I loved him at first sight. Typically Italian, not only did he have beautiful brown eyes but he had a gentle gaze. Sadly Gigi – short for Luigi – belonged to someone. The handsome hound was the much-treasured truffle dog (trabui) of renowned truffle hunter (trifolao) Agnello Renato. I was in Alba for the 87th International Alba White Truffle Fair the largest international exhibition in the world dedicated to truffles from the area. And, to truffle hunt.
I had arranged to meet the 85-year old Agnello Renato in the countryside outside Alba, home of Italy’s famous white truffle. He is the 5th generation to carry on his family tradition, having started with his father at age 6. With Gigi we were going to seek out the celebrated gastronomic morsel at a secret spot. Secret because the white truffle is so sought after it commands a high market price. (In 2016, a 416-pound truffle sold for $61,250 US.) Therefore truffle hunters hunt furtively. As dusk falls or pre-dawn, men who are friends in the day disappear into the woods to quietly compete in the dark, relying on the naso (nose) of their skilled dogs.
We clamber through dense woods of beech, oak and hazel where the fungus grows symbiotically. Gigi rushes eagerly ahead and with a furiously wagging tail indicates a find after snuffling amidst tree roots under layers of autumn leaves. He then carries it ever so gently in his mouth to Agnello who rewards him with a biscuit, explaining that he has carefully trained his dog since birth. There is a bond of palpable communication and loving complicity between the two: They share the same passione. His weathered face wreathed in smiles, Agnello wraps the precious morsel in his fazzoletto a scacchi bianchi e blu: The checked handkerchief will keep it moist. It has been an extremely dry season so the truffle Gigi found is not that large. The ‘tuber’, as the Romans called it, needs rain. Sometimes Gigi indicates a find simply by excitedly wriggling from head to toe, at which point Renato uses his special truffle-digging hoe to extract the gnarly treasure. (It is essential that hunters fill the hole made by the fungus so that frost will not kill the spores, and another will grow.)
The white truffle is exceptionally unique. Unlike the black truffle, it cannot be cultivated. Never cooked, it is treated as a condiment. The tartufo bianco d’Alba is the most esteemed. It is becoming rare due to the razing of woods for vineyards, overharvesting and industrial growth.
Leaving Alba, a magical expanse of hilltop power palaces – towers that punctuate miles of manicured vineyards – I decide to taste this much-vaunted, much-sought after delight. At Ristorante Solferino in Milano, celebrated since 1909, Gianni Di Buduo shaved slices of translucent thinness onto my ristotto adding an incredible complexity. The aroma reminded me not only of my time with Gigi (sigh) but evoked thoughts of this simple food’s history. Greek and Latin writers praised this curiously ugly yet highly prized culinary champion. In 1929, the legacy was enhanced by the initiative of Giacomo Morra a restaurateur and hotelier, who spear head a marketing campaign. This historical heirloom may soon be taken to another level. In 2018, Truffle Hunting will be Italy’s candidacy for UNESCO’s cultural heritage.
WHITE TRUFFLE FACTS
• The white truffle is actually yellow to brown with brown spotting as it matures. • The most expensive, the white truffle cannot be cultivated. • The white truffle from Alba is considered to be the best. • They are found in five varieties depending on the trees around whose roots they grow. • Greeks and Romans used truffles as medicine and aphrodisiacs.