The dog's tail wagged impatiently. Lady -- a small, nondescript, white and brown mutt -- raced ahead to the oak tree, sprinted back and forth, nose thrust into the ground, then triumphantly started digging with gusto. Looking up with an air of satisfaction, Lady was handsomely rewarded before her master carefully scraped the loosened dirt with his pick. The five visitors observing the ritual looked on expectantly. Using his fingers to gingerly explore further, the truffle hunter delicately removed his treasure: a large, walnut-size white truffle, one of the epicurean riches of Alba, a gem of a city in the Piedmont region of northwest Italy.
Okay, let me just say that up to now the closest I had come to a truffle was in a Whitman’s Sampler box and it was covered with chocolate. And I’m pretty sure it had never been routed out by a dog. This truffle hunting is a respected art form in Alba, and proper training of the dogs is at its heart. Any breed can aspire to the job, but selection depends upon its resume. It must have a good nose (a trait the dogs presumably share with the region's prestigious wines), and trainers can ascertain that after three days. Once the dogs show promise, they attend the Barot University of Truffle Hunting Dogs, in operation since 1880, for two to three months of specialized training. Graduate school is optional.
Now let's talk truffles. Sure, to the uninitiated, it may just be a foul fungus, but to the gourmand, it represents the ultimate in gastronomic delights. It is judged by size, color, shape, texture, aroma - some would say offensive olfactory onslaught; others, fragrance of the gods -- and its overall perfection. There's a lot to be said for this smelly little mushroom.
Although also found in France, northern Spain and other parts of Italy, the region around Alba is considered the quintessential truffle capital, a virtual mushroom Mecca, home of the tuber triathlete, the Mozart of the Mushroom, the Fellini of Fungi, the Travolta of Tubers -- you get the idea. It's also the economic bellwether that determines the official price of truffles worldwide.
Its method of discovery adds to the mystique. So back to the dogs. Expertise comes with patience and experience. A canine's first exposure to the "white diamond of Italy" is unimpressive. The truffle hunter (the well-regarded "trufolau") tosses around a bag containing a dry truffle inside for the dog to retrieve. As the dog progresses, the bag is buried deeper and deeper into the ground. Truffles themselves can be buried as much as a foot below the surface, their usual giveaway pungency masked by the mound of dirt obscuring it from easy detection.
As any good professor would, Giovanni, our hunter/guide for the day, illustrates the qualities necessary to complete the job: He gets down on all fours, pawing in an appropriate manner to reveal -- but not bruise -- the desired goal. Personally, it was a sight I preferred not to picture. The dogs, on the other hand, seemed to dig it, so to speak…. It's a tricky pas de deux between Man and Dog, and Dog and Truffle. The hunter mustn't let his four-legged partner dig too deeply for fear of destroying the truffle -- or even marring its surface by a slightly misplaced paw -- and the dog must learn the subtleties of truffle excavation. I didn’t know who impressed me more –- dog or master.
As a compatriot on my tour queried: "What would the truffle hunters do without their amazing dogs? They're so dependent on their intelligence and sense of smell to do their job.“ Indeed, it’s a fascinating symbiotic relationship to watch.
A more poignant picture was expressed by Giovanni: "I like truffle hunting because it allows me to be in touch with nature and the night life of the woods. But even more, I like the special feeling that exists between me and Lady; it is something that people from the outside cannot fully understand."
But it is the truffle hunter himself who is ultimately responsible for the quality of the truffles extracted. He always carries a stick-cane with which he directs the dogs in the woods during the hunt, as well as a "sapin," the ultimate tool for prodding up the sumptuous prey.
Giovanni, a fourth-generation truffle hunter, has been plying his trade since he was a small boy -- and he knows its many tricks. He reminisced: "Truffle hunting is a passion that was transmitted to me by my father; to me it still means keeping alive my history and the tradition of my family."
Truffle hunters are as protective of their search techniques as pro football coaches are of their plays. Whereas a deer hunter may boast of his conquest, the truffle hunter will play down his success in order to avoid others trespassing on his territory. Admitted Giovanni: "Used car salesmen and truffle hunters are the two most devious types of people in the world."
Most truffle hunting takes place from deep night to dawn, mainly to better protect the highly prized placement of the little white treasures. There is also less distraction for the dogs. Illumination provided by a new moon is ideal, and after 3 a.m. the formation of dew aids the dog's ability to smell. This is not a venture undertaken lightly, or without truffle hunter, truffle-hunting dog and prime truffle-hunting conditions all in sync.
Individual hunters have their preferences. Some prefer a white dog because it's easier to see at night; others a black dog, all the better to hunt with because no one else can see him. Some opt for the black of night; others the dewy dawn.
But all hunters follow a similar approach to bargain hunters. Those who come on a truffle hunt because they see it as a way to avoid paying premium retail prices for the supreme Alba souvenir are in for a surprise. The truffle hunter always keeps the fruits of his -- and his trusty dog's -- labors.
People are not ambiguous about truffles -- they either love 'em or hate 'em. But even those who do not appreciate their culinary allure may still value their appeal as relationship enhancers. Scientific research has revealed that truffles contain pheromones, subtle communicators of sexual attraction. Wouldn't you want to cunningly embed a truffle or two in the appetizer course of your next romantic dinner?
But one does not come by these lifestyle advantages cheaply. White truffles at the height of their season, which ranges from mid-September to January, sell for $600-$1200 per pound. Black truffles, still a prize but less revered than their paler counterparts, surface in the summer months and sell for $50-$250 per pound, depending upon the season.
Unlike white truffles, which cannot be preserved and must be eaten as soon after removal as possible, black truffles are far hardier, can be cooked and preserved and have a less-defined aroma and taste. Thus, white truffles are the prima donna of culinary accoutrements, and Alba the French Riviera of white truffles.
And where would a white truffle be without a fine bottle of wine? In Alba, that's not a concern, for the other ingestible for which the city is famous is, indeed, wine. The Barolo and Barbaresco vintages are ranked by many a connoisseur as Italy's most prestigious red wines. And they have a nose to equal Lady's.
But here’s the truth –- as much respect as I gained for both the trufolau and his clawing-happy canine, the truffle I want to be ingesting along with those fine wines I would prefer to come out of the Whitman Sampler box as opposed to the ground.
IF YOU GO
Fyllis Hockman is an award-winning travel journalist who has been traveling and writing for over 25 years -- and is still as eager for the next trip as she was for the first. Her articles have appeared in newspapers across the country and websites across the internet. A sampling of those stories can be found by visiting seniorsoftheworld.com and clicking on The Travel Adventures of Fyllis and Vic.
[photography courtesy Fyllis Hockman]