Dear Blog Readers –
I am on a train headed back to Rome after a busy weekend bouncing around the Piedmont region of Italy with Italy’s Foreign Press Association’s “Gruppo Del Gusto” a sort of Culinary Club of journalists who travel around Italy visiting towns looking at local foods and food production, eating a lot and drinking quantities of good wine.
It has been an interesting experience being on a field trip with an eccentric bunch of 102 journalists from 28 countries – among them Turkey, Chile, Brazil, Pakistan, Holland, Serbia, Venezuela, Denmark, Japan, Lithuania and Australia…to name a few. Many of the journalists have already retired and have more time for these culinary adventures than I. Much to my amusement, among the group I believe we had a narcoleptic, a kleptomaniac (slip a truffle in your purse type), a loud complainer (why didn’t my bathroom have a bidet?? Why isn’t this castle heated properly?), a few verbose types (especially after too much Barolo) and an annoying, hyperactive blogger (me) who just had to know how much that truffle weighed. (The hyperactivity was due to my trying to counteract the alcohol with double espressos so I could keep focused.)
The destinations of the field trip were the towns of Alba and Asti which, in addition to being famous for their “marvelously ugly white truffles”, as someone described them to us, are known for their Barolo and Barbaresco red wines and sparkling white wines, the Asti DOCG. (We drank bottles and bottles of all of the above the past two days!)
What is a white truffle? It is a mushroom that grows under oak, poplar, willow, hazelnut and linden trees. We were told today that a white truffle cannot be cultivated, it is found by truffle hunters known as trifolao with special truffle-sniffing dogs. In Piedmont there are 4,000 licensed trifolao.
Apparently these truffle hunters are pretty sneaky people. They don’t want anyone to know where their precious truffles can be found so they go around with their dogs, usually mutts, at night with no light to guide them besides the moon. A trifolao at the truffle fair later explained to me that he keeps a muzzle on his dog, Bobi, and when he finds a truffle he is rewarded with a piece of bread. Bobi was busy last night and had discovered quite a few truffles that were on sale. (Note: the sign at the bottom of the photo says in Italian “Truffles found last night be Bobi, the dog! While you were sleeping…).
In a presentation at Alba’s City hall today, the head of the truffle consortium said that we were lucky to have arrived right after a period of rain followed by a full moon. So the truffle hunters had been out and about—along with the werewolves– digging up the precious nuggets.
The territory in which they can roam about hunting for truffles is almost unlimited, any public land in Piedmont.
As we drove around the areas of Langhe and Roero, vineyards stretched out across the hills in all directions. Apparently, the farmers in the region have been cutting down trees and planting vineyards for making profitable wines, so truffle hunters have reached an agreement with the farmers to keep the forested areas to save the trees under which the white truffles grow.
In the large tent of the Truffle Fair, stands lined the sides with vendors offering up the marvelously ugly white truffles, pulling them out from under glass cases for us to sniff. The going price is about 600 euros ($708) per 100 grams (3.5 ounces), so I was not doing much more than sniffing.
In addition to the truffles there were cheeses with truffles, pasta with truffles and salami with truffles.
This annual white truffle fair began in 1929 and over the years was promoted by their own “pioneer of marketing” from Alba, a man named Giacomo Morra. Morra made sure Italian embassies around the world had white truffles to serve. In 1951 he sent a giant white truffle to US President Harry Truman, and in 1954 Marilyn Monroe received a white truffle from the entrepreneurial Morra. Ronald Reagan, Winston Churchill and Gerard Depardieu were also among the lucky white truffle recipients.
Are truffles an aphrodisiac? I was not able to get a straight answer this weekend, but some people do believe that truffles are a potent aphrodisiac. Certainly, a white truffle would be much better for needy individuals than powder from a rhinoceros horn. Could that account for its popularity in Asia?
We were served a gala dinner in the Grinzane Cavour Castle during which the pasta and meat courses were followed by “uovo biologico in camicia con fonduta d’Alpeggio e Tartufo Bianco d’Alba” – poached egg with melted Alpeggio cheese and white truffle shavings.
For the past 18 years, the Truffle Consortium of Alba has been holding annual white truffle auctions. This year’s auction was held simultaneously in three locations – the Castle of Grinzane in Alba, Dubai and Hong Kong. An entrepreneur in Hong Kong paid 75,000 euros ($84,000) for the largest white truffle weighing 850 grams (1.8 pounds or 30 ounces). The consortium uses the earnings for charity related to the truffle industry.
Our train is going to arrive at 10:30pm in Rome and the crowd of quirky culinary club journalists will roll off the train, dragging their bags full of powerful smelling, marvelously ugly truffles home.