The first time I had to actually deal with a truffle was in 1982. Alice and I had gone to Alba in the Piedmont Region of Italy, on the recommendation of a wine merchant I knew in Queens, NY. This merchant was well known in wine circles and mention of his name opened many doors that would otherwise stay closed. I went to Alba to explore Barolo and Barbaresco wines but learned more about truffles than I did wine. It was summertime so the famous Alba white truffle was not yet available but the black versions were. The black truffle, similar to the well known Perigord truffles that are found by pigs in southwest France.
One of the Doors opened for us by the mere mention of Lou’s name was a wine based (enoteca) restaurant in Alba. Memory fails me and I can’t remember the name of the place or the owners names, but I can remember the restaurant and the faces of the husband and wife that treated us like family. When we first went, for Pranzo (lunch), they prepared an amazing spread of local specialties most of which were truffle based. Again this happened in 1982 and we had had many great meals that summer so I can’t tell you what it was that we had. But it was all amazing. And all accompanied perfectly by wines that the owner selected. During the meal the husband and wife owners told us that we should come back for breakfast. The restaurant did not have breakfast hours but they would give us a special truffle based breakfast on our last day in Alba.
That night Alice drank some water during her shower and got sick. We had been warned that the water was not potable due to some work that was underway, but Alice could not read Italian. She developed the touristas, the trots, the backdoor pressures. So the morning that we were to have the special truffle breakfast, Alice could not even think about eating, no less sitting in one place that did not also serve as a discharge point.
Feeling bad for Alice I couldn’t spend the time to have the full breakfast and had to cut it short so she could get back to the hotel room. Our hosts felt really bad and offered to make a chicken soup but Alice would not hear of it. She just wanted to runs. Before we left, the man brought over to me what looked like a large black, rough, plum. It was a black truffle, and he gave it to me. He placed some rice in a mason jar, put the truffle in and filled the jar the rest of the way with rice, and sealed it. He also handed me a 1959 Barolo from one of the better producers. That was a 23 year old bottle of wine.
We still had another week of traveling through Italy before going back to the USA. This being 1982, our car did not have AC and this was the end of August. By the end of that week, the car, the luggage, our clothes, and an area around the car smelled of truffle. We left a cloud of truffle wherever we went. You could smell truffle outside the closed car. I was sure that the customs police in New York would discover our contraband and arrest us. They didn’t.
I’ve been told that truffles like that can no longer be found. Black truffles do not have that intensity any longer. Only the white truffle has that power. But not all white truffles. Sergio, my son and Erica, his wife, were here for a visit and one of the things they wanted to do is go truffle hunting. So we did. We booked a truffle hunt with a professional hunter and his dog Stella. For this Ringo was not invited because his good looks and appeal would have distracted Stella from doing her work.
I was very skeptical that this was a real thing. I was sure that the man, Massimo, had buried some truffles for us to find. What self respecting truffle hunter would show us his hunting grounds. Especially since he was pointing to places that the dog should investigate. However, after we found our first white truffle, he explained that the life cycle of a truffle, a type of mushroom, was to grow in the soil near the roots of certain trees, until they were sexually mature. At that point they give off their prize aroma to attract the animals that enjoy truffles. When the truffle is found and dug up by the dog or pig or hedgehog or whatever, the disturbing of the soil around the truffle is what releases the spore for the next generation. Therefore, if a truffle is found in a place, the following year there should be more truffles in that place.
The maturation from potato to truffle (a potato is the name hunters give an odorless truffle) could be just a matter of hours. So there is no point digging up the soil looking for all the truffles, which you will find if you are in the right place, but they will be no more valuable than a potato since they will not have the truffle perfume. So that is why you must use the dog to find them. The smell should be strong enough that the dog could detect it through several inches of soil. Then you have a good truffle.
We only found two on our hunt but that is understandable because the area we were hunting was the area he takes other clients, and not his prime hunting grounds. He isn’t an idiot. I could be a truffle hunter new to the area and under the guise of being a tourist try to extract the secret locations. That was not going to happen.
Massimo did explain to us that white truffles can be found in many places. But those places should not be subject to frost or snow. The soil has to be suitable with the soil in this particular part of Tuscany being filled with seashells. Certain tree types are required, including Oaks and Walnut and several others. He said that when it comes to white truffles, the part of Tuscany that he hunts, Alba in the Piedmont are the two best places when it comes to quality. White truffles from other parts of the world do not have the intensity and are thus expensive potatoes.
Before going on the Truffle hunt we stopped in Volterra and had lunch at a restaurant that was advertising fresh white truffles. Both Sergio and I had pasta with truffles and neither of us could smell the truffles. We were given potatoes instead of truffles. There were substantial shavings of the fungus and we were charged an additional 5 euro. Massimo pointed out that when it comes to the precious white truffle, while mimicking a waiter doing the slicing, he said 5, 10, 15, 20 with each slice. Indicating that each slice was 5 euro. If the truffle is cheap, its a potato and not a truffle.
We bought some truffles from from Massimo’s father at the end of the hunt. I took two and vacuum packed three for Sergio to take back to the USA. Of the two that I bought, one was a truffle with the full perfume. The other was not. It was a potato. It did not have the full aroma and the smell that it did give off was not strong enough to overcome the odors from the pasta that it was shaved upon. Lesson learned.