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Pursuits

dog looking for truffles
White truffles must be sniffed out by dogs because they grow underground with the roots of certain trees

The hunt for the white truffle

August 4, 1999
Web posted at: 4:31 p.m. EDT (2031 GMT)

By Arthur Boehm

(Los Angeles Times Syndicate) -- It is fall in the Langhe, the Italian hill-country south of Alba, and the air itself smells of truffles.

The scent -- elusive but penetrating, redolent of ground and wood and vaguely garlicky -- catches you unawares, and like the dishes the truffle perfumes, permeates the senses rapturously.

In Alba, at this time, the white truffle is king. It commands the attention and money of locals and visitors alike, who hunger to own or eat it. It is ogled in shops where, displayed under glass, it is sold by the gram at about US $1,000 per pound (about a half-kilogram). It is sought by a dedicated network of truffle hunters -- trifulao -- who comb the Langhe for it, which is what we have come to do.

An uncultivable mushroom, the white Alba truffle is in season from September through December, grows underground and is sniffed out by dogs. The best place to look for it is the damp woods of the Langhe, where it grows in symbiosis with the roots of oaks, poplars, willows, limes and hazelnut bushes. It is said that the harder the tree's wood, the better and more intense the truffle's perfume and, therefore, its flavor.

As dedicated food groupies, we wanted to hunt our truffles as well as eat them, and planned our trip accordingly. With the assistance of Urbani USA, North America's chief truffle supplier, we contacted Tartufi Morra, the parent company's outpost in Alba. Morra's original owner was the first to send truffles worldwide and to conserve them in cans; the company also shipped truffles to former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and actress Marilyn Monroe, and arranged a truffle hunt for Egypt's King Farouk, who, because of his girth, was enthroned on a trailer and driven into the woods.

Plans were made to introduce us to a truffle hunter who would, contrary to custom, take us on a daytime truffle hunt (an arrangement necessitated by our tight traveling schedule). Most hunters do their work at night, relying on the dark to hide their efforts from others, all of whom have their favorite spots which they return to yearly. To further ensure secrecy, the truffle hunter avoids traveling in light-colored cars and using dogs with white coats.

An abundance of truffles cuisine

The day of the hunt was luminously clear with a deep blue sky. We would all meet at lunch, at a roadside restaurant outside of Alba, where, while waiting, we devoured fonduta, a creamy fontina-based fondue served over toast and capped with shaved truffles. Since coming to Italy we had discovered the truffle's magical kinship with eggs, raw beef, risottos and taglietelle (called tajarin), the fresh pasta of the Langhe. These eighth-inch-wide noodles are made with up to 20 egg yolks per pound of pasta; bathed in butter and capped with shaved truffles, they are breathtaking.

Equally astonishing was a dish offered us at the restaurant Gener Neuv in Asti, where we were presented with small covered casseroles each holding a single coddled egg, topped with creamy polenta. Our waiter blanketed each serving with truffle (weighed before and after shaving to determine the mushroom's surcharge), recovered the pots and, presently, opened them again. Truffle-scented steam enveloped us. The dish was ambrosial.

Generations of truffle-hunting

We knew Erico Bertolino was a truffle hunter the moment we saw him. Tall and sharp featured, booted and wearing a blue silk neck scarf, he was our image of the woodsman, Italian style. Bertolino lit a cigarette -- he smoked even while hunting -- and discussed the current truffle season.

truffle packages
Tartufi Morra was the first to ship boxes of white truffles worldwide

Rain in June, he said, was the best promise of a bountiful crop. This year it had rained late, in September, and not enough. "When the earth is dry," he said, "the truffles hide."

Bertolino's grandfather and uncle had been truffle hunters, but the breed was dying out. In the Langhe there were now, perhaps, only a few working hunters. And the environment worked against them. "Chemicals in the ground," Bertolino said, "pollution and smog. Progress will kill us all."

Bertolino owned two hunting dogs. Neither had attended the University of Truffle Hounds at Roddi near Alba, a now-defunct institution that once matriculated promising mongrels, the preferred truffle-hunting type. But he has his own training method: "I feed a puppy a bit of truffle," he said, "and if the dog shows interest, I bury some cheese. If the dog finds it, I give her truffles to smell and tell her to look for them. If she locates a truffle, I reward her with bread."

Were all his dogs female? "The females learn more easily," he said, "but the males are better hunters."

Over time, Bertolino has had 10 or 12 animals, all beloved. He and they hunt almost all year long; besides the white truffle of fall, they find the blackish summer truffle from June to November, the dark winter truffle from January to March, and the tan March truffle or bianchetto, found through April and used, sometimes, to dupe white truffle buyers.

