White Gold: Hunting for Tartufo Bianco di Alba

A nose for unearthing a culinary treasure
A nose for unearthing a culinary treasure

From the train station in the Piedmont town of Canelli where Martina arranged to meet us, we follow her in her car down a rough road, parking in a public field beside a tangled forest where a young man, Alex, a tartufai, is waiting for us, his Lagotto Romagnolo dog beside him. The dog’s name, well-deserved we soon learn, is Gold. 

Only days before, the three-month season for the Piedmontese white truffle officially opened. We are here for the rarest of the truffle species, the Alba white truffle or Italian white truffle as it is also called, the truffle with he most pronounced and fragrant aroma. (Disclaimer: my passion for truffles, black or white, isn’t quite equaled by Magellan, and Lynn and Ward eat neither. It is said you either love them or you don’t.)

Until our trip to Piedmont, the dish-of-my life was concentric coins of celery root, each topped with a circle of raw black truffle emitting an incredible aroma that intensified with every step toward our table at Le Relais Bernard Loiseau in Saulieu, France. 

Three decades later at La Quercia restaurant in Vancouver elevated that experience with white truffles thinly shaved over a piping-hot dish of generously buttered tajarin (Piedmontese thin egg-pasta noodles) that gently warmed the white truffle, subtly releasing its aromas and flavours. 

Because their flavour compounds are so volatile, white truffles have an extremely brief shelf-life. They do not travel well, lose up to ten percent of their weight each day and in a week resemble a withered potato skin. They are best consumed fresh, where they grow.

For ten years, I had been planning a trip to the fertile region of Langhe. Here between the Tanaro and Po Rivers and the Alps and Apennine Mountains, truffles grow large in a symbiotic relationship around the roots of oak, chestnut, hazelnut, beech, poplar, lime and linden trees.

Martina, a language translator when she is not on a truffle hunt, lets Alex take the lead into a forest he knows well. Not where he goes on early-morning or late-night foraging (truffles exude more aroma under the cover of darkness), which Martina explains is on steep hillsides, impossible for tourists. Besides, in this highly competitive and risky vocation, Alex probably wants to keep his prized truffle locations a secret. 

The autumn sun is hot, it has been all summer, and the earth is dry.

Truffles need a lot of humidity to grow, as Martina explains.

They are underground mushrooms composed of 70% of water and it hasn’t been raining that much for the last two years. This year we had a lot of spring rain, the rain that we need to have truffles in autumn. So it’s not one of the best seasons despite the rain in spring because we come from two years of complete lack of water, so we need to recover.

Just as I am wondering if Gold will find any truffles at all, he snuffs one out, his front paws kicking back clumps of earth, Alex motions him aside before the truffle goes flying. A white truffle is unearthed, minutes after we arrive! 

Each white truffle is unique in shape, aroma and flavour depending on the area of origin and the host tree. In my hand is a gnarled nob of beige, looking a bit like a baby sunchoke. (Like a “strange, mangled dropping of a forest troll” writes Ryan Jacobs in The Truffle Underground.) We four, and the young couple from Germany who are with us on the tour, take turns inhaling its pungent aroma.

Alex pets Gold, rewards him with a treat, praisies him in Italian. 

Martina says that Alex will let Gold play a little now. Unlike in the past when truffle dogs were leashed and forced to keep their nose down for the entire hunt. She tells us that this is the place where Alex trained Gold.

I remember two years ago we were in a hunt when he was a puppy. He was like four months old, so he was like this big. And he found his first white truffle that was this deep. (About 30 cm). The first time. For a four-month-old puppy a very good result.

They sort of remember where the previous year they found a truffle. And this is why for him, working here is extremely easy. And Alex lives, like one kilometer from here.

Someone asks about the training process and once again, Martina defers to Alex and then translates.

He starts by putting some truffle oil or pieces of truffle or cheese in his food so he connects the smell to something positive. Then he starts hiding small pieces of truffles in a very superficial way so that it is easier for the dog to dig and to smell, of course. And then he starts putting it deeper and deeper, because white truffles, especially during November, can grow up to one meter deep.

