On the truffle trail in northern Italy

This story was first published in The Straits Times on December 8, 2013

It is late afternoon one damp November day and the skies are darkening. I am trudging through sticky clay in a small forested area across from a vineyard, wearing boots that are about three sizes too big.

I have come here, somewhere in Barolo in the Piedmont region of northern Italy, to look for white truffles.

Before setting off, truffle hunter or trifolau Aldo Alessandria, 55, watches as I slip and slide on the muddy ground in my sneakers. He goes to his beat-up truck and pulls out a pair of sturdy rubber boots from the back.

There are little rocks at the bottom of the boots, but it seems churlish to complain, since I have, for reasons still unfathomable, left my galoshes back home.

We set off with Mara, a seven-year-old mongrel who last year led American rapper Jay-Z's truffle hunt.

Today, she seems more interested in pooing than in looking for truffles, and MrAlessandria explains that the rain-soaked ground makes it harder for her to sniff them out.

So we trudge on and on, covering an area full of oak trees. Truffles are known to grow at the roots of oaks, black poplars, willow and hazelnut trees.

Trifolau guard their prime spots jealously and hunt at dusk or dawn, when it is dark and they can go about their business in secret.

With about 10,000 of them operating in the Piedmont region, competition is fierce.

Mr Alessandria points out a spot where he found a 600g truffle last year. He has come back to the same spot numerous times this year - truffles tend to grow in the same places - but has found nothing so far.

He leads Mara to a stretch of ground with a dip in it. It is a prime spot for truffles to grow because rain collects there in late summer, encouraging the spores to grow into truffles.

Still, there is nothing.

After about an hour and several false alarms, where Mara digs enthusiastically into a spot only to abandon it, she seems to be on to something.

It is now completely dark, but Mr Alessandria's torch lights the way.

He takes over the digging from Mara and holds up a fistful of earth, indicating that we should smell it.

My friend and I take turns to do that and it is unmistakable - we smell what we are here for.

A little more digging and there, wedged in the soil is what looks like the top of a button mushroom cap.

Mr Alessandria takes out a sickle-shaped pick and starts to dig around the truffle carefully. Then using his fingers, he twists it ever so gently for what seems like ages before it finally releases from the soil.

"The Viagra of Piedmont!" he exclaims in English.

We are jubilant and Mara gets a small biscuit from one of the pockets in his hunting vest. If she had found a larger one, the treat would have been more substantial.

The prize looks like a xiaolongbao and Mr Alessandria thinks it weighs about 30g. It smells at once sweet, funky and nutty, with whiffs of soil.

He wants to put the treasure into his faded cloth truffle bag, but my friend and I insist on taking turns to hold it, turn it around and just marvel at it.

After all the excitement, he fills the hole with leaves and then soil. Then we have to hightail it out of there before the wild boars come out. Arturo, another of Mr Alessandria's truffle dogs, had been mauled by one recently.

Back at his home, Mara's offspring bark at the sight of strangers. He is training them to be truffle dogs too.

"The nose of the dog is important," he says in Italian through a translator. "When they are young, we let them eat truffle. If they like it, they may become good truffle dogs. If they don't, they will never become truffle dogs."

Those that show potential are trained by trying to sniff out truffles that the trifolau has planted in the ground.

A good truffle dog is valuable, and Mara is worth €5,000 (S$8,560), Mr Alessandria says, not that he is likely to sell her.

Mongrels or tabui make good truffle dogs because they are smart. Other breeds include Lagotto Romagnolo or Italian water dogs, griffons and bloodhounds.

Pigs are good truffle hunters too, but they like to gobble up their finds, making them, well, impractical.

Mr Alessandria knows what he is talking about. He has been at it for 50 years, starting at the age of five with his father Fiorino.

"Back then, we used to find buckets of truffles," he says of the truffle hunts with his late father.

Now, however, pollution and the use of chemical pesticides has drastically reduced the number of truffles to be found, he adds.

Still, this is a good year for truffles because the rains came at the right time in July and August, and there was enough sunshine and rain to activate the spores.

This is why a taste of truffles is easier on the pocket this year. The average price is €2,500 a kilogram compared to €4,000 a kilogram last year.

Pricing is complicated. The average price is just a guide because larger truffles tend to fetch higher prices and some of the best ones are auctioned off.

And while lower in price than last year, white truffles are by no means cheap.

One reason is that they cannot be cultivated. Black truffles have been successfully grown in countries such as Australia, China and the United States. White truffles have resisted attempts to farm them.

So in October and November each year, tourists from Italy and around the world descend on Alba in search of the white gems. These months are the prime season for them.

White truffles can also be found in parts of Croatia, Slovenia and France, although the ones from around Alba are considered the best.

"What about truffles from Acqualagna?" I ask again and again, referring to the small town in the Marche region in central Italy, which is establishing itself as a truffle centre.

Eye-rolling and extravagant shrugs are the answers I get from the trifolau, truffle merchants and Italians, none of whom believe that its wares can compare to theirs.

