Truffle Hunting: A dwindling tradition in the Piemonte

By Uma Shyamala Dixit

The composer Gioachino Rossini said that white truffles are to the world of mushrooms what Mozart is to the world of music. And for all the tradition and pride that surrounds the business of hunting and selling truffle mushrooms in the Piemonte region of Italy, it seems he was right.

I spent three days touring the Piemonte, where the prized Tuber Magnatum Pico (the white truffle) is found. Driving through hillsides heavy with grapevines, we stopped to do a little truffle hunting ourselves.

On a crisp, late afternoon, I accompanied viticulturist and trufolao (truffle hunter), Giancarlo Borgogne and his dog, Bill on an excursion.

Borgogne, armed with a zappetta, a small hoe to dig out truffles, scooped up handfuls of mud and crumbled it between his fingers to illustrate what a dry summer it has been. It’s a bad year for the Tuber Magnatum Pico, which needs consistent rains throughout the summer in order to mature in the fall. His luck was better last year when he and Bill discovered a 250-gram Magnatum Pico.

Hoping to repeat such a find, Borgogne encouraged his helpful canine with bits of bread and the occassional “Bravo.” Bill sniffed for truffles around the roots of willows, limes, poplars and oaks. He unearthed a Tuber Aestivvum, a considerably humbler sibling of the Magnatum Pico, in terms of both fragrance and market price.

After finding a truffle, the next step is to take it to the market. At the entrance of the 73rd annual Mercato del Tartufo of Alba, set in white tents pitched in the courtyard of the Biblioteca Civica, I was hit by the smell of mushrooms, honey, hay, garlic, spices, wet-earth and ammonia.

The space inside teems with tourists sniffing around 30-odd stalls equipped with mini-weighing machines, and displaying both white and black truffles. The famed white truffles, firm to the touch, are the colour of mud-encrusted potatoes. Each looks like a rude conglomeration of lumps.

The going price this year for the Magnatum Pico is around five Euros per gram (about double the price it went for in 1997, a year considered especially auspicious for white truffles), while the Aestivum is selling for approximately one Euro per gram.

On a podium in the center of all the hubbub were three truffle judges who control the quality of the the mushrooms that get offered up for sale at the market. All truffles scoring five and above on a nine-point scale based on attributes like fragrance, color and size are permitted for sale.

Laura Cardelli, a 22-year-old student of languages and tourism at the University of Turin, serves as secretary to the judges. She introduced me to Giovanni Ronzano, a truffle hunter and regular at the market. A large, mustachioed character in a green vest and a straw hat crowned with peacock feathers, Ronzano held court at his stall, clapping his hands and emitting bird-cries at regular intervals.

“He keeps the show going,” said Cardelli, as Ronzano proclaimed that his truffles are the Italian version of Viagra.

Cardelli explained that all trufolao in the Piemonte must pass an examination to be certified as hunters. If harvested before they have had a chance to mature and release their spores, truffles will eventually become extinct.

The best truffles, like the 365-gram white truffles worth 2,000 Euros, are usually purchased by expensive restaurants, Cardelli said over glasses of Dolcetto and plates of fried eggs topped with shaved truffles – a fitting end to the day.

Later I lunched with Alfredo Boratto, grand maestro of the Ordine dei Cavalieri del Tartufe e dei Vini d’Alba, an organization dedicated to preserving Piemontese culinary traditions.We sat overlooking the Alps, lingering over plates of zabaglione with hazelnut biscotti. Boratto told stories from the countryside—stories of a time long past, when trufalao came back home from their hunts and were reprimanded by their womenfolk for having torn their pockets by stuffing them with truffles.

But things are much different now, and truffles are no longer bountiful enough to fill pockets.

“Now, that wine-making in the Piemonte has become so profitable, there is less space for the uncultivated truffle to flourish. One could assume that as time goes on, the Tuber Magnatum Pico will become rarer and more expensive,” Boratto predicted.

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