The town of Alba in the Langhe region of the Piedmont in Northern Italy is famous for its truffles, which are a form of fungus that grows in the roots of specific types of trees, primarily oak. Truffles are highly prized by chefs and foodies all over the world, as an exotic addition to pasta, eggs, potatoes and other foods. There are two truffle seasons in Alba – black truffles in the summer and rare white truffles in the fall. White truffles from Alba normally sell for over $1000 per pound, reflecting their rarity.
I went on a truffle hunt with Luigi and his two dogs in the forest outside Monforte d’Alba, a beautiful village in the Borolo hills. I was joined by Steve and Louise, a couple from Southern California, and our guide Samantha, who has lived her whole life in Monforte d’Alba. We drove into the forest in Luigi’s 28-year old Fiat Panda, that’s 5 people and two dogs in a Panda. Truffle hunting is highly regulated in Italy, and Luigi is a licensed truffle hunter, who learned the art of truffle hunting from his father and grandfather. Even the dogs were third generation truffle hunters, who went through extensive training to learn the art of the hunt. Before 1985, pigs were used to hunt truffles; however, they tended to eat the truffles, plus can you imagine loading a pig into a Fiat Panda.
The truffles of Alba are wild, rather than cultivated, and they are becoming rarer every year, because the forest is being cleared to plant more Nebbiolo grapes. Also, truffles like cool wet weather, and this year has been one of the driest and hottest on record, with the Borolo harvest starting nearly three weeks ahead of schedule. By law, the season for black truffles ends on September 1; and, the season for white truffles begins on September 21. A truffle hunter and his dogs can spend up to 8 hours hunting for a handful of truffles. Black truffles are located near the surface, while white truffles are much deeper. Luigi once spent two hours digging up a single white truffle.
Our truffle hunt lasted only an hour or so, and our chances were slim, given the hot weather, and the fact that it was the end of black truffle season. Nevertheless, Luigi and the dogs managed to find one fine black truffle, and our hunt was considered a big success.