Much like mold, with a crush of garlic, tossed in newly ploughed soil and kissed by burrowing earthworms, a scent so bewildering yet so intoxicating I would gladly wear as a perfume. The aroma of the white truffle, Tuber magnatum, one of the most expensive foods in the world, is simply heavenly.
The white truffle holds its own among the gastrocrat’s finest of Beluga caviar, Matsuzaka beef, foie gras and oysters as a food that is a paragon of both extravagance and indulgence. More rare than the black Périgord truffle from France, the white truffle grows almost exclusively in Italy and northern Croatia, with the best white truffles found in the Piedmont region of Italy, particularly around the town of Alba.
So while in Alba, we couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to join renowned trifolao (truffle hunter) Ezio Costa and his trusty pooch Jolly on a mid morning search for the prized white Alba truffle in the woods of Monchiero Alta.
Ezio has been hunting truffles since he was a teenager, keeping alive a family tradition that has been passed from father to son. The extensive property on which we are searching this morning is one of several that belongs to his family. Ezio’s family made a bet that paid off big-time when they planted this particular piece of land with oak and hazel trees several decades ago in the hope of creating a hospitable environment for white truffles to flourish. Ezio tells us that he hunts freely for truffles on his land several times a day and charges other truffle hunters a fee if they wish to search on his property.
Truffles are subterranean mushrooms that grow along the roots of certain trees (oak, hazel, poplar and beech are the best hosts) and mature in late fall to early winter.
Truffles of both black and white types grow in Piedmont. Black truffles are found not far below the surface of the ground, while white truffles are hidden about a foot deep. Covered by earth, grass and fallen foliage, truffles can only be detected by pigs or dogs by scent. While pigs are traditionally employed to sniff out truffles, dogs are more commonly used these days as they do a far better job of resisting truffles than pigs.
White truffles in particular cannot be cultivated; this coupled with their elusiveness explain their mystique and exorbitant price tag that fluctuates from year to year in the range of US$1,000 to US$2,200 per pound.
We start our search with Ezio and Jolly leading our pack through the forest, the grass and leaves on the ground still moist with morning dew. Ezio gives his partner a pat and turns around to remind us that without Jolly, he stands no chance. Jolly trots ahead, her nose wiggling every few steps, alert for the telltale scent. Ezio follows closely with a measured pace, giving a command every now and then to keep the jaunty Jolly focused on the task.
Suddenly, Jolly stops and begins to dig fervently. Ezio quickly moves in and shoos the pooch away to prevent her from gobbling down the truffle or damaging it from her digging. He then pulls out a garden pick from his pocket and carefully hacks at the ground, clearing the soil to reveal an acorn-sized nugget. He inspects the truffle with a smile and rewards Jolly with a well-deserved treat.
After the truffle has been harvested, Ezio pats the earth back to conceal the truffle’s location. He says that truffles are very likely to grow again at the same spot, and erasing traces of his find will reduce the chances of someone else picking up a truffle before he does in future seasons. Most truffle hunters work in the early morning and at night he adds – another sign of the covert and competitive nature of the business.
Over the next couple of hours, the hardworking man and best friend duo successfully unearthed several more truffles, both white and black, ranging in size from an acorn to a golf ball. The aroma of the white truffles is hands-down more intense, complex and pleasurable than that of the black ones.
Bravo Jolly! It’s a good day.
An amateur video I made of one of our finds for the day.
Affectionately called “white diamonds”, white truffles, like diamonds, do not dazzle until they are cut. They resemble dusty potatoes with mumps. But when cut open, good quality white truffles are tan, marbled with creamy, ivory veins, and the scent, oh wow the scent is to.die.for. As cooking stifles the white truffle’s aroma, it is best served uncooked, shaved paper-thin over a delicate base such as fresh tajarin, risotto, ravioli or sunny-side ups.
And now the taste test. Back in Alba at Ristorante Osteria La Libera, I ordered a spectacular melt-in-your-mouth spinach and ricotta ravioli in a translucent skin, surrounded by a moat of the most luscious extra virgin olive oil and smothered with a blanket of paper-thin white Alba truffle shavings. The ravioli was so delicate; a gentle slice across let loose a very runny yolk, oozing and coating the pasta and truffles! The visuals, the aroma, the taste – I am feeling inadequate; words cannot describe. It all happened very quickly, and I am sorry I don’t have a picture of the yolk to show you; my ravioli was calling out to me. I vote it my favourite truffle dish on this trip.
I totally dig the fuss over white Alba truffles.Written and photographed by jack.d