While Americans are getting in the Halloween spirit and Mexicans are preparing for spirits of their own on the Day of the Dead, Alba Italy is also gearing up for a celebration of something dark and mysterious. Truffles.
These unprepossessing little dirt-colored nuggets grow underground in the oak forests of the surrounding Langhe Hills, in northern Italy’s Piemonte region. Unlike the more common black truffle rooted out by pigs in France and elsewhere, the white truffle is creamy white under its dark skin. And its intense flavor and haunting aroma is coveted by chefs. These truffles — Tuber magnatum pico — are prized so highly that the warty little funghi are known as white diamonds.
For good reason – the going price is about $3500 a pound. While a few ounces of thumb-sized white truffles would stock the wine cellar with the local Barolo, real money comes with the exceedingly rare big truffle. Price records were shattered by the 2007 auction of a 3.3-pound white truffle: the final selling price was $330,000.
As you might guess, finding these is not all that easy. They are rare and their habits a mystery to all but a few trifolai, whose highly trained dogs roam the woods with them to sniff out the prizes. And even when they know all the white truffle’s secrets, a truffle hunter will be delighted to return from a foraging trip with only a small bag of them.The best season for truffle hunting is autumn and winter, and in late October and early November the world’s chefs and their agents congregate in the Medieval town of Alba for the annual Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco D’Alba, the International White Truffle Fair. Each Saturday and Sunday the tent in the arcaded Cortile della Maddalena opens to reveal a world of flavors and aromas dominated by the intense heady fragrance of truffles.
The fair is not just for serious buyers; a lot of food-lovers like me are busy inhaling, too. At the price of truffles, I figure that a few truffly sniffs is worth the cost of admission. I’m there early, just after the tent opens, and I make my way past rows of regional food producers displaying the Piemonte’s best, which many think are also the best of Italy. Cheesemakers offer me samples of Gorgonzola, vying with burly butchers coaxing me to take thin slivers of salami and prosciutto from nearby Bra, famous for its cured meats.
A rosy-cheeked farmer proffers generous chunks of tangy Piedmont mountain Toma. Tempting me at the neighboring booth are samples of hazelnut cake from Cortemilia and fat Piedmont hazelnuts, roasted and cemented into rich, dark chocolate.
I munch my way past these, and around the central market of studiedly rusticated trifolai with their little stacks of unimpressive-looking – but highly prized – white truffles, making deals with the chefs and traders anxious to buy them.
At the back of the tent, people stand around tables, savoring dishes of fried eggs. I join a short line and wait for my own, watching the black-coated truffle slicer, his hands hovering in a blur of motion above each plate as he shaves a layer of precious white truffles over the still-sizzling eggs. My ambrosial eggs are accompanied by a glass of Barolo, the Piedmont’s signature wine. This is my idea of breakfast.