The Great Italian Truffle Hunt

Fulvio Silvestri

In the heart of Piedmont is where you will find them come fall: the greatest, some say, white truffles on earth.

Everything is vaguely mysterious and rather secretive about a white-truffle expedition. You’ll keep hearing this, as I did, should you try to organize a night truffle hunt in the Langhe region, in the heart of Piedmont two hours south of Milan. It’s the best place in the world to produce the underground, naturally grown, extremely hard-to-find tartufo bianco, the exquisite, powerfully scented, and, yes, supposedly aphrodisiac white truffle. It was also made clear to me that the truffle hound is key to any successful hunt, even more important than its partner in crime, the trifulau, the handler and usually the owner of the dog. And I was warned not to get my hopes up: A demonstration was easy to set up, but joining a mission, to experience the real thing—a three- to four-hour walk in the woods with the dog and its master—was close to impossible. Influential locals and winemakers of the likes of Bruno Ceretto, Angelo Gaja, Pio Boffa (of Pio Cesare), Roberto Conterno, and Oscar Farinetti (founder of Eataly) were discouraging: “Hard to find one readily available,” Ceretto said. “Now? Mid-November? At the height of the season? They are not going to waste time with you,” Farinetti said. “They move like shadows. You’ll be a drag,” Boffa said. “They are jealous of their trails. They don’t want to be seen,” Conterno said. “There is too much money involved for them to have you around. A good night could easily bring in a thousand dollars,” Gaja warned.

Finally, I found one: Piercarlo Vacchina, a master trifulau, agreed to take me along. For his day job, Vacchina manages his small company installing alarm systems and electrical gates. At night, he becomes one of 4,000 truffle hunters officially recognized and licensed to search. They lead the dog to specific locations, all belonging to other people, using a stick called a barot and a flashlight. They keep handy a small shovel should their retriever give a sign and a cloth to preserve the delicate find. They wander, sometimes all night, with their dog, always trying to mislead the competition by taking long detours from their final destination.

Sure enough, the meeting with my trifulau was set at about 10 p.m., right in front of a small deconsecrated church barely visible in the persistent orange fog, in Barbaresco, a small town of about 700 after which one of the most coveted and expensive wines in the world is named. Vacchina and I had never met before. He stepped onto the ancient cobblestone pavement from his car to shake my hand. Not much of a smile, businesslike, and very direct: There was no time to waste, he said, we were late already. He told me to jump back in my car and follow him.

At that moment I saw the dog, Roky. First the piercing eyes, then his black head on his tight, midsize body, mostly white with a couple of black splashes. Roky was sitting still in the trunk of the station wagon, projecting pure energy and a great deal of anticipation. Like most truffle hounds, he was a mutt. A pointer, German hound, and Labrador mix. Understandably, Vacchina was not happy. I had a small crowd with me: Fulvio Silvestri, a local photographer, and my daughter Clio, busy with her semester abroad in Florence. But she had to be there. I used to come here with my parents decades ago when I was growing up in Turin, the capital of the Piedmont region in northwestern Italy. We would drive south from Turin a little more than an hour on Sundays to explore this beautiful secluded land called Langhe, with rolling hills similar to the Chianti region in Tuscany, but rather more moving, especially in late fall and winter. We would find a trattoria or a restaurant and we would invariably enjoy the extraordinary fresh pasta tajarin, ravioli, agnolotti, and risotto—sprinkled with shaved white truffles when in season—and drinking the inimitable wines: Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Barbera, all exclusively from here. I had even worked in the area during a summer internship in high school, but I had never experienced a nighttime white-truffle search. Closing the circle, it became my own version of Marcel Proust’s novel In Search of Lost Time.


Fulvio Silvestri

“Let’s go and park at the cemetery,” Vacchina said. We drove about a mile in the mist, which was still orange, reflecting the light coming from the tall streetlamps along the way. We parked beside a tall, white wall. It was now much darker and a bit spooky. The streetlamps had vanished. Roky jumped out of the car and was kept on a leash. He was pushing toward the fields across the road from the cemetery, where we took a grassy path, Vacchina leading the way with a flashlight. The path disappeared into a large vineyard at the top of a hill, and we kept walking alongside rows of vines for a while. We could hear down the hill the noise of the Tanaro River growing stronger, rushing down from the nearby Ligurian Alps to become the major affluent of the Po, the longest river in Italy. Being November it was cold but not freezing. We kept a brisk pace along the vineyard until we reached a small valley. The landscape changed dramatically; tall trees were right in front of us, climbing up another hill. The fog was now long gone, and it was a moonless, starry night. The stage was set. The hunt for the elusive white truffle was about to begin: Vacchina took us into the woods and unleashed Roky, who sprinted ahead.

At eight years old, Roky is at the height of his career and will probably retire in a couple of years. “He is very strong, intelligent, and has all the qualities of the different breeds he is made of, which helps him a lot in his job,” said Vacchina, who got him when he was a three-month-old puppy. Almost immediately, Vacchina started to train him, a task that requires about three years for the dog to learn how to identify the prize.

