Eli the dog led the way. A svelte, white and spotted brown hunter dog with floppy ears, she ran ahead to sniff and snout the leaf-carpeted grounds we were hiking. All around us, the sounds and scents of the forest in the wake of fall created the perfect setting: rust and green and yellow crunchy leaves; a faint trace of smoke coming from the cascine nearby; and one word echoing in the valley, bouncing off the side of the hill and returning to our heightened senses.
That was the imperative, the only command her master would give her. Search, Eli. Find them. Get your reward in getting us ours. Find those precious tubers.
We followed, wellington boots and parkas and high spirits, taking much pleasure in our surroundings but never losing sight of the dog and she trailed ahead. The search hadn’t brought any fruits yet, but Mario, our guide – a sprightly local in his early seventies – didn’t seem discouraged. “She’ll find them”, he said. “Let’s keep walking this way: there’s an oak tree that might just be the right one.”
This wasn’t his first dog, he told us. He had another one who passed away at an old age after a life spent by his side. He spoke of him with the tenderness you reserve for a lifetime companion. “He was a good one”, he sighed. “A Lagotto, a real truffle hunter. Eli, now. She’s good. I’ve trained her. But you see, she gets distracted. Perhaps she’s just young.”
The symbiotic relationship between the Langhe trifolau (truffle hunter) and their dogs is striking and not unlike that between white truffles and their trees. These men are not just natives of these beautiful lands, they haven’t just made a home here, they live and breathe these hills. They are rooted in them like a poplar or an oak. They are part of the terroir. Their knowledge is intangible and preciously preserved. They don’t share their secrets, but will lead you as close to them as they possibly can.
Dogs have been poisoned, trees cut, properties trespassed, tires slashed, in the white truffle wars that take place in the silence of the Langhe hills. As always happens when something pricey and rare is involved, things can get nasty. “That’s why I will never tell you my spots”, Mario said. “I hide truffles underground for Eli to find while I’m with you, but that’s not where I’ve found them.”
One of the most valuable fruits of the earth, white truffles are elusive and impossible to fabricate as they are temperamentally dependent on the perfect combination of climate, soil, and environment. For millennia, the hills of Langhe provide one of the best terroirs for them to grow, making them a prime place for truffle hunting traditions. But things are slowly but surely changing.
“The weather has been too hot and dry this year. And truffles don’t like dry.”
White truffles are deeply connected to the local mores and culinary wisdom of the Langhe, but have also become a key source of income for the largely food-and-wine centric tourism industry. A standard truffle season runs from November to January, but in the past few years it had shrunk to just a couple of months due to a lack of precipitation and humidity in the soil. This, in turn, has partially impacted all the activities that revolve around the prized mushroom, from fairs (like the famous Fiera del Tartufo di Alba) to dedicated menus, and from auctions to truffle hunt experiences for food-loving travellers visiting the region. They happen all the same, but the truffles you find might be smaller, and prices – which are normally in the thousands of euros per kilo – skyrocket as availability shrinks.
This doesn’t stop people from visiting and having the best time, though. Autumn is the most magical time to see the Langhe region as it becomes a treasure trove of sensorial delights. Many hotels and resorts organise truffle hunts, but there are just as many independent experiences one can choose from. Jumping on an old cranky panda plated CN, weathered and mud-lined tires, one can enjoy something similar to what I did with Mario: a stroll through the woods, taking some pleasure in the natural beauties of this gorgeous part of the world, learning about the local culture, and hopefully finding some white truffles along the way.
Eli was digging. Mario picked up his pace as we followed suit, cutting through the low branches and rushing so as not to miss the moment we had all been waiting for. She dug for a while, frantically at first and then more carefully, before Mario, excavating tool in hand, would gently push her aside and carry on the digging himself.
She was chuffed, rolling in the crunchy foliage in sheer delight at the thought of having accomplished her job. She received a treat and many pets and much praise from all of us. Good job. That was a beautiful little truffle you found, Eli – gnarly and covered in soil, but still fresh enough to give off its deliciously sulphuric scent. Mario put it under my nose so I could appreciate all of its rich, earthy notes.
The tiny thing was inebriating and I was getting very hungry. The walk had lasted over an hour and I had built up an appetite. I couldn’t wait to smell it on my plate at dinner. Food talk dominated the conversation as we walked back to the car, the sun slowly sinking behind the hill. “What’s the best way to eat this?” I asked. “Eggs, or tajarin”, Mario said. “Make sure they are hot enough to help the truffle give off its aroma, but not too hot so as to cook it; you’d ruin it – it’ll taste like a potato, and then what’s the point?”
As chefs all over the region are busy shaving the precious tuber on tailored seasonal menus, locals like Mario prefer to enjoy it at home. I follow his lead and make myself a simple bowl of fresh pasta with butter and parmesan to pair with the treasure I had found that day. A glass of Nebbiolo. What a joy. What a land. What a special time of the year.