On the hunt for Alba’s white gold

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.

Chestnut forests are great truffle hunting places
A misty start to the day in the forests of the Langhe

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.

Tuffle hound and his handler
Tuffle hounds and the hunters form extremely close bonds

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.

Truffle hunter pickaxe
A truffle hunters tools include a handheld pickaxe for digging and scraping away soil from around a truffle

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.

Bruce

I am freelance journalist and published author focusing on food and drink; business startups and enterprise; culture and travel. I have also written about the global upstream oil and gas industry, shipping and current affairs. Based in London, I travel widely, particularly across western Europe. I have chaired many conferences and meetings, spoken at conferences and events and often appear on radio and TV talking most about food, the business of food and being an entrepreneur.

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