'Those who pay well get the best truffles'

Bertolino sells his truffles directly to Tartufi Morra and to friends ("those who pay well get the best truffles"). Besides the woods, he has found truffles in gardens, at the Alba railway station, even in the street. His prize was a 435-gram white truffle, about a pound, but, he tells us, there is no correlation between truffle size and quality, and price is determined by both. Nor is scent a guide. "Not all truffles smell alike," Bertolino says. "Even if you know truffles, you can't always tell the good from the bad."

We drive into the Langhe in Bertolino's car, about 10 kilometers (6.2 km) outside Alba. We have been joined by Stella, his best dog, a small female who rides happily in the car's trunk. Bertolino stops the car at the side of the road and we descend into a gully, Stella leading the way. The closeness of the hunting range to everyday traffic is surprising. "Vai, vai," says Bertolino to Stella, "Go!"

Stella leaps into the woods and begins smelling the earth. She darts from tree to tree, stops, sniffs and bounds away. Like a father, encouraging and admonishing equally, Bertolino guides the dog, talking to her, goading her on. He also makes a calling noise in the back of his mouth that sounds like a quack. "Come here," he tells Stella, "no, down there! Look, please, there...."

On the trail of buried treasure

Stella stops suddenly and begins to dig. Immediately, Bertolino brushes her aside. He removes a spadelike tool, a sapin, from his belt and uses it to dig in the shallow hole Stella has made. He holds something up -- a wrinkled, darkish truffle the size of a large marble. "An early winter truffle," he says. "Smell it."

We do. The truffle is aromatic but has nothing of the rich, almost gaseous scent of its white counterpart. Bertolino breaks the truffle apart -- it is hollow. "Immature," he says and tosses the truffle aside.

We move further into the woods. The climb becomes steep and we grab branches to avoid falling. The ground is covered with leaves, and we can hear Stella ahead, pawing them. "Vai su," Bertolino tells her, "go up!"

But Stella seems to have found something. Bertolino sweeps her aside and digs but -- nothing. Again, Stella is told to hunt and, minutes later and further along, digs at the base of an oak. Bertolino works his sapin in the earth and then flourishes something -- a golf-ball size white truffle. "About 30 grams," says Bertolino laconically, handing the truffle to us. We smile and nod, trying not to show too much excitement.

Bertolino gives Stella bread from his pocket for her good work and points at the truffle. "See the grooves?" he asks. "They're from her scratching." One by one we smell the truffle; its freshly dug scent fills the air.

Rare treat becoming rarer

Stella is off again. "The fewer truffles she finds," says Bertolino, "the more she makes you run around." Stella stops and paws. "Oh, Madonna," he says and hurries to intercept her.

Bertolino digs and unearths a second white truffle. It's similar in size to the first but knobbier. We smile at our luck, but this time knowingly; we are becoming blase.

We see that Bertolino carefully refills the hole his digging has made. This allows the truffle to regrow, he tells us, and conceals his success from other truffle hunters who might otherwise poach his find. Like the other white truffle Stella has found, this one is handed over to Gian Maria Bonino, Tartufi Morra's president, who has been hunting with us. He will weigh it and settle with Bertolino later on.

The light in the Langhe has dimmed. We must go, but before we do, we have one last question: Can truffles, so strangely wonderful to eat, be good for you too?

Bertolino shrugs. "Some people say so; some say they're aphrodisiacal. In the old days, if I was hungry, I'd eat one or two at a time. Now there are fewer of them so they're rarer than ever. So we must live in hope, all of us, of finding them."

If you go...

Joining a truffle hunt may be difficult to arrange, but Alba and the other towns of the Langhe are well worth seeing -- and dining in -- during the white truffle season. For more information about Urbani USA, call (718) 392-5050, or visit the Web site at www.urbani.com.

In Asti, the unofficial site of the local truffle market, according to Italian food expert Faith Heller Willinger in her excellent guidebook, "Eating in Italy" (William Morrow; 1998), is the Caffe San Carlo, Via Cavour 142; tel. 0141.30249. The market takes place before dawn on Wednesdays and Saturdays from late October through January.

During the fall, tourists flock to Alba, a turreted medieval town set amid the grapevine-covered parcels in the Tanaro River valley, so plan your trip well in advance. Be sure to attend the city's truffle market, open Saturdays from October through December. It's located in the Palazzo Maddalena, and along the via Maestra or via V. Emanuele, under the arcade, according to Willinger.

Copyright © 1999, Arthur Boehm
Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate




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