Truffles, like mushrooms, are a type of fungus. A main difference is the truffle grows underground, feeding from the roots of a tree. Not just any tree but especially oak (durmast oak in particular), poplar, linden, willow, and hornbeam. And there are many different types of truffles: black, summer, Burgundy, and Périgord—all these are found in other Italian regions and other European countries. But the best, softest, tastiest is the white truffle. It is generally located about one foot underground, and only a dog with a great nose can identify it. “The dog needs to learn patience and concentration,” said Vacchina, who already has a new dog in training for when Roky retires. The way it’s done, he explained, is by hiding a very small truffle in the high grass. When the dog finds it, he gets a reward.

The education of a truffle dog is so central to the process that there is even a university for truffle dogs. It is the only one in the world and is in nearby Roddi, behind a castle on the top of yet another Langhe hill. It was established in 1880 by Antonio Monchiero, a master trifulau, and it has been a family affair for generations. The current dean is Giovanni Monchiero. When I visited, he greeted me at the door of the school, which, occupying a single room and a courtyard for much of the training, is also probably the smallest college in the world. The Monchieros receive a dog for training from the owner and after a couple of years they send it back fully trained.

Monchiero explained that there are two philosophies for keeping the dog focused while looking for a white truffle. The first is to treat the dog nicely, providing not only good food but also good care before and after any search. The other is to reward the dog with food only if he or she finds the truffle. Monchiero told me that he has heard of dogs whose trifulaus leave them with no food sometimes for up to five days if they don’t deliver. “It’s not bad for dogs—they can go days without eating—and, at the same time, it improves the chances of finding the truffle,” said a local who prefers to remain nameless and with whom most disagree.

The university seemed rather empty for a university, but Monchiero explained that most “students” were now out. He told me that a well-trained truffle dog could sell for around $5,000 and that he has heard of prices as high as $20,000. He also confirmed and expanded on all the stories and rumors I’d heard of infighting, jealousy, and unfair competition among the trifulaus.


Relais San Maurizio. The former monastery overlooks acres of vineyards. Courtesy Relais San Maurizio

The best story came from Gaja, a giant in the wine world, when I went to see him at his beautiful place in the center of Barbaresco. “Years ago, I desperately wanted a lovely hill called Sorì San Lorento. I finally bought it, and I asked my foreman, Gino Cavallo, to start planting our vines, which he did, except for a sizable lot where two old poplars stood.” When Gaja asked why Cavallo did not cut down the two poplars, the foreman responded that there was an old trifulau, Aldo Drago, with his dog, Pulin, searching only around those two trees. And that the dog was famous for his nose and that watching the two work together was like observing a miracle of nature. Therefore, he could not ruin them by cutting down the trees. “‘They were there before us,’ my foreman told me. Who was I to contradict him, especially after the story he told me?” Gaja said. “One day,” he continued, “the trifulau working around those two poplars found his beautiful Pulin dead, killed by competitors who had poisoned him. The next morning, I saw that the two poplars were gone. The foreman was busy planting vines. When I asked him why he cut them, he responded, ‘I could not allow the enemies of the old man, the killers of his dog, to take advantage of those trees and the gorgeous truffles they were producing. Not even for one day.’”

Vacchina knew the story. And knows about the university, but he said with a stern voice that the best education for a truffle dog is not training with strangers: “It has to be between the master and his dog. They are a duo; we work together.” He then continued the story of his training technique: After hiding a piece of truffle in the high grass, he hides an equally small truffle a few inches underground, then a foot underground until the dog is ready to move on to the real hunt, training in the woods of this land called Langhe-Roero.

The main town of the region is Alba, founded before Roman times. It’s the epicenter of a buzzing county made up of charming, centuries-old villages founded on endless hill peaks like Barbaresco, Barolo, Monforte d’Alba, Dogliani, and La Morra. The white truffle is in the middle of an extraordinary, creative, unique, eno-gastronomic adventure built around delicate and traditional recipes like the one I tasted at the Cordero family’s Ristorante Il Centro, in Priocca. At the Michelin three-star Piazza Duomo, established by Bruno Ceretto in the center of Alba, I encountered chef Enrico Crippa, who delivered the most innovative, experimental Piedmontese cuisine I have ever tasted. Crippa and Piazza Duomo climbed from 27th to 17th place in the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, announced in New York in June. It was here, near Alba, that Carlo Petrini’s slow-food philosophy of the 1980s began to take over the world. While in Alba, I went to visit Ferrero, the largest food company in Italy, the maker of Nutella and the Tic Tac, among other world-famous candies. And it was here from his kingdom of Fontanafredda that Farinetti conceived Eataly, the worldwide, high-end food-chain sensation. Fontanafredda, in Serralunga d’Alba, was the hunting lodge of King Vittorio Emanuele II. The king, a man of earthly excesses and a wine and food lover, had a love child who inherited the place and transformed it into a major wine paradise. This helped to launch the modern age of wine production in the Piedmont region, which also included the brands of Gaja, Ceretto, Pio Cesare, and Giacomo Conterno (of the extraordinary Monfortino), which all produce wines that collectively challenge the traditional world-class superiority of the best French vintages.

