Wednesday, December 7, 2011

A question of Truffles

The first hour of a truffle hunt is the most difficult. It’s a frenzy of activity. Ciara, my young four-legged Laghotta Romagnola - an old Italian breed of truffle hunting dog - has seemingly boundless energy and it’s all I can do to keep up. You’ve got to stay within reaching distance of the dog. It’s a question of being close enough to read the signs.  Otherwise the dog can find a truffle and you won’t spot the signals. So you crash through the woods, looking for a path through dense bramble, legs burning, gasping for breath and wishing to God you hadn’t had that extra brioche at breakfast.

For some, truffles are big business. Every truffle hunter dreams of finding the ‘Big One’.  In late November 2007, Stanley Ho, a Macau casino owner, outbid British artist Damien Hirst at a charity auction to the sum of £165,000 for a magnificent 1.5 kilo (3.31lb) specimen. Of course, not all truffles fetch such exorbitant amounts. But they are big business nonetheless and for many years have been out of reach for all but those with the deepest pockets.  White truffles or the Alba truffle (Tuber magnatum) fetches up to €4,000 per kilo at the Fiera del Tartufo  (truffle fair) in Alba in Piedmonte on a good year.

Personally, I don’t hunt truffles for profit. Anything I find I eat or, if lucky enough to find a surplus, I give them to friends as gifts. I’m always popular at the local bar after a day’s truffle hunting!  Hunting truffles for profit, in my opinion, takes something away from the exercise. There’s a difference between hunting truffles to sell and doing it for the sheer thrill and pleasure of finding truffles. I know a number of truffle hunters who never eat what they find – which frankly I just can’t bring myself to understand.  

I learned how to hunt for truffles about 5 years back with my good friend Sandro Rizzi. A passionate mushroom picker with a love for both dogs and the boschi (woods), truffle hunting came naturally to me. And once I found my first truffle, I was hooked.

Truffles and mushrooms share common cultural characteristics in Italy. They are both pastimes cloaked in secrecy. Mushroom pickers seldom give away the location of their most prized picking grounds. When it comes to truffles, the secrets are even more stringently guarded. There have been many reports of old truffle hunters taking the secrets of their picking ground to the grave, unwilling even to share them with their own children. I was fortunate in that I found Sandro, a 50-year-old hunter who was willing to share more than just stories.

Today was a good day. We found black truffles, Tuber melanosporum, over a dozen, decent-sized, fresh and very pungent. I’m not going to mention where. But generally speaking, although truffles from Alba in Piedmont are considered the most highly prized, both white and black truffles can be found in the regions of Tuscany, Umbria (notably the tartufo di Norcia), Le Marche, Emilia Romagna and Lazio. I’ve had white truffles from Alba and I have eaten white truffles from Emilia Romagna and personally I have never been able to tell the difference. The fact that I found the latter myself might have something to do with it. Food you’ve personally foraged for and cooked is always going to taste better! Next week I’ll return to this subject with a few tips I’ve learned over the years for cooking with truffles.

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