The Hunt for White October

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It was a clear, crisp October morning when we gathered in Alba's Piazza Savona. "We" were 5 American gastronomes ready to embark on one of Piedmont's most sacred yet secret rituals: the hunt for white truffles. We boarded a small van and headed into the countryside. Our destination was a muddy spot on the side of a narrow road in the heart of Le Langhe, as the hills around Alba are known. Beside the road we met Aldo, a seventy-something trifolau, and his dog Bianca.

A trifolau is a professional truffle hunter who roams the hills around Alba from August to January, gathering the highly prized and very costly white truffles which grow underground beneath certain oak trees. Food connoisseurs come from all over Italy and the world every fall to partake of the peculiar tubers, so a few trifolau like Aldo scour the woods with their canine associates and then carry their prizes to the truffle market in Alba. From the market in Alba, they make their way to the world's finest restaurants, and into special products such as truffle-scented olive oil.

Although Aldo is well on in years, we five middle-aged Americans had trouble keeping up with him as he pushed through dense underbrush, ankle-deep in mud. Bianca led the way, dashing over hill and dale as Aldo shouted commands in the Albanese dialect. Soon we were deep in woods so dense it seemed the sun had disappeared. The terrain became more rugged and we felt as though we were always headed straight up or down.

About an hour into our run, Aldo shouted to us that Bianca had stopped running and started digging. Aldo caught up with her and joined in the digging with both his hand and walking stick. Seconds later, he lifted a large, muddy clump above his head. Bianca had found the prize: a white truffle of excellent size and shape.

Our morning with Aldo continued as it began, with the Americans constantly out of breath, Bianca leading the way to more truffles. The expedition was quite successful, yielding 6 good truffles with a wholesale market value of about $700. But despite our joy, Aldo preferred to keep matters to himself. When we encountered two other trifolau and their dogs in a clearing, Aldo quickly told us to say we had had a bad morning and found nothing. Clearly, he didn't want his competitors to discover his favorite hunting grounds.

The rigors of an actual truffle hunt are not for everyone and in fact are rarely witnessed by outsiders. Fortunately, there are many less strenuous and more accessible ways to sample the gastronomic joy of the white truffle.

I first fell in love with white truffles at a dinner at Valentino Ristorante in Los Angeles. Owner Piero Selvaggio arranged a dinner in honor of the wines of Pio Cesarem, one of the leading houses of Piemonte (the region where Italy's most famous red wines are produced). The owner of the winery brought with him fresh white truffles, which Piero incorporated into a lavish menu. Other restaurants in this country obtain truffles during the season, but few handle them with more skill or creativity than Valentino.

Truffles are best enjoyed, however, when eaten in Piemonte. The opportunities to partake are numerous. During the season, every restaurant will have truffles on the menu. My choice of best restaurant is Il Vicoletto in Alba. Located on a quiet side street, it is the product of Ilvia Bonino and Bruno Boggione, a husband-and-wife team of extraordinary talent. The shy Ilvia runs the kitchen, while gregarious Bruno runs the dining room and oversees the wine cellar. Special dishes from Ilvia's kitchen include Jerusalem artichoke flan, roast squab with truffles and parmigiano, and torrone semifreddo with chocolate sauce. Bruno's wine list is top-notch and reasonably priced. The dining room is simple but warm and elegant.

Alba offers lots of options for taking home the truffle experience. Shops lining the main street carry not only truffle olive oil but also truffle puree (necessary for truffle risotto, among other things), truffle mayonnaise, whole truffles, truffle pasta and many other items. The wholesale truffle market is also open to the public during the annual truffle festival in October, when you can view award-winning truffles or buy directly from the wholesalers. For the best selection of wines and grappas of the region to accompany your truffle purchases, head for Il Crutin, just off the main street near the Piazza Savona. And one final stop in Alba is the Sacco Pasticceria, which offers hand-made chocolate truffles in both dark and light varieties. The chocolate truffles are flavored with the world's finest hazelnuts, grown locally. Delicious hazelnut cakes made according to the local traditional recipe are also available.

Alba does not offer much in the way of interesting hotels, but there are many countryside inns and wineries that are loaded with charm. Click here for a selection of our favorites. Those with thicker wallets will want to slim them down at Locanda del Sant'Uffizio in Cioccaro di Penango, a farming village half an hour north of Alba by car. A family-run operation, the inn is located in a former Benedictine monastery to which several new wings have been added. The restaurant serves exceptional piemontese cuisine, with particular emphasis on truffles when in season. Locanda del Sant'Uffizio: 14030 Cioccaro di Penango; tel. 011-39-0141-916292, click here for their website. Room rates are: Expensive.

by Sims Brannon

Truffle Festival Hotlines
Alba: 0173/362-807
Asti: 0141/399-482, 399-399
Canelli: 0141/823-685, 820-111
Moncalvo: 0141/917-505
Mondovì: 0174/559-263, 559-256
Montechiaro d'Asti: 0141/999-136
Murisengo: 0141/993-041

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