09 January 2014

AUNTIE PASTA: The White Truffles of Alba

CHIAVARI, Italy – Having truffles on their eggs in the morning is not a big deal for most of the families who live in the hills of Piedmont, in northern Italy. They have grown up, gotten married and raised their children all the while enjoying that lumpy tuber not just on eggs, but on pasta and steak and whole bunch of other foods as well. And why not. They live in truffle country and on any given day they can take a walk in the woods and dig up a truffle or two.

 An Early Morning Walk in Search of Truffles
But it isn’t the Italians who are caught up in the current truffle frenzy, it’s the rest of the world.   Even if an Italian doesn’t have the possibility of digging up his own truffles you’d never catch him doing what Vladimir Potanin, a business magnate from Russia did at the recent truffle auction in Alba. For two kilos (four pounds give or take a few ounces) of truffles, Mr. Potanin paid $95,000.

And that wasn’t even the most expensive sale of the day. Later that same afternoon an unnamed buyer from Hong Kong, purportedly a famous Chinese writer bidding via satellite telephone, forked over $120,000 for two truffles that weighed about 470 grams, about1lb each, three times the price of gold.

 Here's One
And those are only the sales we know about. There are others, secret sales that take place along the foggy country roads along the edge of the forest.  Most certainly those meetings take place far from the sellers hunting grounds, for a truffle hunter, called a ‘trifolau’, protects his territory with more fervor than a drug dealer.  Sometimes truffles are bought and sold out of the back of a van, or in the back room of some nondescript building in the middle of nowhere. You may not hear about those deals, but they are happening. The prized truffles of Alba have gone global and foodies have gone bezerk.

Truffles have been on the table in Italy since the days of the Romans, and they actually learned about them from the Etruscans. Of course they had no idea of what truffles were or how they were formed, but they knew they were good. They believed it was Jupiter, the King of the Gods, throwing thunderbolts near oak trees that caused the mud on the roots of the tree to create a truffle. And because everyone knew Jupiter was a rootin’ tootin’ sex machine, truffles had to be an aphrodisiac. It just made sense.

 The Pair Inspect Their Find
And then came the Middle Ages and all the fun things that paganism promoted were slowly being done away with, including  eating truffles. With their sexy smell and exotic taste, truffles were now considered to be the work of the devil and had to be avoided at all costs. It turns out both the Romans, who ate truffles because they thought they were an aphrodisiac and the Church who banned them because they believed it was the devil working his devilish ways with us, were both right.

The culprit was never the truffle, but androstenol, a sex pheromone that gives truffles its musky smell and taste and draws us to them.  And we are not alone. The same sex pheromone is found in boar saliva and it drives female pigs to distraction. That’s why pigs, and not dogs, were first used to hunt truffles. The only problem was pigs would often eat the truffles they found before the truffle hunter had a chance to snatch them away. Dogs are much more agreeable.

Here's a Good One
Training a truffle dog is a slow process and starts with the trainer putting truffle oil on the teats of nursing dogs to help imprint the scent on the pups. When the pups gets a little older trainers soak balls in truffle oil and use them for the puppies to fetch. That teaches the pups to associate that smell with the chase. As the dogs gets older, they start hiding the truffle scented balls under leaves and then burying them in the ground to improve the dog's detection skills. All in all it takes about four years to train a truffle dog.

And while both male and female dogs can be truffle hunters, most trainers agree that female dogs are better.  A female dog will find the truffle and show you where it is; a male dog will find it, dig it up and   then he’ll run away. The ‘trifolau’ has to step in right at the point when the leaves and dirt first go flying.  He then carefully scrapes away at the dirt until he comes to the hidden treasure, that strange, lumpy tuber that has become the world’s most expensive food. 

 And Now, For the Final Test
The money raised at the 14th edition of the White Truffle of Alba auction will be given to the Piedmont Foundation for Cancer Research for the purchase of a CAT scanner for the "San Lazzaro" hospital in Alba. The money raised by the Hong Kong sale will go to the Mother's Choice Institute in Hong Kong, which cares for orphans and mothers in difficulty, the organizers said. The next white truffle fair and auction will be held in Alba, Italy from October 11th to November 2014, every Saturday and Sunday.

For more information about the Alba Truffle Fair:
+39 0173  361 051

Photos by Stefano Rellandini

1 comment:

  1. Phyllis, you said it "the foodies have gone berzerk". It seems to me that whatever is trending, is the best food you could eat. I myself have never had truffles or truffle oil or anything of the sort. I'm not a trendy type of cook. My impression is that a lot of people base their opinion of food depending on the availability or lack there of and the exorbitant price to determine what food are at the top of the desirable list.