It is in their interest to play it down too, as truffles are big business for the city of Alba and the surrounding country towns and villages.

My friend and I start planning our trip in August and we are almost too late, with many hotels and inns fully booked. We should have started in June.

People want to visit the annual International White Truffle Of Alba Fair, which runs on weekends from October to midNovember.

This year's fair is the 83rd and ran on weekends from Oct 12 to Nov 17. We manage to make it for the last weekend.

Outdoor markets, wine and cheese tastings, exhibitions and other activities make up the fair, but the main draw is the Alba White Truffle Market, housed in a tent at the Cortille della Maddelena.

A €2 entry fee allows visitors to browse a collection of stalls that sells everything from wine and cheese to salumi and pastries.

Truffles are also on sale, of course, and every one is apparently checked by a commission before the market is open.

The place is buzzing and packed.

My friend stakes out space at one of the standing tables while I go get lunch. There are two long queues with people waiting to order and somehow, the food comes out in order and a courtly gentleman shaves the good stuff over simple dishes: fried eggs, carne cruda (raw beef or veal) and tajarin (ta-ya-reen), the egg pasta that is a staple in these parts.

Our lunch, comprising two plates of fried eggs, one carne cruda and one tajarin, costs an eyebrow raising €122, but I feel a little better when slice after slice after slice of truffles fall like snow over the food. They are generous with it.

Restaurants, too, lay out special menus and the prices are comparable to or less than what diners would pay here, except that the fungi would not have travelled far to get onto plates. They are more aromatic than most white truffles I have had in Singapore.

At the three-Michelin-starred Piazza Duomo in Alba, the six course truffle tasting menu costs €150, before truffles are added to the bill. Diners pick one from a platter, sniffing and touching allowed, and their choice is weighed on a digital scale in front of them. It is then placed with great ceremony on a plate covered with a glass dome.

The servers shave truffles over every course and the truffle is weighed again at the end of the bill and diners are charged €7 a gram.

At other restaurants, a bowl of tajarin with truffles costs €30 to €40, and a plate of carne cruda made with finely chopped veal from Fassone, a breed of cattle, and topped with truffles will set you back about €50.

Truffle shops are dotted all over Alba, filled with jars and bottles of truffle paste, salt and oil, none of which come close to the real thing. Truffles are on sale too, often displayed in glass cases.

It is in Piazza Elvio Pertinace that we find Tartufi Morra, established in 1930 and one of the oldest - and biggest - truffle businesses in the area. Its founder, the late Giacomo Morra, spread the word about Alba's white gems by sending prized specimens to heads of state and film stars in the 1950s, and started the truffle fair.

The business is now run by the Bonino siblings: Pasqualina, 57; Gianmaria, 50; and Alessandro, 45.

Mr Alessandro Bonino says the company buys truffles from about 400 trifolau.

"They know we always take their truffles and we always pay. Even if our fridge is full, we accept," he says.

In the first week of November, he says, he sold 110kg of white truffles. About 70per cent of the truffles are exported to France, Germany, Dubai, Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore.

He has a special connection to Singapore, having supplied truffles to chef Justin Quek since 1996. He also sends them to upmarket restaurants Iggy's and Aoki.

In the pristine storage area one floor below the shop, he takes out cloth-lined wooden trays laden with truffles, all graded by size and quality. Even the broken ones look good.

Indeed, the two truffles I buy from his shop turn out to be the best ones in my haul.

He says that because the weather conditions were right this year, there should be truffles well into December and January.

Those who want to hunt or buy truffles can ask for advice from hotels and inns.

The Consorzio Turistico Langhe Monferrato Roero, a tourist bureau in Alba that covers the area, also organises simulated 90-minute truffle hunts at €35 a head. This year, the tours ran on Mondays and Fridays from Oct 4 to Nov 8.

People get a feel of how a trifolau and his dog work, but the truffle they find is likely to have been placed there beforehand.

Mr Alessandria charges €60 for two people, or €20 a head for larger groups. His hunts last 90 minutes to two hours, and if the one I went on was simulated, he is as talented an actor as he is a truffle hunter.

Now, with all the hubbub, it is easy to get caught up in truffle fever, but there is much more to appreciate in the area.

During the two-hour drive up to the Langhe from Milan, we find ourselves stopping to admire the rows of vines, with leaves in autumnal shades of orange and red.

On the way to Ca' Del Lupo, our hotel in Montelupo Albese, we see trees laden with persimmons.

It is such a delight then, to see them at the breakfast spread the next day. The ripe fruit is like pudding inside - sweet, cool and wobbly.

Make detours to the wine villages of Babaresco and Barolo, where you can buy bottles of the best wines in the region in shops or drink them in the trattorias nearby.

Pork in all forms is excellent in the region, so tuck into salami flavoured with truffles or with Barolo wine. The butcher shops and outdoor markets in Alba have more pig products than you can imagine.

Hazelnuts are a speciality of the region and are made into cakes, chocolates and desserts, all of which are good.

