I sat next to a truffle hunter in the Barolo Region of Alba.
As the Michelin-starred food arrived and the wine flowed, he told me a lot about the local truffle hunters.
Although he wouldn’t admit to being one of them, he kept slipping up and saying ‘us’ instead of ‘them,’ and then he would correct himself – but not very emphatically, and he had a smile on his face, as though to let me know that he’d made a mistake on purpose!
Alba’s truffles are the white varieties. They sell for 3-4 euros a gram locally, and for 10 euros per gram elsewhere.
No tourist will ever buy from a local truffle hunter. They’ll find it almost impossible to find one. And the truffle hunters mainly sell their buried treasure to restaurants.
He waited for my reply with a twinkle in his eye.
‘Oh yeah, right,’ I said, ‘And I expect they wear little black cloaks and mortar boards and everyone applauds them when they go up to collect their diplomas!’
Of course he’d pre-empted my reaction and handed his phone to me.
Sure enough, there it was! The University of Truffle Hunting Dogs was founded in 1880 in a house in the hilltop village of Roddi.
Giovanni Monchiero, aged 42 runs it now. It was founded by his great-grandfather.
There are no truffles growing on private land. They grow in public woodland.
The truffle hunters go out at night. They know where they’re going, even in pitch darkness.
Some plants encourage truffles to grow. Wet and humid conditions are perfect.
A rising moon means a rising truffle.
The knowledge dates back to Roman times and is passed down from father to son.
I asked what happened when someone new tried to muscle in on the local hunting. Was there any violence?
There was no way that I could imagine a fiery Italian who could earn enough money in a few weeks to keep his family for the rest of the year politely saying, ‘Hello, I haven’t seen you before. Don’t look here. It’s better over there.’
Again, it was what my friend didn’t say that explained a lot. He told me that the truffle hunters all carry a long baton which is used to push the dogs’ noses away when they find a truffle.
Hmm, yeah, and the rest, I replied. He just smiled.
Actually, the truffle hunters are willing to talk about what they do. They’re just cagey about where they do it!
One of them took a BBC journalist hunting with him at night. Then she asked to see his 50-year-old notebook, listing his truffle sites, and he said that his even wife would never ask to see it – and he angrily rushed away, leaving the journalist alone in the dark wood.
At the Asti wholesale market, which runs from 5-6am, truffles are discreetly sold. A journalist from the Washington Post went there and he looked around, totally confused. There wasn’t a truffle to be seen anywhere. It was just full of people in groups chatting.
Then one of them looked up and announced, ‘It’s OK, he’s a colleague of mine,’ and truffles appeared out of bags, boxes and pockets!
Personally, I can’t see what all the fuss is about. I’m not a truffle aficionado, although I’ve tried different varieties several times. I’d rather have a big, meaty cep.
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