On The Hunt For White Truffles: Piedmont, Italy
Selling for 100 to 500 euros per kilogram, white truffles are referred to as the White Gold of Alba. For centuries, white truffles have been regarded as a gastronomic delicacy that only the very wealthy could afford. Even in ancient texts, the truffle has been written about as a great luxury enjoyed by kings and queens. The aroma is difficult to describe: earthy, umami, a note of garlic, perhaps. Truffles smell like…truffles. Unique. Perhaps this is why they are so highly desired? They’ve even been endowed with aphrodisiac benefits. Well, a good meal is a good start!
Bad news. White Truffles cannot be cultivated.
White truffles cannot be cultivated. What is known about them: they favor the roots of certain species of trees: poplar, oak, willow, linden, and hazel. Certain climatic conditions are desirable for growing truffles, as well as an alkaline soil. The Langhe and Monferrato areas of Piedmont, Italy, are famous for producing the most aromatic truffles and the largest quantity, though they are found in limited quantities in other areas of Italy, Croatia, and Slovenia.
This is a lot more than I knew about truffles until just a few months ago, when I found myself on a Tartufaia (truffle farm), near Asti, in the region of Piedmont, Italy.
I had never even seen a white truffle before (come to think of it, I’m not sure I’d seen a black one either), and there I was on an actual truffle farm with a truffle hunter, Egidio, his dog, Brill, and Matteo, my guide from Meet Piemonte. It was one of those rare life experiences where I could step back and observe, seeing myself in the situation. Egidio talked non-stop in Italian, Matteo translated as fast as he could, and Brill ran about rather helter skelter. It all seemed a bit dream-like, and I felt a smile that began in my belly spreading across my face.
But, we do know they like certain types of soil and trees…
According to Egidio, who cooperates with the University in Turin to collect information on the climatic conditions, soil, and other factors, the truffle will grow in more or less the same place each year, IF it grows at all.
For visitors to the Tartufaia, Egidio always plants one truffle so that he and Brill can illustrate an actual truffle hunt. The relationship between the truffle farmer and his dog is the key to finding the elusive white truffle. It was a little early in the season, so there was no guarantee we’d find anything else aside from the planted truffle.
Egidio lead Brill to an area where truffles had been found before, and with a subtle gesture, commanded him to sniff the area. If the savory aroma was detected, Brill would go to work digging until Egidio commanded him to stop, giving him a treat for finding the truffle, and then removing the truffle from the soil himself. It seemed so simple, yet it was hard to grasp that these ugly knobby looking fungi could actually cost up to tens of thousands of dollars.
We continued our walk through the woods, while Egidio explained why the soil in this area is ideal for the truffles. Once it was covered by the ocean. He pointed out an area where you could see the layers of sediment, and told us many seashells are also found in the area. The white truffle favors this alkaline damp clay soil, as well as the trees that grow there.
We found several more truffles that day and these finds were not staged. Egidio was quite pleased and a little bit surprised. Later he hugged me and told me I’d brought him good luck. Hey, I’m for hire!
As we walked back to the car, Egidio told us that he was a third generation farmer, and that before him there had been a period when truffle farming was not so popular. Many farms had been allowed to return to the wild. But he enjoys truffle hunting and working with the land. His nephew will be the next to inherit the truffle farm. Who knows, maybe by the time the nephew takes over the farm, the mystery of the white truffle will be solved.
Can’t make it to Piedmont? I shot this video with my iPhone 5S. You can truffle hunt without leaving home.
My thanks to Egidio for his time and hospitality explaining his life’s work to me, to Matteo for translating, and to Meet Piemonte for showing me a slice of life and culture in Piemonte, Italy. This area has a rich heritage of food and wine and was recently added to the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites. To arrange a tour with Meet Piemonte, you can contact them via this link.
La Tartufaia raises not only truffles but a variety of other crops to supply the restaurant there on the agriturismo, which is a working farm open to visitors. You can book a visit through Meet Piemonte.
Have you ever been on a truffle hunt? Do you even like truffles? Please leave a comment.
Still curious about why white truffles are so pricey? Read this fun article from food writer Josh Ozensky for Time Magazine.