All of this is to say that there are deep, ancient cultural roots behind the not-so-simple white-truffle hunt. And that the truffle finder, the dog, bears a great deal of responsibility. Last year at the International White Truffle Fair in Alba, held for a couple of weeks every year around October 1 to establish and discuss prices and sale commitments, the whole event was set to honor the truffle dog, and Roky went to be part of the celebrations.

Roky was now with us in the hills behind Barbaresco. Our group, led by him, kept walking. The dog was incredibly diligent: He trotted in cir cles, he stopped, he sniffed intently, he moved on. Vacchina would follow at a distance, encouraging a change of area if he thought that in that specific radius there was nothing to be found. This went on for at least two hours. Nothing was happening. We found some parts of the ground already excavated by truffle hunters, possibly one or two days earlier. We had to go around some pools of water and risked slipping a few times on the wet leaves, and we had to climb up very steep terrain. The night was getting deeper, and sometimes we could hear again the Tanaro roaring downstream.

Then suddenly something in the dynamic of Roky’s sniffing and trotting changed. He stopped and then he rushed down, this time into a steep drop in the terrain. “There we are,” said Vacchina, excited. And from an impossible position, Roky stopped and started to furiously excavate the ground. Vacchina embraced Roky with his left arm, blocked him, and started to gently continue excavating with his small shovel. It all happened in a matter of seconds. Finally, the white truffle emerged and was visible in Vacchina’s hands, under the light of his flashlight. It was small, actually very, very small, the size of a hazelnut. It was not marketable, but that did not matter: “You win one, you lose one,” Vacchina said. He gave the small truffle to Clio as a trophy for a long night spent hunting in the woods, and with Roky still sniffing around, we started to head back, uphill, toward the vineyards.

Secrets Behind the White Truffle

It’s exceedingly difficult to farm a white truffle: The vast majority occur in nature. It’s found in great quantities of good quality in Italy’s Langhe region and in parts of Monferrato because of the same geological makeup of the soil that produces the grapes used for wine. Truffle season runs from October to December, with November considered to be best.

Trifulaus and their dogs prefer to go at night because the humidity is higher and that helps a truffle to grow and mature, sometimes in a couple of hours. But the dark is also better for privacy. Truffle hunters have their secluded paths, and they don’t want anybody else in on the secret. Often an entire night of work will bring no results, but their trade can be lucrative: A white truffle can sell for about $1,250 to $2,500 per pound. Giant white truffles of about 2.2 pounds are very rare and are sold at special auctions, often for hundreds of thousands of dollars; a record was set in 2010 for a large truffle that went for $417,200. For the home cook, New York–based Buon’Italia (75 9th Ave.; 212-633-9090; buonitalia.com) is the place to buy Alba’s white truffles in the United States. 

Eat, Sleep, Truffle

To arrange a truffle hunt in the Langhe region, contact the area’s tourism office, Ente Turismo Alba Bra Langhe e Roero (39-173/35-833; langheroero.it). Or a tour operator such as Indagare (212-988-2611; indagare.com) can arrange a trip to Piedmont plus an outing with a dog.

The region’s hotels are mostly boutique or converted farmhouses. Rocche Costamagna (rooms from $155; Azienda Agricola e Cantina Via Vitorrio Emanuele 8, La Morra; 39-173/509-225; rocchecostamagna.it), located in La Morra, has a farmhouse adjoined by a winery dating to 1841. About ten minutes from Alba is Castello di Guarene (rooms from $395; Via Alessandro Roero 2, Guarene; 39-173/441-332; castellodiguarene.com), in an 18th-century castle with 12 rooms. Il Boscareto (rooms from $290; Via Roddino 21, Serralunga d’Alba; 39-173/613-036; ilboscaretoresort.it) is more modern. Built in 2009 in Barolo, the hotel has 38 rooms decorated in wine hues. Relais San Maurizio (rooms from $330; Via San Maurizio 39, Santo Stefano Belbo; 39-141/841-900; relaissanmaurizio.it) is 30 minutes east of Alba. The former monastery was restored as a 36-room hotel.

Good places to eat are everywhere. Michelin three-star Piazza Duomo (Piazza Risorgimento 4; 39-173/366-167; piazzaduomoalba.it), in Alba, serves a tasting menu in front of a fresco painted by Francesco Clemente, and the one-star Ristorante Il Centro (Via Umberto I 5; 39-173/616-112; ristoranteilcentro.com) is in Priocca, 20 minutes north of Alba. The menu has barely changed since the restaurant opened in the 1950s.

 

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