Truffle Hunting Is a Sickness

Natale Romagnolo, a fifth-generation trifulau, was only five or six when his father took him on his first truffle hunt. And even after 50 years, the hunt never, ever gets old.

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Mar 1 2017, 7:00pm

The region of Piedmont in northern Italy is home to some of the world's most coveted foodstuffs. The nebbiolo grape grows here—nowhere else in Italy—and produces Barolo, one of the most complex, age-worthy, and sought-after wines in the world. Campari, and the aperitif concept, were born here in the 19th century. Panna cotta (made without gelatine!) hails from Piedmont. There is salsiccia di Bra, raw sausage consumed uncooked from the town that, in the 80s, gave rise to the International Slow Food movement. Nutella was founded here, in Alba, amid vast plantings of hazelnut trees.

In Alba, for four months a year, you'll also find the elusive Alba white truffle, a.k.a. Tuber magnatum Pico, a.k.a. the Hope Diamond of gastronomy, prized by chefs and gastronomes the world over for its sheer rarity and intoxicating perfume. Well, you won't find them. Trifulaus— truffle hunters—find them. Well, technically, their highly trained dogs do.

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Aldo Marrinetto with trusty truffle-hunting dog Bill. All photos by the author.

For the trifulau, eight months of the year are spent waiting for the other four. Come September, on the night of the Harvest Moon, which marks the start of truffle season, the town of Alba stirs into a frenzy. The population of 30,000 grows ten-fold, inflated by an annual truffle fair and an auction held in the basement of a 15th-century castle, both put on by Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d'Alba. Last year was the 86th annual fair and 17th international auction, which I attended and where I watched Chinese restaurateur Zhenxiang Dong pay 100,500 euros for two truffles weighing a total of 2.5 pounds. But it was a hunt, on a sloping hill in Alba, where I learned the truffle represents far more than tradition and elegance.

The car climbed slowly uphill in first gear and rumbled along smooth cobblestones. We rounded a last, tight curve to park. When we did, Natale Romagnolo—the fifth-generation trifulau anticipating our arrival—was standing there with his head down, his eyes fixed on the ground around him. Romagnolo, favouring his left leg with help from a cane in his right hand, stood in khakis and a brown jacket beneath a mocha-coloured felt brigand hat. He looked like Indiana Jones—the Alba truffle his holy grail.

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Romagnolo is retired. He is 68 years old, but each year in September when the harvest moon paints the town in twilight, Romagnolo is infused with a youthful energy that stays with him through the end of January (when the Alba white truffle season ends). This optimism is weightless but tangible, and he shares it with Aldo Marrinetto, the friend and fellow hunter we met with a seven-year-old English Setter named Bill on a steep, leaf-covered clearing between a nebbiolo crop picked of its clusters and a row of tall, naked oaks.

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On the walk to Marrinetto, Romagnolo switched the cane to his left hand and placed his right gently on my arm. "When I was five or six," he said. "My father took me hunting in the dark of night on my birthday, October 1st, so we'd arrive before the other hunters." It was his right of passage he tells me, and he's been hunting twice a day every day during truffle season since. He went on about how truffles have to stay in the ground for the spores to develop: "That's where the aroma is." How truffles only grow at the base of certain trees: poplar, linden, willow, and oak. Why they use dogs (fast, docile, and obedient). How you must pass a test and then pay an annual tax to be a licensed hunter. How there are more than 4,000 trifulaus licensed to hunt. That a good year for wine means a bad year for truffles. He regales me with stories of the biggest truffle he and his dad ever found (320 grams and 850 grams, respectively). And how it's impossible to eat truffles alone. "You must always share," he said.

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Romagnolo spoke with enthusiasm, but not because he knew I was curious. He answered my questions before I asked them, relaying wisdom and generations of history naturally. I began to sense the complexity in the relationship between hunter and truffle when Romagnolo spoke next. "Hunting truffles is not a passion," he said. "It's a sickness."

Bill looked like a pinball the way he darted across the slope. Marrinetto called out "ey Bill" over and over in quick succession and each call sent Bill in a different direction, bouncing this way and that as if off invisible bumpers. The mood at first was casual as Bill assessed his new ground. Both Marrinetto and Romagnolo lumbered along slowly. But then Bill started digging.

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Truffle hunting dogs only dig when there's a truffle. They're trained to know the scent instinctively. When they catch it, excitement tears through them and their front paws go to work in a blur. Each time Bill shoved his nose into a pile of dead leaves, Marrinetto and Romagnolo would stand still and stare, waiting for the sign. No dig, no truffle. Bill, and the hunters, would move on. But the moment Bill's paws went to work, the hunters—old men, senior citizens, grey, retired, grandfathers—dropped their canes and ran as fast as their tired bodies would take them. Not in fear of Bill getting to the truffle first, and eating it, but in response to a childlike naivety—the excitement that hovers above all uncertain expeditions. Nevermind that they have been hunting for 50 years. This is a treasure hunt. X marks the spot.

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Marrinetto brushed at the soil with gloved hands. Romagnolo took handfuls of the dirt and held it up to my nose. The aroma was unmistakable: thick, dizzying, and like nothing I've ever smelled, including the truffles at white tablecloth restaurants where I've paid a premium to have them shaved in front of me. Marrinetto stopped repeatedly to reach into his vest pocket and throw treats, temporarily distracting Bill from what he was born to do.

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Fingers slowly and delicately brushed off loose soil until the smooth yellow surface of the truffle was revealed. That's when Marrinetto reached for his waist and lowered the metal side of his zappino, a sickle-like tool used to unearth truffles, into the ground. Marrinetto buried the blade on the backside of the truffle and, using the zappino like a wedge, pried the truffle loose. No one was breathing but Bill.

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Marrinetto lifted it from the ground and we all happily choked on its scent.