grow around the root systems of only 3-4 types of trees, poplars being one of them. The root systems of oaks and possibly hazelnuts were also a desired home for white truffles. So basically the dogs and humans tend to perk up near the right kinds of trees…

…after several minutes heading uphill, and looks between Mrs. MM and myself that it obviously wasn’t going to be a leisurely stroll on flat land… Brio our hound started sniffing excitedly and quickly started digging furiously, kicking up dry dirt and leaves…

…it was incredibly fascinating and exhilarating to watch. And Giorgio immediately got in there to intervene should the truffle be close, as scratch marks and nicks to the fungus totally diminish their value and desirability amongst the cognoscenti…

…in this case, the first find was a tiny white truffle, smaller than a marble, but Brio got a treat nonetheless. Truffles are unusual in that they ripen at a particular time, with no regard to shape or size, so they could be tiny or enormous, up to say a kilo in weight. And you could apparently hunt through a part of the forest in the morning and turn up empty-handed, but find a ginormous truffle in the late afternoon.

A little further down the path, Brio started circling and getting excited and went full force into digging furiously…

…to yield this pretty hefty black truffle. I had no idea they grew together, black and white (though that was obviously a duhhh moment), and frankly, Giorgio was a little cross/disappointed with Brio as apparently he is trained to ignore the black and just look for the white truffles. The locals poo-poo the black variety and I had visions of his tossing the black one into the woods and my scrambling to go find it myself.

The truffle, caked in dry mud, was incredibly fragrant, but noticeably different from the intense fragrance of white truffles. It looked pretty big to me, but apparently wasn’t of the most ideal shape and condition.

A close-up of the black nugget. Brio happily gave it up for two treats. As with many delicacies around the world, it seems poop plays a role here. Animals eat the truffles, poop and leave spores all over the forest. The spores develop when the conditions are right, and they have a two month cycle to ripen and they are eaten by animals and pooped out again. Civet coffee is another example of having to be associated with poop. And so are wild mushrooms. :)

A little further down the path Brio found something else, another tiny white truffle, and I was beginning to think the larger ones would be elusive that day.

Notice how “pleased as punch” Brio is with any discovery. The symbiotic relationship between master (who could be rather strict and firm) and lovable hound was almost as interesting to watch as the actual truffle discoveries…

And then about 45 minutes into the hunt, Brio found this beautiful white truffle — it had a nice shape, heft, density and amazing amazing fragrance. We were so excited and in that one hour our trip seemed to have been made so special, so complete. We would go on to find a few more white truffles of a diminutive size, and our guide Giorgio kept shaking his head about the weather and poor conditions for truffles this year.

Meanwhile, between the diggings, I noticed the abundance of wild laurel plants all over the paths. Such lush, and when you crushed the leaves in your fingers, fragrant fresh laurel.

There were two interesting distractions for Brio during the hunt, one was several sirens from ambulances that careened some 300-400 meters away. He got so discombobulated by the sounds that he stopped following instructions and just kept looking in the direction of the sirens. And as the walk was ending, he really perked up, looked like he was on the hunt for something alive, and kept looking in a particular direction. Giorgio said he had probably smelled a rabbit or hare, and we didn’t see a thing or hear any movement in the underbrush.

But about 80 meters down the path, I snapped this, can you see it? What I would give to have the olfactory capacities of a hound. Overall, the truffle hunt was a fantastic experience, and now every time I savor shavings of white truffles, I will know exactly how they are discovered in the woods.

 

COMMENTS:

  1. joe jj says:

    Why it is a rabbit! Did you try any rabbit dishes MM? Rabbit is quite the specialty in Liguria. It must likewise be in Piedmont which is farther afield from the coast. My dream dish is foie gras with shaved white truffles! Do you think it will work — two strong flavors?

    Dec 12, 2016 | 8:04 pm

     
  2. La Emperor says:

    That was a fun activity. :) Hoping to do the same thing next year. Cheers.

    Dec 13, 2016 | 8:09 am

     
  3. marilen says:

    the ‘died and gone to heaven’ bit…(like the first time I tried real foie gras.) Same feeling for sure, MM, what a wonderful holiday for you and family. might as well, add ‘died and gone to heaven’ when I first step foot in Italy. Blessed Christmas to you and family and the market manila community.

    Dec 15, 2016 | 7:47 am

     
  4. Betchay says:

    Interesting forest hunt!

    Dec 23, 2016 | 8:38 pm

     

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