When you go truffle hunting, you don’t want your dog to chase wild animals. If you let the dog play a little bit with shrews like Gold is doing now, it’s fine. But if you see a wild boar or a deer, you don’t want your dog to chase those animals. The good thing is that Lagottos, as well as poodles, were not used to kill or chase prey, but only to fetch that prey. They do not have the instinct to chase something that is running. The hunting dog always has his nose up because the traces that he needs to smell are high, whereas the truffle hunting dog is always with the nose on the ground.

So it is very important also to train the dog to look for the truffle once it is out of the ground.

Alex covers the small hole Gold has made and Martina covers a second one nearby. “Another truffle hunter here didn’t cover the hole. She’s a little bit of a rookie.”

One of us asks about using pigs for hunting truffles. Martina speaks to Alex in Italian, then says that pigs are no longer used to hunt truffles because “we realized that they love truffles as much as we do!”

The adorable Gold, with his wooly curls and endearing face, is successful, again!

We ask if you need a license to hunt for truffles in a public area. Martina converses with Alex, as she does frequently, more out of respect and engagement we expect than not knowing the answer herself, and translates for us.

It is necessary to have the license to go truffle hunting. He has a truffle hunting license that he renews every year because otherwise there are fees and sanctions up to like €5,000. You have to study, they give you a book, it is a bit different from region to region. And then you have to take an exam and pay a tax every year to renew it. But it is very important because as we all see it is very important when you go truffle hunting to know how to behave in a truffle area if you want truffles to grow again. (Those who harvest truffles only on their own land are exempt from this regulation.)

White truffles are the fruiting body of the Tuber Magnatum pico, from the Latin word magnatus referring to its high price. They are not tubers but wild, underground fungi that grow symbiotically with the roots of their host trees. They can reach 12cm in diameter and weigh up to 500g or more, though usually they nudge the scale between 150g and 400g.

They grow, spontaneously and sporadically, in marly calcareous soil at altitudes of less than 700 meters above sea level.

Truffle spores, a sort of seed for the fungus, cannot be dispersed by wind, the distribution method for most forest fungi. As Ryan Jacobs writes, when the spore count rises, its musk strengthens, attracting shrews, rabbits, wild boar and other creatures who ingest the spores and defecate them back to the forest floor. For white truffle spores to germinate, they need to be on the host plant, not in the soil. 

When the spores receive a chemical signal from tree roots, they bubble into filaments and begin receiving sugar from the tree and symbiotically in return, send soil nutrients and water to the tree’s roots. It can take five to ten years for a seedbed plant to become a mature truffle. No wonder they are extremely scarce.

In springtime, the aroma-free structure needs to make contact with another fungal colony of the same species. In early autumn, something causes truffle cells to come alive—rain, temperature change, moisture or an undiscovered microbial reaction. (Is this the reason truffle hunting is forbidden in April and September?) Spores are produced and the spherical knob bulks to maturity. Even their propagation is shrouded in mystery, and attempts at it have been mostly abandoned. 

We gather around a perplexity, as Martina says. 

So it’s a bit of a mystery when you work with truffles. There are so many things that we still do not know. And this is also part of it, this is also the nice part of this job. Despite analysis, despite that we have laboratories and research about it, you are not allowed to know everything about nature. We are particularly lucky because our certain position really gives great truffles. And the other thing is that, as we said, you cannot cultivate it, especially white truffles. So, if in your area, white truffles do not grow, you cannot bring the spores from Piedmont, plant them and hope that it comes. It will not come.

I ask about the fierce competition among truffle hunters and the danger of someone waiting by your car to steal your truffles.

Alex is off with Gold, so Martina answers.

In other areas, it is also a bit more difficult, also dangerous because you have the risk of poisonous food, you have the risk of people waiting for you in front of your car with rifles. I’m not kidding. Even in public areas.

Here, he (Alex) doesn’t have any problem in coming without the muzzle for the dog. But if he went to other areas, then he should put on a muzzle because it would be too dangerous for the dog. Last year we received a warning not to go hunting in a specific area because they found poisonous food and perhaps a dog died. It’s very difficult when you work with an element that is so expensive and that anybody wants to find and to sell.

