The Ultimate Guide to Truffle Hunting in Alba
Why truffle hunting in Piedmont, Italy?
Truffle hunting in Alba is an informative and fun experience that consist of a walk through the woods of the Langhe hills in the Piedmont region of Italy.
The host is a truffle hunter and its dog.
This guide talks about useful information and myths that travelers need to know before booking the truffle hunting in Alba.
Where do truffles come from?
The white truffle of Alba grows in a large portion of the hills of Piedmont including the provinces of Asti and Alessandria.
The truffle hunting in Alba is actually taking place in a range up to 45-minutes drive from the actual town of Alba.
We cannot stress enough the fact that less and less truffles are found in the immediate surroundings of Alba due to the massive cultivation of vines which has led to a significant reduction (or extinction) of woods.
On the contrary, the hills around the towns of Asti and Alessandria (called Monferrato), as well as the hills north of Alba (called Roero), still offer large and wild woods with decades-old trees.
That’s where the delicate truffle-friendly environment has not been affected yet by agricultural or industrial sprawls.
Depending on availability, Meet Piemonte books the experience in a real truffle woods and provides directions to the meeting place with the hunter.
Is the truffle hunting in Piedmont real or staged?
The full truffle hunting experience is a workout, (a boot camp!) lasting for several hours and taking place in muddy and slippery woods which are not welcoming at all.
Most hunters go out in the darkness of the wee hours, regardless of cold and rain, avoiding to reveal where potential finds might be.
Our trusted truffle hunters though have developed easier routes, nothing grueling but trails set in real truffle woods where usually (but not always) truffles can be found within a reasonable distance.
Those guests willing to try the hunting experience by night come equipped and prepared for it but for the majority of people, understandably, it should be a fun walk in the woods rather than a boot camp!
In case of severe drought or total lack of truffles, it is possible to stage a small black truffle in order to show how the dog finds it: in this case you will be told beforehand that is a simulation. Anyhow, the dog doesn’t know where the truffle sits and it is not easier to find it if the truffle was hidden.
Can I keep truffles found by the truffle hunter?
No! You can buy them directly from the truffle hunter who will weight truffles on a scale with the price of the day.
Why should I pay for a truffle hunt?
Meeting the truffle hunter and the dog is always an highlight itself. Called “tartufai” in Italian and “trifolai” in Piedmontese, they are legendary figures who, in foggy, melancholy autumn weather, hunts for truffles to be sold directly to restaurants, shops or at markets and regional fairs.
Standing there in the wood, seeing with your eyes the alchemy between the man and the dog is just one of the added values of this activity.
On top of that, the hunting can be considered a guided tour in a wood: it is an informative experience filled with curiosities, botanical notions, facts about the ecosystem and much else.
When is the season for the truffle hunting in Alba?
A truffle hunting can be arranged at any time of the year, however, each season has its own truffles.
The season for the white truffle of Alba (botanical name Tuber Magnatum Pico) goes from the end of September until January.
In summertime, the black truffle – called “scorzone” – can be found (botanical name Tuber Aestivum Vitt) but its aroma and taste are not as strong. The experience of truffle hunting with the dog is still rewarding regardless of the season!
Locals know that white truffles of Alba get at their best when the first cold hits the region, so December is actually the best time.
Do not be influenced by the fact that the Truffle Fair in Alba closes its doors before the season of the white truffle is over. Another great advantage of coming to Piedmont in December is that hotels are less priced and it is easier to find availability.
In Piedmont are dogs or pigs used to hunt truffles?
Pigs… well… maybe in the Middle Ages, maybe in France. Hard to imagine a hunter driving his car to the woods with a pig in the trunk.
We probably have to thank pigs and wild boars if human beings discovered that edible tubers were hiding underground.
However, today pigs are not used. Their way of sniffing and plowing the soil with their nose, ruins the delicate ecosystem.
The dog is the star of the hunt: friendly and with a remarkable stamina, the dog runs freely and leash-less. Dogs are familiar with woods explored inch by inch, for years, since the training began. Only dogs that show an exceptionally keen sense of smell are selected for this task.
