Truffle hunting: what to know
Truffles, arguably considered by food lovers and chefs one of the most treasured culinary delights, are anything but easy to find.
Truffle hunting is one of the most popular activities but still quite mysterious and many guests are often misled by incorrect information or false beliefs. Find out more with these following eleven frequently asked questions… plus one!
1 – Where the hunt does take place?
The white truffle of Alba grows in a large portion of the hills of Piedmont including the provinces of Asti and Alessandria, up to 45 minutes drive from 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 grapes (wine making) which has led to a significant reduction (or extinction) of woods.
On the contrary, the hills around and south of Asti (called Monferrato) as well as the hills north of Alba (called Roero) still offer larger wilder woods with older trees, where the delicate environment needed for truffles to grow has not been affected yet by agricultural or industrial sprawls.
Depending on availability, we will book your truffle hunt in one of the real truffle woods and we will inform you of the exact location.
2 – Is the hunt real or simulated?
The full truffle hunt 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 selected truffle hunters though, having enough time to engage with our guests during the day hours, have studied easier routes, nothing grueling but 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!
3 – Can I keep truffles that we find?
NO! You can buy them directly from the truffle hunter who will weight truffles on a scale with the price of the day.
4 – 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 hunt can be considered a guided tour in a wood: it is an informative experience filled with curiosities, botanical notions, facts about the environment needed for the truffle to grow and much else.
5 – When the hunt can be done?
First of all, let’s clarify that a truffle hunt can be organized at any time of the year. Said that, each season has its own truffles: the white truffle of Alba, for example, can be found from the end of September until January only.
In summertime can be found the least precious type among the black truffle family, called “scorzone”.
The smell and taste of black summer truffles is far from the white one but the experience of seeing the dog running around and learning secrets from the hunter is rewarding regardless of the season!
Locals know that white truffles get at their best when the first cold hits the region, so if you come and eat them, December is the best time regardless of the International Truffle Fair of Alba being already over. Another great advantage of coming in December is that hotels are less priced and it is easier to find availability.
Otherwise the region is simply beautiful from March on, including summer!
6 – Dogs or pigs?
Pigs… well… no thank you! 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 which revealed to human beings 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 environment.
The dog is the star of the hunt: friendly and with a remarkable stamina, he runs freely leashless around familiar woods explored inch by inch, for years, since the training began when he was still a poppy. Only animals that show an exceptionally keen sense of smell are selected for this task. As we listen to the stories of the hunter and we ask him questions, we must keep an eye on the dog who will start digging with its paws and snout as soon as the truffle smell is identified. At that point the hunter runs ahead and stop the dog avoiding the excitement of the animal to scratch the truffle, whose value would decrease instantly.
7 – What is a truffle?
When we say “fungus” do not think of porcini mushrooms but more of a potato. 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 hypogenous fungi which reproduce by spores 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: 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. 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.
8 – Black or white?
The most famous black truffle is called Tuber Melanosporum Vitt and can be found here in Piemonte 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.
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.
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 province of Asti and the hills located north of Alba are also well-known for the same truffle. On the one hand, it is accurate to say that the soil composition changes from hill to hill and within a few miles their geological age differs of millions of years. On the other hand, we can assure you that even in the eastern countryside of Alessandria, about 30 miles from Alba, one can find great white truffles. The main difference between these different areas stands in the shape of the truffle: the compact clay soil of the Langhe hills (near Alba) represents an obstacle for the truffle which has to push harder to grow, coming out bumpy and irregularly shaped; on the contrary sandy and softer soil of Roero and Monferrato hill districts give birth to a more regularly shaped truffle.
9 – Are truffles cultivated? Why are they so expensive?
Two questions and one answer: one of the reasons why finding white truffles is so rewarding is that they cannot be cultivated. For black ones a cultivation system has been developed.
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!
10 – Will I be involved in the hunting process?
Participants are called to help the hunter taking out the truffle from the soil: a delicate operation to be accomplished with no other tool but fingers, feeling any bump in the ground. Sometimes smelling the dirt is required to make sure the dog did not get confused by the smell of other animals.
11 – Can I borrow rubber boots?
We recommend to come prepared for a truffle hunt, possibly with trekking boots or appropriate footwear. In winter and autumn the wood can be slippery and muddy while in springtime and summer can be dusty with insects and high grass or bushes.
A limited number of rubber boots can be borrowed by most of our truffle hunters. Please tell us your shoe size even if the boot will hardly be a perfect fit. We suggest to bring an extra pair of socks.
12 – Last but not least: do chocolate truffles grow on trees?
Don’t laugh, this was actually asked before. With the term “truffle” we refer to the hypogenous fungus which grows underground (see above) and not to chocolate truffles which were invented to look like the fungus.
Main truffle fairs in Piemonte
So if you’re thinking of an autumn trip to Italy we encourage you to stop in Piemonte and that’s when you’ll be able to attend one of the many truffle festivals or fairs or events available.
From the first weekend of October to the last weekend of November: Alba International White Truffle Fair (weekends only!).
- 1st and 2nd Sunday of October: Montiglio Monferrato (AT) regional fair;
- 2nd Sunday of October: Bergamasco (AL) regional fair; Odalengo Piccolo (AL) regional fair;
- 3rd and 4th Sunday of October: Moncalvo (AT) national fair;
- 4th Sunday of October: Incisa Scapaccino (AT) regional fair; Trisobbio (AL) regional fair;
- 1st Sunday of November: Montechiaro d’Asti national fair; San Damiano d’Asti regional fair; Canelli regional fair; Rivalba (TO) national fair;
- 2nd and 3rd Sunday of November: Murisengo (AL) white truffle national fair;
- 3rd weekend of November: Asti regional fair
- 3rd and 4th Sunday of November: San Sebastiano Curone (AL) national fair;
- 4th Sunday of November: Castelnuovo Don Bosco (AT) regional fair;
- Last week of November: Vezza d’Alba regional fair of White Truffle and Roero wines; Acqui Terme (AL) regional fair.