Martina quietly says that Alex lost a dog to poisoned food and for a few years, he gave up truffle hunting. He has two dogs now, Gold and Pearl.

Gold discovers another truffle, this time a black one, larger but less aromatic. 

“There are some people that say, ‘No, I only eat white truffle.’ You’re going to lose half of the fun!” says Martina. 

Near an old drain ditch, Gold roots out another white truffle. I am now coddling four truffles and wondering if Alex would consider selling us one, even though I am certain they are destined for his clientele. Besides, the four of us had to pool our cash just to pay Martina the €35 per person for our ninety-minute tour—we only have €0.51 among us.

Which leads to a discussion on the cost of white truffles. 

Of course, white truffles can grow in many places. It’s not just Piedmont or Abruzzo or other regions, not only in Italy but in the world where you have a specific combination of humidity and soil composition. But Alba did a great job with marketing, which is the same thing that they did with many wines. (I read that in the mid-1900s, marketers from Alba sent their white truffles to influencers of that time, people like Marilyn Monroe and Winston Churchill.) 

There is the truffle hunter. Then you have traders, and with traders the price increases a little bit. And then you have the fair with the highest prices and the auction where they increase the price, of course. That’s just how it works.

Right now, the price is €150 per 100 grams, so €15 per gram this week and maybe for the first couple of days of the season.

She says that last year at the auction in Alba, a 700-gram truffle sold for a record-breaking price of €184,000 to a man from Hong Kong. Prices averaged €3,500 for white truffles, €500 for black ones. In 2022, the region collected €482,000 from the fair.

Alex begins to clean Gold’s dusty little nose. His dog is tired. 

Like the travel writer Pico Iyer who says he knows a trip is successful if “in some sense I never come back at all,” I am still in that field, listening to Martina’s voice.

Navigation

Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianca d’Alba. This year the festival runs from October 7 to December 3—there’s still time to book a trip and that isn’t going to happen, check out their mouth-watering eye-catching website.

Jacobs, Ryan. The Truffle Underground. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2019.

Rius, Trufas.  “The white truffle from Alba or Tartufo bianco di Alba.” From his blog of September 10, 2013.

The Truffle Hunters. 2021 release. An award-winning documentary about a handful of elderly men still on the search for the white Alba truffle in Piedmont, delivering truffles in graveyards, loving their truffle dogs as if they were their children, experiencing punctured tires and muzzling their dogs so they can’t even lick strychnine-laced food hidden by nasty competitors. The site’s critics consensus reads: “The Truffle Hunters explores a world most viewers will know nothing about—with delightfully savory results.”

Truffle Hunts. [email protected].  +39 366 3520636. We highly recommend a tour with Martina, Alex and Gold. Martina kindly agreed to be taped on GoPro, from which her words have been extracted and condensed for this story. 

8 Responses

    1. Thx Joan. Now that Matthew is old enough to drive (well maybe not legally in Italy) he could drive the four of you around Piedmont. And we might recommend an old stone house you could stay in…

    1. Thx Judy. Two weeks of hiking at elevations of 2300 metres in the Dolomites got our blood flowing for a week of ‘truffling’ in Piedmont!

  1. I remember picking mushrooms not truffles but boletes from my childhood .
    A good place for mushrooms was a secret .Great story Gloria .Grazie tantissimo.
    Sei bellissima Gloria .Hai gli occhi di Shirley MacLaine.
    You look beautiful , Gloria . You have Shirley MacLaine’s eyes .
    Grazie .
    A presto
    j

    1. We saw her once, in the elevator of the Waldorf Hotel in the early aughts, dressed in her trademark colour, purple. Grazie to you for the compliment because in most photos these days my eyes are closed and I look like I was born in 1934, like Shirley.

  2. Interesting locating technique to be sure. Reminds me of mushroom hunting and locating. The 1 meter depth takes that to a new level, the pup has an incredible nose is a total understatement.
    Not sure I want to develop a taste for truffles, but never say never, right?

    Nice story and awesome story line.

    Cheers,

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