October in Piedmonte means one thing – white truffles, called tartufo bianco in italian. After several meals with truffle shavings on most everything I ate, I had to try my hand at finding a few. So I did what any good american would do – hire a guy and his dog. Enter Giovanni Monchieri and Vila. There used to be a time when pigs were used to hunt these delicious tubers; however, experience has taught that pigs are hard to train and even harder to control when they find the truffles.
Senore Monchieri runs the truffle dog training university (yes it is a real place) in Roddi, just west of Alba. After a brief lecture – really a visual and sensory display since I could not understand his italian – we departed. We arrived at a winery outside of La Morra surrounded by groves of hazelnut trees. Unlike regular mushrooms, truffles grow as underground tubers attaching themselves to the roots of specific trees, hazelnut being one of them.
No sooner had the car doors opened than Vila took off nose to the ground sniffing in earnest. A few minutes later she is digging up the ground with both paws as Giovanni runs over to her to stop her before any damage can occur to the little nugget of joy. He points to a small discoloration in the ground (the truffle), which I confess I could not see at all. He brought out a small pick and began digging around in the dirt. A short while later though I saw the small round dark shape as Giovanni plucked it from the dirt. Tartufo Nero. With some disappointment I took it in my hand and gave it a sniff – very aromatic but not the elusive white truffle.
The black truffle is a more common variety and far less arousing. This is reflected in the prices of a few euro per gram for the black but up to 400 euro per gram for the white. This year though with Italy also in economic trouble you can enjoy a gram of the white truffle for about 200 euro.
Our hunting journey lasted several hours and we found a good dozen or so of the black truffle but never did get the tartufo bianco. Try again in November we were told. Luckily the restaurant had a nice supply for dinner.