Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Truffle Hunter and his Dog



Castello di Grinzane Cavour, photo taken ten days before the World Alba Truffle Auction takes place here.
 It is a charity auction which last year raised over 230,000 Euros
"Bastardo!" The truffle hunter mutters it ever so softly, but I still hear it. I am practically perched on his shoulder as he sits hunched over the hole his dog Luna just dug. "What's the matter?" I ask, nose on a par with his, close to the ground. "I break it," he looks a little upset. I peer in the dirt that is the hole. I see roots, some of which have been scratched and broken by Luna. I peer some more, as Beppe points with his dirt-gray finger. And there, I see it. The brownish marbled inside of a truffle, its top scratched off. It is a black truffle. Getting the truffle out is a painstaking job. First you have to find out how big it is by gently brushing away the dirt with your finger, and then you carefully free it from the thick clay and jumble of roots hiding it. Once you've cleared the truffle as much you can with your hands, you can start to lift it from the clay with a small pickaxe. Fortunately, the truffle isn't gonna go anywhere, and you can take your time unearthing it. When it's dark, however, you also need to keep an eye out for wild boar that roam these woods at night.


the walk back to the car,
Grinzane Cavour Castle right in the distance
We are in the woods with Beppe the Truffle Hunter and his dog Luna, not far from Grinzane Cavour Castle on a gloriously beautiful Autumn day. We can see the castle across the fields in the distance. Luna is a Lagotto dog, an Italian breed of gun dogs often used for truffle hunting. As Luna crisscrosses the wood with her nose close to the ground, Beppe keeps calling out to her, never losing contact. We try to keep up with the energetic dog as best we can, avoiding the low-hanging branches and twigs, and slipping on the leaf-covered, muddy underground. 

"Hurry, hurry, Luna found something." We rush to the digging dog. There is a strong truffle smell emanating from the dirt that Luna kicks up. "White truffle," Beppe says, looking happy. It is the scent of the earth that gives it away. The scent of white truffle is so much more intense than that of black truffle. He hands me a piece of dirt. I sniff it, and even lick it. The dirt smells good enough to eat (but, spitting the dirt from my mouth, really it isn't). Beppe tries to pry Luna away from the hole with a treat. "It is her hole, so it is very important not to take it from her." The treats do the trick. She leaves the hole, Beppe carefully digs with his fingers, Luna comes back, sits on the hole, dog and hunter cuddle. It is a ritual that is repeated many times over before the truffle is unearthed. The truffle found is about 20 grams. Luna is rewarded with some more treats and endless loving hugs. Beppe covers the hole well. Chances are a new truffle will grow here this season, and he doesn't want anybody else to find it.
the black truffle (r) and white truffle (l) we found
Truffle dogs are trained from 3 months old. They get started on little bits of truffle to learn the taste and smell. Next, they practice finding little truffles buried in the garden, until they're ready for the real hunt. "Our" truffle hunter learned the trade from his father, and raised Luna from puppy.

Many attempts have been made to describe the scent of truffle. It is an enigmatic and complex aroma, with "notes of wet earth, hay, fermented honey, funghi, garlic, spices, and even ammonia", as described by those that live and breathe the Alba White Truffle. Hovering so close to the forest floor, with its autumn smells of dried berries, crushed acorn, tree bark, and fallen leaves, and wet dog stirring up dark chalky clay enriched with an incredible fungal aroma, I was thinking: all this yes, and then some. Nothing compares to the intoxicatingly unique scent of the tuber magnatum pico.

the truffle hunter has to allow his dog to "protect" its find.
You can see the truffle hunter's finger prodding around the truffle as the dog hovers over it.
truffle hunting: a labour of love between dog and hunter
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9 comments:

  1. Emerald green! Exquisite account. I'm there with you licking the dirt!

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  2. I could live there, and I know so could you! Raymond didn't want to come home either: he wanted to stay and help rake the fermented must into the press.

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  3. Francine, I'm loving the posts that you are writing as you journey through a landscape that is so alien to the Dubai landscape that I've gotten used to. Enriched at the cost of your experience, thanks Francine!

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    1. I love that you love reading them Ishita. It was a very enriching trip to Piedmont, not in the least because of the dedicated, food passionate people I met. It's the part of being food blogger that I know you as well love the best!

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  4. Very descriptive writing! Totally in love with this story. It shows your diversity as a writer and it is rather impressive! I hear some people use pigs to hunt as well. Great trek... thanks for sharing!

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    1. Thanks for that lovely, lovely compliment!
      I think they used to use pigs - from what I understand, the problem with pigs is, that they listen less well, and tend to eat the truffle before you get your hands on it. And when I think how Lula sat crammed in the back of the trifolau's Renault 4TL: it is a lot easier to get a dog in the back of your car, than a pig!

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  5. You have a beautifully written and illustrated blog. It's interesting to read your perspective of "culinary" life in the Middle East. Thanks.

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  6. What an experience! I loved this post! Would love to do this some time!

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