White truffles are notorious for causing craze and passion among foodies and restaurateurs. They're incredibly difficult to find, only harvested in the autumn, and have been known to fetch some shockingly high prices. Russian oligarch Vladimir Potanin bought four pounds of the fungi for $95,000. Lately the white subterranean fungi got the new nickname as “herbal Viagra” after an aged tycoon from the Orient continuously bid the highest for the white truffles from Piedmont to be devoured with champagne as aphrodisiac.
The white truffle has chosen an interesting place to grow, too. It thrives best in the damp forests of the Langhe, a hilly area in the southern part of Italy's north western Piedmont on the foot of the Alps. Searching for Piedmont’s prized white truffles is an exciting and secretive stuff. The truffle hunting adventure can start one late afternoon when the skies are darkening the damp November nights 50 km southeast of Turin. The grounds wet, the sticky clay necessitate boots to trudge across the vineyards for an escapade into the wilderness of a small wooded area where the pursuit begin.
Just like all adventurous expedition, the hunt relies on the guidance of a professional, a truffle hunter called trifolau. On the search for the most valued fungi the trifolau has to trek behind a specially breed retriever known as Lagotto Romagnolo. The purebred comes from the Romagna sub-region of Italy, traditionally trained to function as gundog but now acquires an accolade as the best tracker for truffle hunting. It was such a mongrel by the name of Mara that led American rapper Jay-Z on his highly publicised white truffle hunt in Piedmont, November 2012.
The hunt starts after a rain and the water-soaked ground makes it harder for the mongrel to sniff out the highly valued stuff. The handicap did not deter the team to proceed constantly and trudge endlessly to explore an area full of oak trees. Truffles are known to grow at the roots of oaks, black poplars, willows and hazelnut trees. Professional hunters guarded their prime spots jealously. They did the hunting at dusk or dawn when it is dark and they can go about their business in secrecy. Competition is fierce, thanks to 10,000 trifolaus operating in the Piedmont region and the high price fetched by the underground fungi.
Unlike following the gold quartz veins of the Alleghany district in California, there is no clue that could confirm prized truffles exist at specific area. At an area where a hunting team unearthed a 600g truffle the previous year, after numerous diggings the retriever found nothing. Truffles tend to grow in the same places, but a number of hunting that follows on the same spot discovered nothing. The best spot for truffles to grow is where rain collects in late summer and triggers the spores to breed into truffles. But still not a single fungus discovered.
An hour and several false alarms followed, nothing unearthed and the dog digs eagerly into a number of spots only to abandon it. Unexpectedly, a little luck seems to come their way as the trifolau takes over the unearthing from the mongrel. He holds up a fistful of soil and thrust it for the entourage to sniff. A specific odour filled the air; it’s the specific smell that lured fine dining connoisseurs to venture into the small woods of Piedmont. More digging followed and, stuck in the soil is what looks like a mushroom cap.
The hunt is not over yet. A smart step follows to retrieve the prized mushroom unscathed. With his sickle-shaped pick the trifolau starts to dig carefully around the truffle. The, using his fingers, he gently twists it for what seems like ages before the whole stem finally free from the soil.
The prized catch looks like the Shanghai soup dumpling. It weighs about 50 grammes and smells at once sweet, funky and nutty, with scents of soil. Members of the team took turns to hold it, turn it around or just marvel at the nature’s wonder unearthed just minutes before. All the excitement subsides and the trifolau fills the hole with leaves and then soil to cover the tracks of a heist. Then the team have to flee as soon as possible to avoid the rush of wild boars that have sniffed the presence of its favourite food, truffle. At a number of expedition truffle dogs had been mauled by the wild boars.
Truffle dogs are as pricey as the subterranean fungi. Its nose is as precious as those of tea tasters. The nose of the dog is important, trained to the business since pups. "When they are young, we let them eat truffle,” explains a trifolau. If the puppy likes it, they may become good truffle dogs.
Those that show potential are trained by trying to sniff out truffles that the trifolau has planted in the ground.
A good truffle dog is highly priced. The dog that led hip-hop mogul Jay-Z in his truffle hunt is worth €5,000. Mongrels make good truffle dogs because they are smart. Lagotto Romagnolo or Italian water dogs are the best breed for truffle hunting. The dogs are the only breed in the world specialized in tracking this expensive fungi. The sensitivity to track down truffles beats those of griffons and bloodhounds. Pigs are good truffle hunters too, but they like to gobble up their finds.