On the truffle trail

On the truffle trail

It is late afternoon one damp November day and the skies are darkening. I am trudging through sticky clay in a small forested area across from a vineyard, wearing boots that are about three sizes too big.

I have come here, somewhere in Barolo in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy, to look for white truffles.

Before setting off, truffle hunter or trifolau Aldo Alessandria, 55, watches as I slip and slide on the muddy ground in my sneakers. He goes to his beat-up truck and pulls out a pair of sturdy rubber boots from the back.

There are little rocks at the bottom of the boots, but it seems churlish to complain, since I have, for reasons still unfathomable, left my galoshes back home.

We set off with Mara, a seven-year-old mongrel who last year led American rapper Jay-Z's truffle hunt.

Today, she seems more interested in pooing than in looking for truffles, and MrAlessandria explains that the rain-soaked ground makes it harder for her to sniff them out.

So we trudge on and on, covering an area full of oak trees. Truffles are known to grow at the roots of oaks, black poplars, willow and hazelnut trees.

Trifolau guard their prime spots jealously and hunt at dusk or dawn, when it is dark and they can go about their business in secret.

With about 10,000 of them operating in the Piedmont region, competition is fierce.

Mr Alessandria points out a spot where he found a 600g truffle last year. He has come back to the same spot numerous times this year - truffles tend to grow in the same places - but has found nothing so far.

He leads Mara to a stretch of ground with a dip in it. It is a prime spot for truffles to grow because rain collects there in late summer, encouraging the spores to grow into truffles.

Still, there is nothing.

After about an hour and several false alarms, where Mara digs enthusiastically into a spot only to abandon it, she seems to be on to something.

It is now completely dark, but Mr Alessandria's torch lights the way.

He takes over the digging from Mara and holds up a fistful of earth, indicating that we should smell it.

My friend and I take turns to do that and it is unmistakable - we smell what we are here for.

A little more digging and there, wedged in the soil is what looks like the top of a button mushroom cap.

Mr Alessandria takes out a sickle-shaped pick and starts to dig around the truffle carefully. Then using his fingers, he twists it ever so gently for what seems like ages before it finally releases from the soil.

"The Viagra of Piedmont!" he exclaims in English.

We are jubilant and Mara gets a small biscuit from one of the pockets in his hunting vest. If she had found a larger one, the treat would have been more substantial.

The prize looks like a xiaolongbao and Mr Alessandria thinks it weighs about 30g. It smells at once sweet, funky and nutty, with whiffs of soil.

He wants to put the treasure into his faded cloth truffle bag, but my friend and I insist on taking turns to hold it, turn it around and just marvel at it.

After all the excitement, he fills the hole with leaves and then soil. Then we have to hightail it out of there before the wild boars come out. Arturo, another of Mr Alessandria's truffle dogs, had been mauled by one recently.

Back at his home, Mara's offspring bark at the sight of strangers. He is training them to be truffle dogs too.

"The nose of the dog is important," he says in Italian through a translator. "When they are young, we let them eat truffle. If they like it, they may become good truffle dogs. If they don't, they will never become truffle dogs."

Those that show potential are trained by trying to sniff out truffles that the trifolau has planted in the ground.

A good truffle dog is valuable, and Mara is worth €5,000 (S$8,560), Mr Alessandria says, not that he is likely to sell her.

Mongrels or tabui make good truffle dogs because they are smart. Other breeds include Lagotto Romagnolo or Italian water dogs, griffons and bloodhounds.

Pigs are good truffle hunters too, but they like to gobble up their finds, making them, well, impractical.

Mr Alessandria knows what he is talking about. He has been at it for 50 years, starting at the age of five with his father Fiorino.

"Back then, we used to find buckets of truffles," he says of the truffle hunts with his late father.

Now, however, pollution and the use of chemical pesticides has drastically reduced the number of truffles to be found, he adds.

Still, this is a good year for truffles because the rains came at the right time in July and August, and there was enough sunshine and rain to activate the spores.

This is why a taste of truffles is easier on the pocket this year. The average price is €2,500 a kilogram compared to €4,000 a kilogram last year.

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