The hunter tells stories and answer questions always with an eye open on the dog whose pawns can potentially scratch and decrease the value of truffles.
How long does the truffle hunting in Alba lasts?
In the tour Truffle Hunting and Barolo wine tasting, the hunt lasts approximately 60 to 90 minutes.
In the Truffle Hunting from Turin the time spent in the woods of the Langhe-Roero and Monferrato hills of Piedmont, is about the same.
When booking a Truffle hunting with food tasting in the wood, the whole experience lasts at least 2 hours and longer.
Is the truffle hunting an active experience?
Participants are called to help the hunter in the primitive gestures of taking out the truffle from the soil. That is a delicate operation to be accomplished with no other tool but fingers, feeling the presence of bumps in the ground.
Sometimes smelling the dirt is required to make sure that the nose of the dog did not get misled.
Are rubber boots available?
In winter and autumn the wood can be slippery and muddy while in springtime and summer can be dusty with bugs, weeds and bush.
Meet Piemonte can provide a limited number of rubber boots, to be requested at time of booking. An extra pair of socks is recommended.
Alternatively, trekking boots are suggested.
What is a truffle?
Tartufo, Italian for truffle, comes from vulgar Latin tufera, which origins from tuber, meaning hump, knob and tumor!
Truffle is the common name for several species of underground fungi, therefore do not think of porcini mushrooms but more of a potato.
Spores are generated in a structure similar to a grape, called ascocarp. It doesn’t produce seeds nor flowers nor does it have roots, stems or leaves. On the contrary, it exists thanks to the symbiotic relationship it establishes with the roots of certain trees.
Oak, willow, poplar and linden are the four main types of trees needed for the white truffle of Alba to grow.
A complex and efficient system of exchange of water, mineral salts and other essential nourishment explains the relationship between the truffle and the tree’s roots.
The French black truffle
The most famous black truffle is called Tuber Melanosporum Vitt and it can be found in Piedmont as well as in Umbria (the town of Norcia is famous for that!) and somewhere in France.
It has an ebony surface, mostly smooth, while the dark (sometimes purple) flesh is marbled with white veins. It grows in the same period of the white truffle.
The summer black truffle
Tuber Aestivum, known as “scorzone” (from scorza, thick skin or zest) is the summer truffle, the least precious type, wrinkled and dark on the outside, lightly colored – sometimes white – on the inside.
Its smell and flavor is nothing compared to the white truffle but it’s still a joy to find these black ones on a sunny hot summer morning. They release their best aroma when shaved and seasoned with salt and olive oil on a local cow or goat cheese or, even better, cooked for a few minutes.
The white truffle of Alba
Tuber Magnatum Pico is the botanical name for the White truffle of Alba, the king of all truffles (and certainly the most expensive one).
Its season goes from end of September until January and its creamy-beige color contrasts with the white-ish veins in its flesh.
Despite the common belief proudly held by local hunters of Alba that the best white truffle comes only from their area, the truth is that the entire south of the Piedmont region of Italy is also well-known for the same truffle.
It is accurate to say that the soil composition changes from hill to hill and within a few miles their geological age differs of million of years.
Therefore, the compact clay soil of the Langhe hills (near Alba) represents an obstacle for the growing process, making the truffle generally more bumpy and irregularly shaped; sandy and softer soil of Roero and Monferrato hill districts give birth to a more regularly shaped truffle.
Is it possible to cultivate truffles?
One of the reasons why finding truffles is so rewarding is that they cannot be cultivated.Experiments and studies have been undergoing for a while without effective results.
For black truffles a cultivation system has been developed with more reliable outcomes.
Primitive techniques of truffle hunters and the secret tips learnt from their grandfathers still remain indispensable and are probably the most fascinating aspects about finding any truffle. So that explains the high price!
The price of white truffles, how to buy them
Photo by Andrea Cairone; Gabriele Ferrero