The Marvelously Ugly White Truffle

White truffles on a dish at the Ginzane Cavour Castle in Alba, Italy waiting to be served to foreign journalists. Photo by Trisha Thomas, November 18, 2017

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!)

Young server holding empty bottles of Barolo and Barbera D’Alba wine during lunch for foreign press at the Guarene Castle in Alba. November 19, 2017

Champagne coupes with Asti DOCG on a table at the Palazzo Gastaldi in Asti. Photo by Trisha Thomas, November 18, 2017

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.

A “trifolao” or truffle hunter selling his marvelously ugly truffles at the White Truffle Fair in Alba, Italy. Photo by Trisha Thomas, November 19, 2017

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.

Panorama view over the hills near Alba from the Guarene Castle. Photo by Trisha Thomas, November 19, 2017

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.

Trisha Thomas sniffing a truffle offered by a “trifolao” (truffle hunter) at the Truffle Fair in Alba, Italy. November 19, 2017

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.

Star Chef Davide Oldani puts shavings of white truffle on a pasta dish at a demonstration at the Truffle Fair in Alba, Italy. November 19, 2017

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.

Uovo Biologico in caminica con fonduta d’Alpeggio e Tartufo Bianco d’Alba. Photo by Trisha Thomas, November 18, 2017

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.

White Truffles on sale at the White Truffle Fair in Alba, Italy. Photo by Trisha Thomas, November 19, 2017

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Trisha Thomas
Trisha is a TV journalist working for AP TV News in Rome. She is married to an Italian and is a Mamma of three.

14 Comments

  1. Martha Hubbard
    2017/11/20

    You don’t say if you bought any to bring home o your Italian hisband

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2017/11/22

      Good question! I did not bring any home to my Italian husband because years ago when we were on vacation — I think it was before we had children– he had a pasta dish with white truffle and during the night he had a bad allergic reaction and his face got all swollen, his eyes were nearly closed in the morning. It gave him quite a scare so he has never eaten white truffles since. As you can see though, his experience has not hindered me in any way!

      Reply
  2. Ciao Chow Linda
    2017/11/20

    Now that is one assignment I could really savor. What a lucky gal you are! I have been in that castle and in that region several times and the foods and wines are simply exquisite. I’ve also been truffle hunting in Italy and the dog used was not a mutt, but a lagotto – a breed of dog that have a keen nose. In fact, my sister-in-law here in the states owns a lagotto that she bought in Connecticut about 10 years ago for $2500! They’re superb dogs not just for truffle hunting, but as pets too, it turns out. (They better be, at that price.) In case you’re celebrating in Rome, Happy Thanksgiving.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2017/11/22

      Linda…Happy Thanksgiving to You!! Wow, you actually went truffle hunting in Italy…what a wonderful experience that must have been. I hope you wrote a blog post about it. Send me the link if you did, I would love to read about it. I agree with you, that region does have exquisite food and wine and this was the first time I visited (besides brief trips for work in Turin). I really must go back.

      Reply
  3. Nancy Rockwell
    2017/11/20

    Fascinating story, every detail new to me, Trisha! I dimly remember reading that truffles were found by pigs somewhere. I like the idea of dogs better. And love the list of complainers in the group, I would probably be the one complaining the castle was cold, I find myself notching up the heat in the evenings now. So nice they preserve this tradition, in the US truffles would be grown on agri-farms, the old hunters would be cut out of the trade.
    Happy thanksgiving, m’dear – to you and yours. Just had an email from an American friend living in Milan for a year, reporting on scouring the city for the ingredients to make a pumpkin pie, and how, for the day itself, they are flying to Paris, where they won’t get a traditional meal but they’ll get a change from pasta. I wouldn’t mind dining in Paris for Thanksgiving, would you?
    I’m cooking this year and have been shopping for a week, will start cooking tomorrow because there are so many dishes to make – will be thinking of you, and all Slayters, and remembering Abby –
    Blessings, Nancy

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2017/11/22

      Yes, I also read somewhere about pigs hunting truffles. Not sure where that is though. In Piedmont, I was told, they only use dogs. The eccentrics in the group were very funny — just a story on the group would have made a very amusing blog post, but I probably would have been kicked out of the Foreign Press Association the next day! I have not done Thanksgiving in Rome at home in years. It is a challenge because, for starters, the day is not a holiday in Italy so you cannot have Thanksgiving on a Thursday. The Turkeys are different here, mince meat is hard to find, stuffing is a challenge….but it is still a lot of fun. This year I have three invites though…one on Thursday, one on Friday and one on Saturday. Lucky me!! Good luck with all your cooking, I often find the preparations the best part. And yes, holiday or not, I will be remembering Abby too. Thank you for your thoughts (and I loved hearing your “Virgin Mary for Halloween” story that was mentioned to me by several people.)

      Reply
  4. Alan
    2017/11/20

    personally I prefer my mould to be growing on cheese!

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2017/11/22

      Silly! Well, the White Truffle Fair also had many stands with all sorts of different cheeses with bits of white truffle in them. Since there were letting passerby have tastes from free, I had quite a few and they were all wonderful. Are there truffles — black or white — in Turkey?

      Reply
  5. Lega Medcalf
    2017/11/20

    Can’t believe how valuable these fungi are and I’ll probably never experience their taste …… at that price though, like the dogs, I would prefer some Italian bread.

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2017/11/22

      Lega, they are delicious, but you really do need to have them in small quantities because the smell is powerful!!
      (We still need to get working on your Concettina story for a blog post — or better a book!)

      Reply
  6. Joan Schmelzle
    2017/11/21

    Hi Trisha,
    Sounds like you had an interesting job on this excursion. I have to admit that, though I have tried the star of this festa, I’d rather stick to the wines you mentioned! A month from today I will arrive in my favorite city. Right now I am in Florida with my brother’s family for Thanksgiving and still have work to do when I get back to Illinois to get ready for the trip. Happy Thanksgiving to your family! Joan

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2017/11/22

      Happy Thanksgiving to you Joan!! So, you are not a fan of white truffles? I thought they were scrumptious. I had the shavings on the dish in the photo. I tasted them in the fair in various different cheeses and also in a bread stick. But, interestingly enough, my husband is allergic to them. We learned this one night years ago after eating a pasta dish with white truffles and his eyes swelled up during the night and by morning were nearly closed. So, no white truffle meals in my home.

      Reply
  7. Ciao Chow Linda
    2017/11/26

    Trisha – I did write about truffle hunting for the blog. Thanks for your interest. Here is the link: http://ciaochowlinda.com/2013/06/truffle-hunting-in-abruzzo.html

    Reply
    • Trisha Thomas
      Trisha Thomas
      2017/11/27

      Thank you! Fantastic post, I just read it. What a wonderful experience you had, and I love the video of the Trifolao and the Lingotto in action!!

      Reply

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