One of my early lockdown treats, my alternative to baking banana bread and sourdough (or hoarding more loo rolls than my neighbours) was to order a small sample of English truffle from The Wiltshire Truffle Company, shaving the precious tuber into scrambled eggs, its heady aroma permeating the kitchen.
Since when I’ve moved onto more and more arcane foodie explorations – bottarga, colatura d’alici, mostarda di cremona, cottechino. There’s an Italian theme developing here, so if I want to resume my truffle fixation I should really hang on until next autumn when the white truffles of Alba in Piedmont make their seasonal bow.
Not that seasons are crucial in our global society. The Wiltshire suppliers don’t just confine themselves to Italy, France and the ‘full English’ they’ve done so much to promote. Their latest mail-out trumpets the arrival of Australian winter truffle, akin to Périgord truffles from South West France – “widely considered by leading chefs to be the best black truffles on the planet”. Big claims and you could compare these Aussie beauts with the company’s regular shipments of Italian summer truffles from hunters in the Tuscan and Umbrian hills. If your funds run to it. Truffles are wallet-busters. At auction the most prized varieties could cost you over £5,000 per kilo.
A local truffle trader on the streets of Alba
The most exciting and affordable way to encounter them is to visit Alba at peak Truffle Festival Time. OK, it hosts auctions flogging the most perfect specimens to connoisseurs and entrepreneurs across the world, but even the smallest cafes offer affordable menus showing their pride in the product. I know I’ve been there. And also, cutting out the middle men, I’ve trekked with hunters in the ancient forests as they unearth secret truffle patches with their specially trained dogs. Ditto in Oregon, USA, where I was invited to an altogether more academic Truffle Festival…
• There’s a documentary in cinemas, The Truffle Hunters, which is set around Alba and another UK online truffle merchant called TruffleHunter, which has a fine reputation. They’ll also sell you a professional standard truffle shaver. I’m wary of much that passes as truffle oil; truffle butter can be a better bet for a cheaper option to the real tuber.
But first, what exactly makes the white truffle so special?
Truffles are the fruiting body of a subterranean fungus usually found in close association with the roots of trees, their spores dispersed through fungivores (animals that eat fungi). Hence it was traditionally pigs that were trained to hunt these coveted delicacies. These days it’s more likely to be dogs. White truffles are more highly prized than the black. Growing symbiotically with oak, hazel, poplar and beech and fruiting in autumn, they can reach 12 cm diameter and 500g, though they are usually much smaller, between 30g and 110g. The flesh is pale cream or brown with white marbling which releases their powerful scents, not appreciated by everyone (let’s call it olefactory Marmite). There are an estimated 200,000 regular truffle gatherers in Italy, with the sector worth around €400 million a year.
Fresh truffles should be consumed more or less immediately although they will last for up to seven days in a domestic fridge.
Once upon a time in Alba
I’d never associated hedonism with tramping through thick forest undergrowth in the dusk. Peering to see if a lean setter-cross has found the ideal tree root to dig frantically under. I am not alone here in the heart of Alba truffle country in an October unseasonally warm. Around me 15 other paid-up ‘Hedonistic Hikers’, cameras at the ready, also await a tuber epiphany.
Our guides, trading under the name Hedonistic Hiking, are proud to include an authentic white truffle hunt in season as part of their ‘Jewels of Piedmont’ (Piemonte) walking tour. It’s not everyone’s idea of holiday heaven but it sets serious foodies salivating. Those who know what the fuss is all about when the autumn mists that give their name to the famous local grape variety, Nebbiolo vines coat the valleys of North West Italy’s Langhe region and the autumn wine harvest is nearly over. It’s now Truffle Time, all the way to Christmas.
The following day we’ll indulge in an early evening aperitivo and do the ‘passeggiata’, strolling around the truffle-scented squares and alleys of regional capital Alba, where the annual Truffle Fair is on to celebrate – and auction off – this lucrative delicacy.
Still for the moment, at the gourmet equivalent of the coalface, there’s work to be done.
Our truffle hunter, Marco Varaldo, expresses faith in his rookie hound, Laika, so new she doesn’t feature in his publicity material. Marco has a day job, but hunting for the lucrative truffles, with their intoxicating, almost aphrodisiac scent, is his passion.
The white variety, the ‘tartufo bianco’, rarer and more expensive than the black and found mostly famously in this corner of Italy, is revered the world over by gastronomes (and expensive restaurants). Admiration isn’t universal – their earthy assertiveness nauseates some sensitive palates. I’m not in that camp.
The white truffle can’t be artificially cultivated. This is part of its unique appeal. They are sought for in certain jealously guarded locations, hidden at the base of oak, beech and hazel trees. You train your dog to recognise the pungent aroma and then snuffle them out of the soil and leaf mould. It all seems a mite random as Laika zips and zig-zags around, scattering leaf mould, but then…
I don’t know what the Piemontese for Eureka is, but it is time to yell it. The pooch apprentice has struck gold – ‘white gold’. Marco quickly straddles Laika, snatching a knobbly clay-covered lump from her jaws, pocketing it and rewarding the dog with a far less expensive treat. We clamber to see what the fuss is about. Marco delicately brushes the muck off the white truffle and we all commune with its pervasive perfume.
Over the next couple of hours we collect further specimens and, later, part of the haul, assiduously shaved over the local tajarin pasta, will be the centrepiece of our supper at a little local restaurant called Mange. When truffles are abundant, near the source, they can be a surprisingly democratic treat. Just a few slices elevate a local beef dish, below.
We were staying in La Morra, which follows the pattern of all the settlements in the Langhe, which recently attained World Heritage Status. They sit on a hilltop above the vines, dominated by a castle, a church, usually both, and offer ample opportunity to taste the wines that have made this corner of Piemonte famous – Dolcetto, Barbera, Barbaresco (in one small enclave) and, above all, Barolo.
One of of our walks, from our hotel, the Corte Gondina, to Barolo village itself, took in the family-run winery of GD Vajra at Vergne. I’ve been there before in the early summer to taste their excellent wines and, now the harvest complete, was welcomed back like an old family friend. Piemonte’s like this. It doesn’t feel like some calculating tourist honeypot. You meet it on its own terms. Just like the truffle.
Oregon’s wine country is also home to truffles (and another festival)
The Willamette Valley, just south of Portland, is the epicentre of Oregon wine, notable for Pinot Noir that can arguably rival Burgundy’s silkiest reds. And where there’s great wine there’s usually a thriving food culture. Yet until I was invited to join the The Oregon Truffle Festival I had no idea the rolling hills around McMinnville are also home to both black and white varieties plus four Oregon natives. 2021 pandemic strictures meant it has gone virtual (you can pick up goodies via an online marketplace – truffle stout anyone?).
All this is obviously off a normal tourist’s radar, but rolling Willamette Country’s wineries and fine restaurants aren’t. McMinnville makes a fine base for exploring. Stay in its red brick historic district, perhaps at the oddball Hotel Oregon, which has a rooftop bar and is decorated with relics of the building’s 115-year history and the town’s famous 1950 UFO sighting. You might also run into the ghost of a former resident, nicknamed John.
As in all the towns along the route, I grabbed a craft beer, this time at the convivial Golden Valley Brewery and Tap before sampling a festival special truffle vodka and local wine at the Elizabeth Chambers Cellars, one of many tasting rooms in the town.
You’ll probably find it more fun to drive out to one of the country wineries to do your sampling. It sounds boringly generic but Willamette Valley Vineyards offers exceptional quality. Wine and truffles – the perfect marriage either side of the pond.