Hunting for the Elusive White Truffle in Italy

Who knew last December I would be traipsing through the woods of the Northern Piedmont Region of Italy with a 5th generation trifolau, the Italian name for a white truffle hunter, and his truffle hunting dog Gigi. I was there on an assignment for Saveur Magazine photographing a story on a traditional Northern Italian family Christmas. With Christmas day off, I decided to spend it in the Piedmont Region, known for its Barolo, Nebiolo and Barbaresco wines. Another special gift of nature this region offers is the elusive, highly sought after and lucrative white truffle.

There are many places in the world where you can find black truffles unlike the white truffle, often referred to as the grey diamond, which is only found in Northern Italy and Romania. Not only are white more rare than black truffles, they also have a stronger flavor and more pungent aroma, one so intense that they are only served raw as shavings atop a dish. These lucrative fungi have affected the local economy of Alba, the main town within the truffle region, which sports designer boutiques and Prada stores. One shaving added to any meal in a local restaurant is an additional $35.  Just over the weekend the Associated Press reported that the largest truffle of the 2010 season went for $330,000 to the highest bidder.

white truffle in the ground

My partner and I randomly found an agro-tourism hotel called Cascina Barac, a family owned winery in the countryside just outside of Alba. Agro-tourism hotels are places that allow travelers to stay on working farms. We were giddy as we drove through miles of vineyards up to the Mansion where we were to spend Christmas Eve. It was nighttime and snow had just begun to fall. The owner immediately poured us a glass of Barolo as we sat in big comfy leather chairs in front of a warm fireplace relishing the incredible moment. It was a dream.

During our conversation the owner told us of a local truffle hunter we could go out with and naturally, I jumped at the chance. The next morning we drove out with Renato Agnello, a 71 year old, fifth generation truffle hunter. Truffle hunting is in his blood. In fact, he smelled like truffles, that was the first thing I remember thinking when he got out of his white Fiat and shook my hand.

There are only a few months out of the year when white truffles are found: September to December. We hit the season a little late but not completely. The moment Gigi started digging Renato rushed over and smelled the soil to make sure she was digging for the right thing. Once he smelled a hint of truffle his eyes lit up and he took over digging. It was exhilarating. He dug up a golf ball sized truffle, off white and covered in dirt. He held it out and I inhaled deeply, a powerful, spicy and earthy smell with hints of garlic. It was one of the most powerful scents I’d ever come across in all my food experiences. At that moment I caught a glimpse of just how special this small white truffle is. It’s pretty cool to see first hand an old world tradition based on skill and instincts still alive and highly valued.

white truffle sold in stores 8.90 euros a gram

10 Comments

Filed under assignments, food culture, International Assignments, Italy, travel

10 Responses to Hunting for the Elusive White Truffle in Italy

  1. Ohhh this brings back memories… We did a truffle hunt tour with a guide back in November of 2006 in Northern Tuscany (Chianti)… what a great time and great photographs Penny… here’s a few I snapped of our adventure (among the balance)

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cpencis/320510040/in/set-72157594416940576/

  2. Interesting article. My husband just brought me a black truffle from France. A family friend finds them around a tree at her farm. It is my dream to go truffle hunting someday. You are very lucky. :)

  3. I met a truffle hunter recently, tasted the white truffle from his estate and my eyes were opened to this tradition in Italy so it was fabulous to read this post. I would love to actually experience hunting for, finding and digging the truffle as you did.

  4. White truffles are my absolute favorite flavor/smell in the entire world. I flew all the way to Paris 2 years ago during truffle season to sample the delicacies. Heaven on earth. Thank you for these beautiful photos!! Amazing to see the process that goes into each treasure hunt.

  5. My-Tien

    I often hear ‘white chocolate truffle’. Is this the same thing? How do you eat this?

  6. Oh dear god, I’m hallucinating truffle aroma just thinking about this. Also: I can’t hear about truffles now without thinking of Jack Czarnecki’s line from IFBC about a sow “assuming a position of utmost congeniality”.

  7. A truffle-hunting dog? Bestill my beating heart. I could adore such a creature.

    Lovely post, Penny. As always.

  8. fabulous photos, fabulous story and what seems to be a fabulous experience. I love experiencing the world through your lens and your words! happy holidays!!

  9. I am imagining this experience! The earthiness of it all – the wet leaves, the dirt, the dog, the crisp fall air – beautiful!

  10. I like this very post. Photos are wonderful.