And Mother Nature said: ‘Let us bury the most flavoursome morsels amongst the roots of ancient oaks during the most spectacular season of the year. So that these mere mortals can wander through the woods with their beloved hounds and enjoy nature to its fullest…
Okay, I’m not sure if the gods actually said this, but it must have been what they were thinking. We are in Alba, the home of the most sought-after truffles in Italy, lucky us. Accompanied by our very own truffle hunting expert, we arrive on the edge of a hillside lined with autumnal clad vines. We traverse a carpet of fallen hazelnuts, another gem of the Piedmont hills, and head into the darkness of the oak forest. We are led by Marco Varaldo and his famous dog Roky who has one of the best truffle noses in the region. We are going on a truffle hunt.
Truffle hunting is a competitive activity and normally undertaken in the dark of night or in the very early morning, before the sun has even risen. This is so that the hunter’s most coveted spots that spawn the best truffles, won’t be revealed to others. In the old days, they would carry candles shielded by heavy caps to light their hidden paths. Now, during truffle season, you just see occasional flashes from torches across the hills as the hunters momentarily turn on their lights to see part of their way. “That is why truffle hunting dogs are often white, so we can see them easier in the dark” Marco tells me.
Roky is onto something, he had gone ahead of us and now he has dashed back and sits staring at Marco’s left pocket. “Ah he has found a white truffle! When he finds white I give him his favourite treat, some cheese which I keep in my left pocket. When he sniffs out a black truffle, I give him an ordinary dog snack which I keep in my right pocket.”
We are all quite excited as white truffles are the most prized (hence the cheese and not just an ordinary treat) and can fetch over €800 per 100 grams in the marketplace. “We are never short of buyers, restaurant owners and chefs worldwide are always in need of fresh truffle.” Private buyers for Michelin star restaurants fly in from Hong Kong and New York to buy prized truffles and leave the same day, as the truffle only stay fresh for about a week.
Once he has got his treat, Roky leads us through the dense wood to a clearing. His nose is frantically working overtime under an ancient oak tree and then he starts to claw the spot. Marco takes out a well-worn vanghetto (trowel to you and I) from his pocket and begins to dig quite a hole and there it is, we can smell it before we see it. A gnarled cream coloured lump that is the prized white truffle.
After a few more successful truffle finds and well-earned treats for Roky, the group retires to our rugged 4x4s. I could get into this truffle hunting game, a leisurely dog walk with valuable and edible discoveries along the way – perfect.
After the thrill of truffle hunting, we drive a short distance to Villa Sebaste for a Barolo wine tasting and private lunch set up in the historic wine cellar. Here we enjoy the simple pleasure of a typical “merenda campestre” (farmer’s break). The wine and food is delicious, each dish is adorned with the freshly grated truffles, yes, the ones we have just found in the forest. My favourite autumn dish above all is a simple softly poached egg with slivers of fresh Alba truffle – pure truffle heaven.
They say truffles have no nutritional value, but I’m not so sure. The enjoyment of a hike in the woods followed by the satisfaction of a 5 star ‘farmer’s’ lunch’ topped with your very own fresh truffles undoubtedly nourishes the mind, feeds the body and soothes the soul.
Rosie was a guest of Marco Varaldo ‘Trifolao‘ Tour
When to go: September, October, November
Where to Stay: Il Boscareto Resort & SPA
Wine Tasting in the area: Villa Sebaste , Monforte d’Alba, Barbaresco
Where to Eat: La Rei Restaurant (Michelin Star)
ENVY Italy recommends a 3 day gourmet experience by Barbara Cardi of Vinearia