Walking into a reputable enoteca in Castiglione Falletto, I noticed a strange odor and initially assumed a bottle of wine must have burst and gone bad. But then, I doubted, does wine do that? My nostrils stung, like the time we let our dog in from a midnight pee without knowing she’d irked a skunk. But then there was something creamy about it, too. It was, I decided at last, as if that skunk was relaxing in a tub of over-fermented wine whilst nibbling a piece of armpit cheese.
As I poked around the choice wines and gourmet goods, I felt confused and unhappy. The owner was smiling pleasantly, clearly a friendly man, perhaps a little slow. Surely it was my ethical duty to tell him, tactfully of course, that his pretty shop stank of bad eggs?
Approaching the counter, mustering courage, I caught sight of a basket labelled ‘tartufi’. It contained four or five deformed, light-skinned potatoes. Slowly, it dawned on me. Could these really be those elusive, fabulously expensive fungal treats, white truffles? And were they what was making the smell?
The white truffle is possibly the rarest and most expensive food in the world. It’s rare because it cannot be cultivated and only grows in Italy, mainly in the Langhe and Monferrat in Piedmont. What’s more, there is no way of preserving it so it must be eaten fresh and only lasts for about a week in an airtight container in the fridge. Its Latin name is Tuber magnatum, its fanciful Italian name is Trifola d’Alba Madonna (Truffle of the White Madonna) and its culinary name is the ‘Diamond of the Kitchen’. In 2014 the world’s largest white truffle at 1.89 kilograms sold at Sotheby’s for US$61,250.
What is a truffle? Put simply, it’s the fruiting body of a fungus that grows between the roots of certain trees; the white truffle prefers beech birch, hazel, oak and poplar. It takes 7-10 years for the fungus to develop its mycorrhizal network (the underground network of hair-like tubes designed to condition the environment for optimal growth) before a truffle can appear. Even then, it only fruits a few months a year—October to December and can be found between the leaf-litter and the soil under their parent trees.
Scientists have shown that, although “truffle fruiting bodies are colonized by a diverse microbial community made up of bacteria, yeasts, guest filamentous fungi, and viruses”, dimethyl sulfide is probably the most important chemical ingredient when it comes to mammalian noses. This attractiveness is important because the fungus cannot spread on its own; it relies on small rodents and wild boar to eat and eliminate its fruit somewhere else in the bosky environs. What may also add to its appeal, at least in the case of the related black truffle, is a ‘bliss molecule‘:
“Mauro Maccarrone, of the Campus Bio-Medico University of Rome, Italy, and colleagues have revealed the highly-prized fungi produce anandamide, a compound that triggers the release of mood-enhancing chemicals in the human brain, and does so using the same biological mechanism as tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the chemical responsible for producing the mind-bending effects of marijuana.”
Incidentally, a few insects also like the whiffy treat not because of the fruit itself but because of yeasts on its surface. These include Leiodes cinnamomea and Suillia pallida. In fact, some trifulau (truffle hunters) look out for the presence of these parasites to locate their treasures.
Speaking of trifulau, as I was going for an extremely muddy jog along a country trail about 10km from Alba in the twilight, I suddenly saw a bearded man sitting on the ground between some trees apparently cuddling his dog.
“That’s odd,” I thought.
He looked at me and blushed. We nodded at each other, embarrassed, and I ran on. When I came back ten minutes later, he and the hound had vanished. It was thrilling to think I had caught him in a secret truffle-yielding grove, snuffling up smelly gold.
In the old days, I believe, such hunters used female pigs. According to a study done back in the ‘80s, they thought it smelled sexy:
Researchers in West Germany have found that truffles contain large quantities of a substance also synthesized in the testes of boars. In the boars it is secreted into their saliva when they court females. The Germans report that the substance’s musklike scent, ”emanating from the saliva foam, is smelled by the sow and prompts her standing reflex.”
Those stout womanly hearts refused to surrender the loot, tending to eat it. So nowadays it’s dogs all the way. A good truffle-hunting dog has the following characteristics:
- Highly developed sense of smell
- Not much interest in game
- Physical stamina
- Good concentration
- Obedient and mild-mannered
The Italian dog that was bred specifically to root out truffles is the Lagotto Romagnola, and a sterling specimen can sell for thousands of dollars.
On Sunday evening, having a few hours to spare, we decided to visit Alba and stroll along the main pedestrian street for a bit. Little did we know that that was the centre of the city’s annual Truffle Fair ‘Fiera del Tartufo’, which takes place every October and November and attracts people from all over the world. The narrow street was bustling with families and a veritable funky cloud hung in air along with the Christmas lights. Vendors touted their wares with gusto and encouraged sniffing and tasting and it was altogether a lively scene. There were other kinds of truffle for sale and all kinds of local specialties including Barolo-flavored pasta and hazelnut cakes (remember, this is Nutella country!).
We rounded off the evening with dinner. As we sat in a little Trattoria, I couldn’t help but notice that smell again. I mentioned it to John, who couldn’t smell it at all. Thinking it must have clung to my clothes after our walk at the fair, I shook my sleeve to get it off. Then I inhaled and was suddenly overcome with faintness, as if I’d opened a laundry basket after forgetting about it for two weeks. Glancing behind me, I saw four giant white truffles on a plate behind me, wafting out their odiferous musk. One of our party could not resist the allure and ordered a classic dish Tajarin al Tartufo —pasta with white truffle shaved on top.