Early morning mist mingled with the smell of dripping trees, damp earth and wet dog as we set out on a September truffle hunt at a secret location.
Cup you hands and breath in the air around the truffle, said Andrea, our weather-beaten truffle hunter guide. “And smell. Breathe in the scent, deeply”. This was advice from Andrea, a white truffle hunter we had arranged to meet on a non-descript hillside hazelnut plantation on the outskirts of Alba, a dusty industrial town in the Langhe region of Piedmont, northern Italy.
Grizzled and secretive, Andrea had decades of experience hunting elusive truffles in woodlands using skills learnt from his father and uncle while choosing dogs with personalities suited to the training and life as a truffle hound.
I was travelling around Alba with a group of friends for the annual truffle fair and a couple of us tagged along with Andrea and his hound Steel to hunt out a truffle. Up as morning light was dawning over the rolling hills of the Langhe we headed off with a local tour guide to meet Andrea and Steel.
Within ten minutes Steel had found a truffle, small and dirty specimen and only a couple of centimetres under the soft soil of the plantation. Obviously placed there ahead of our arrival by Andrea, we weren’t so surprised as this was an organised trip for fee-paying tourists. However, today, hunter was happy to come out of the shadows and share his memories and enthusiasm for the fungus.
Then, Steel darted off towards a stream, struggling to make its way through tree roots and fallen leaves. Steel disappeared under a gnarled, knotty clutch of roots and dug voraciously. Andrea jumped down the bank and alongside Luca watching his paws dig furiously in a fast expanding hole. Just a minute later Andrea was holding a child’s fist-sized white truffle. This one was not planted earlier in the day, but an original find. This was the full of fresh scent, damp earth, musty. Lightly brown in colour and firmish to the touch, it was quickly wrapped in soft cloth and packed away in Andrea’s knapsack, ready to sell to ‘a contact in Alba,” a secret contact whom would also inhale the scent of Langhe forest floor.