One afternoon, we abandon plans to go to Alba after discovering a market in the town of Diano d'Alba. We park and browse the stalls, looking longingly at the beautiful apples, leeks and other produce on sale.

One stallholder points us in the direction of a hot meal.

We open a door and discover we have stumbled on an annual lunch feast, held on the third Sunday of November to celebrate "truffles and animals", as one volunteer tells me.

The town hall is lined with long tables and the buzz is a happy one.

For €16, we feast on grilled peppers with tuna sauce, a flavourful pork and chickpea stew, beef bollito with a tangy herb sauce, and budino, a chocolate pudding. Bottles of water and jugs of Dolcetto are set along the tables for us to help ourselves, and there are paper cups of espressos at the end of the meal.

We chat with the people sitting around us, and I am glad my friend has persuaded me to stay. Confronted by large, noisy rooms full of people, I usually turn and run.

But lulled by mellow days filled with good food, truffles and perfect persimmons, I relax and feel right at home.

"Does this happen every weekend?" I ask a friendly volunteer.

"No, only once a year," she says.

"Wow, we are very lucky."

"Yes, you are."

hsueh@sph.com.sg

facebook.com/tanhsuehyun


1 €5,000 DOG & A TRUFFLE HUNTER

Mara, a prized seven-year-old mongrel, and truffle hunter Aldo Alessandria lead the truffle hunt.

2 SNIFF IN THE DARK

After trudging through wet ground for an hour, Mara digs enthusiastically at a spot. Mr Alessandria takes a fistful of soil and lets the writer sniff it – it smells sweet and nutty.

3 GENTLE COAXING

Mr Alessandria uses his fingers to twist the fungus gently to ease it out of the soil.

4 A 30G TREASURE

The truffle unearthed is estimated to weigh 30g. Mara is rewarded with a piece of biscuit for the find.

5 WHITE GEMS

Truffle shops are dotted all over Alba and the mushrooms for sale are often displayed in glass cases. At Tartufi Morra, one of the oldest and biggest truffle businesses in the area, the prized wares are stored in wooden boxes.

6 €122 TASTE TEST

An official at the truffle market tops tajarin with generous shavings of the good stuff. The S$209 lunch for two also includes carne cruda (raw beef or veal) and fried eggs.


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HANDLING TRUFFLES

  • If buying truffles to bring home, wrap them in paper towels and place them in an airtight plastic container. They should be refrigerated until flying, and then checked in. Change the paper wrapping daily, or when the paper feels damp. Use them as soon as possible on arriving in Singapore.
  • Do not store them in rice as the grains draw moisture from the fungi, drying them out.
  • Clean them before using. Using a medium-bristled brush, lightly scrub them under running water. Use the sharp end of a wooden skewer to scrape off the grey clay that sticks to the crevices. Gently excavate the holes in the truffles to clean them out.
  • Wrap the truffles in paper towels to dry for 10 minutes before using.

TREASURE HUNTING

TRUFFLE HUNTS

Tartufi Fiorino

Aldo Alessandria, tel: 39-0173 -78339, e-mail: tartufaldo@tiscali.it, website: tartufifiorino.altervista.org

Hunts last 90 minutes to two hours, and cost €60 for two or €20 a head for larger groups.

Consorzio Turistico Langhe Monferrato Roero

Tel: 39-0173-362562, e-mail: info@tartufoevino.it, website: www.tartufoevino.it

Simulated hunts last 90minutes and cost €35 a head.

Through hotels

Book hunts through the hotel you are staying in by contacting them well ahead of leaving Singapore.

WHERE TO EAT

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Piazza Duomo

Piazza Risorgimento 4, 12051 Alba, tel: 39-0173-366167, e-mail: info@piazzaduomoalba.it, website: www.piazzaduomoalba.it

Service at this three-Michelin-starred restaurant is cold as ice, but the whimsical murals on the walls and the excellent food, such as the agnolotti filled with cheese and topped with truffles, make it worth a visit. The truffle menu costs €150, with the truffle costing €7 a gram.

Trattoria del Bivio

Localita Cavallotti 9, 12050 Ceretto Langhe, tel: 39-0173-520383, e-mail: info@trattoriadelbivio.it, website: www.trattoriadelbivio.it

This cosy, buzzy restaurant serves food that is a lot more posh than you might expect in a trattoria. I had a delicious raw Sicilian prawn starter with a mini Negroni served alongside. Truffle dishes, including carne cruda, tajarin, pasta with fonduta, a cheese sauce, cost €32 each.

La Ciau del Tornavento

Piazza Baracco 7, 12050 Treiso, tel: 39-0173-638333, website: www.laciaudeltornavento.it

The best raw veal starter with truffle (€50) we had was at this restaurant. The veal was served three ways: finely chopped, in slices and in cubes. Each version was a new way to savour the meat, which has a beautiful natural sweetness made even better with copious shavings of truffle. The four-course white truffle menu costs €220 with truffle included. Other good dishes include fried frog drumsticks (€20) and Sanremo shrimps coated with ground hazelnuts (€20).