Buried treasure

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Alba’s white truffles are one of the most expensive foods around – second only to gold leaf. We visit the biggest truffle fair in the world to find out why.

The vineyards of Langhe-Roero and Monferrato in Piedmont are renowned the world over for their food, wine, and lush landscape. So beautiful are these rolling hills in the north-west of Italy that they are the first vineyards to achieve UNESCO World Heritage status. And, hidden among the roots of the hazelnut and oak trees that cover the hills are another of the region’s prizes: white truffles – the rarest and most expensive of the 300-plus species of truffle found around the world.

Together with the black truffles from the Périgord region in southern France, Italian white truffles represent an industry worth roughly US$40 million (NOK332m). The annual truffle season lasts just four months, from early September to early January, and during its peak in October to November, 500,000 truffle-mad epicurians descend upon the small Piedmontese city Alba for the Fiera del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba, the world’s biggest truffle fair.

Surprisingly, white truffles have very little taste. Rather, it’s all in the aroma – which has been described as “conjuring up images of a locker room” by the head chef of upmarket New York restaurant Butter, Alex Guarnaschelli, and “old socks and sex” by Gareth Renowden, author of The Truffle Book.
Amusing comparisons aside, truffles are a serious business, and they fetch astronomical prices – anywhere from €400 to €2,000 (NOK18,500) a kilogramme for the more common black truffles and from €1,800 to over €200,000 per kilogramme for Alba’s white truffles. It’s equally indisputable, however, that there’s an allure to the knobbly delicacy that few other foods evoke.

“This is truffle season/Tom Ford tuxedos for no reason,” raps Jay Z in Justin Timberlake’s 2013 hit Suit & Tie. And it’s a lyric that sums up the popular notion that truffles are a luxurious folly reserved for the rich and famous. Jay Z himself made headlines the previous year, when he dropped €15,000 (NOK139,000) on 3kg of truffles at Alba’s Truffle Fair, and each year chefs, celebrities, and business moguls compete to buy the season’s biggest truffles at auction. Chefs have even been known to smuggle the pungent tubers through airport customs in jars of Nutella. So, what’s all the fuss about?

The hunt

Truffles are notoriously difficult to find, and truffle hunters are fiercely protective of their secrets.

Gianni Monchiero is one of around 4,000 officially licensed trifolau (truffle hunters) in the region, and has been a truffle hunter for as long as he can remember, as were all the men in his family. He often goes by the sobriquet “Barot IV”, a reference to the traditional cane wielded by hunters, and the fact that he is a fourth generation trifolau. In 1880, his great-grandfather even founded the world’s first university for truffle dogs, the Università
dei Cani da Tartufo, which is still run by Monchiero and his family.

Every morning during the truffle season, he sets off into the hazelnut groves with his 10-year-old truffle dog Lilla at 3am. They then walk up to 30km in search of truffles. “The humidity makes the smell of the truffle come to the surface in the early morning,” he says. “The earlier you start, the bigger your
advantage.” When Lilla sniffs out a truffle, Monchiero carefully starts to dig around the base of the tree using a small trowel, and wraps his spoils in a large, traditional sapin handkerchief before secreting them in his many-pocketed jacket.

A good truffle dog, says Monchiero, is priceless. “My friend was offered a blank cheque for his truffle dog. Of course, he refused – a good dog takes three years to properly train, and is most important. I would never sell Lilla.” And, with good reason – several years ago, she found Monchiero a huge, 400g truffle. So valuable are truffle dogs, that there have even been reports of poisoning and kidnappings – probably by the same disreputable hunters who have been known to build broken truffles together using toothpicks, or to fill cracks using dirt.

“Truffle hunters are very competitive,” says Monchiero. “We try not to cross paths and keep the best locations top secret.”

The trade

The fame of Alba’s white truffles can be attributed to Giacomo Morra – and Marilyn Monroe.

Prior to 1930, few people outside Italy had heard of Alba’s white truffles. That all changed, however, when local hotelier and restaurateur Giacomo Morra founded Tartufi Morra, the first company to commercially process and market the white truffle. Wanting to create an aura of desirability around his product, he sent the best truffles found each season to the world’s biggest celebrities – from Marilyn Monroe and Alfred Hitchcock to US Presidents Eisenhower and John F Kennedy. So impressed was Monroe with her truffle, that she sent Morra a thank-you letter.

“My darling Mr Morra,” she wrote, “I have never tasted anything so tasty and exciting.” Morra responded by inviting her to become “patroness of truffles”, and her husband, Joe DiMaggio, bought one of the region’s best truffle dogs. “Morra was a marketing genius,” says Alessandro Bonino, who now owns Tartufi Morra with his brother, Gianmaria, and sister, Pasqualina. “It’s one of the reasons our truffles are so famous – we have both the best quality and the best marketing.”

Around 100 trifolau supply Tartufi Morra with its stock, and the flagship shop on Alba’s Piazza Pertinace is a heady trove of fresh truffles, preserves, and aroma-infused pastas, honey and chocolate. “We have a gentleman’s agreement,” says Bonino. “When the fridge is full we continue to buy. Then, when supply is low, the hunters will come to us first.”

Today, more than 70 per cent of Tartufi Morra’s business is in exporting truffles abroad, and – continuing Morra’s tradition – often to celebrities. “We have a lot of VIP clients, but we never talk about them as we respect their privacy,” says Bonino. “I can say that Jay Z is a customer, but I can’t tell you what he bought.”

The show

Fiera del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba was founded in 1929 and is the world’s largest truffle fair.

Getting into the market of the Fiera del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba is no easy feat, with a truffle-crazy crowd lining up from early morning, eager to see what the hunters have dug up overnight. Fight your way through the crowd, however, and you’ll find yourself in a truffle-lover’s paradise. There are 100 exhibitors,
showcasing everything from fresh truffles to truffle-infused cheese and salumi, a casual restaurant where chefs happily shave visitors’ freshly bought truffles over bowls of golden tagliatelle and plates of fried eggs, chef showcases, and masterclasses in truffle grading and wine tasting. Rather strangely, the month-long extravaganza launches each year with the Palio degli Asini – a traditional donkey race and medieval parade in the city centre.

The fair itself starts at 8am, when a team of highly qualified judges – led by head of quality control Paolo Stacchini – reviews and grades every truffle to be sold at the market that day. Testament to the quality of truffles found in Alba, only around two per cent are rejected for sale.

“You don’t buy a truffle for its nutritional value,” says Stacchini. “You buy it purely for its aroma.” And, to a nose like Stacchini’s, every truffle smells completely different, its olfactory fingerprint comprising over 900 individual elements. It’s these isolated scents that food scientists reproduce chemically to create the “truffle aroma” that gives the plethora of truffle oils, butters, salts, and pastas their intoxicating – yet wholly artificial, says Stacchini – scent. When grading a truffle Stacchini looks at type, size and quality, which is judged on 15 characteristics, including appearance, intensity, and the rather subjective quality of charm.

Stacchini’s top tip for bagging a bargain at the market? “It’s best to buy at 7pm on Sunday. They don’t sell truffles at the beginning of the week, so the price will drop.”

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