The white truffle of Alba (tartufo bianco; or trifola d'Alba in the Piemontese dialect) is a mycorrhizal fungi which lives in a symbiotic relationship with a host tree wherein it acquires minerals from the soil and passes them on to the plant and utilizes plant-provided carbon for its own growth and reproduction. The truffle is generally found in the Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato regions of Piemonte in humid, north-facing internal hill slopes with elevations not exceeding 700 meters and with pH values ranging between 6.6 and 8.5 (simplyflavors.com). The truffle has an affinity for the trees such as oak, willow, poplar, linden, lime, sweet chestnut, and hazelnut.
The truffle has a distinct aroma (earth, tree roots, and old cheese according to lifeinitaly.com) and is famous for said aroma as well as the taste and perceived aphrodisiac qualities. The desirable qualities of the white truffle, plus declining harvest levels, combine to make this an extremely expensive delicacy with prices ranging to $2000/lb and beyond. The truffles are harvested by truffle hunters (trifulaus) and their dogs (previously pigs but they are rather unruly) during the "season" which stretches from early October to early December. The dogs are trained by first being able to find hidden cheese, then cheese hidden in association with truffles, then the truffle only. The dogs are rewarded for each find with some type of treat. In the field the dog is more easily dissuaded from destroying the truffle than is a pig.
Back to the hunt. Ezio is our trifulau. According to Giuseppe (and the restaurant literature) he is a great truffle hunter who has been pursuing this passion (initially a job) since he was a boy. He has his own truffle "range" located down the hillside from the elevated position of the restaurant. Did I mention that Ezio was also the proprietor of Tra Arte e Quercie? Well he is and after managing the production and serving of our meals, he changed into his great-white-truffle-hunter garb, picked up his divining rod (waist-high shepherd's crook with a metal tip), collected his trusty companion (looked like a golden mutt), gave us all hiking sticks, and strode off into the "jungle." We were on our way.
As we started down the hill, we were talking loudly and laughing. Nerves I thought. We were venturing into the unknown. Would we prove ourselves equal to the challenge? How would we react when we came face to face with the prey? Would we stand firm? Or cut and run? Ezio looked back at us with a disapproving glare and whispered something to Giuseppe. We were obviouly not hunters. We would most likely scare the prey away. But no, that was not his biggest concern. No, you see, secrecy is the thing that is valued most among the trifulau. If you find a truffle at a particular spot, you will continue to find more truffles at that spot in the future. If you reveal that spot (inadvertently or otherwise), other hunters will harvest in your stead. Truffle hunters keep going back to the well. Silently.
Suddenly Ezio stopped and placed his finger to his lips. He signaled for us to stop walking and talking. I rolled my eyes. I had been to Disney. This was going to be the contrived drama scene with some rustling in the underbrush and then we would move on. But no. It was not that way. We heard some voices approaching. How could this be? We were on private land. Surely Ezio would jump out and confront these people as they passed about thirty feet below us on a hunt of their own. But he did not. As they passed on he indicated that they were poachers and it was best to not let them know that we were there. He did not want them potentially doubling back and spying on his hunting operation.
After that crisis passed, we continued on our walk to the area where Ezio was going to show us his magic. In anticipation of our arrival, he had not harvested in this area for two days. He wanted to improve the chances of our coming out of this hunt with success. When he got to this slightly flatter area, he stretched out his staff in the manner of Moses reaching out to part the Red Sea and the dog went bounding off with her nose close to the ground. She was nuzzling around in the underbrush in an area defined by the outstretched divining rod.
Suddenly she stopped running around and started urgently nosing a particular spot. Quick as a flash Ezio was kneeling beside her, guiding her head with his hands, exerting a gentle pressure as he sought to ensure that the truffle was not close enough to the surface for the dog to damage it. He then moved her back from the site, reached into an heretofore unnoticed slit in the back of his jacket, and pulled out a metal claw with a wooden, elongated handle. He began to clear the underbrush and dig gently into the soil with this implement. Just prior, he had reached into the pocket of this jacket and retrieved a reward treat which he gave to the dog. We were silent as we watched the operation. Then Ezio reached into the soil and held up a small dark object between his thumb and forefinger. He muttered something and then passed the object on to Guiseppe. Small black truffle, said Giuseppe. And we all touched it. And smelled it. This was our first time. And it did smell like truffle oil.
And so we continued for another hour or so and our trove grew. Small black truffles. Small white truffles. Large white truffles. I was busy calculating what my take was going to be from this afternoon's book of work. When Ezio signalled that our work here was done, we jauntily walked back up the hill. We were in high spirits. We had confronted the truffle in the wild and had emerged victorious. And we had Ezio's trophy bag full of victims to prove the point. As we got to the top of the hill, we stopped at the gate of Ezio's residence. His daughter-in-law was standing there holding his grandson. The grandson struggled to be placed on the ground so that he could run over to his grandfather. The two embraced lovingly and Ezio reached into his pouch, retrieved one of the large, valuable, white truffles and gave it to his grandson. This 2-year-old kid looked at the truffle intently and then brought it up to his nose and smelt it. He then passed it back to his granddad. The cycle renews.
By the way, our reward for the day's work was the opportunity we had to see a master ply his craft. Oh well.