Johnny is young and restless, but he loves the outdoors and long walks in the woods. As soon as he gets off the car, he takes the least beaten path and enters the forest as if he had lived there forever. Yet, Johnny is only three years old and he is a beautiful lagotto dog, the preferred breed for truffle hunting in Piedmont. He was trained by his trufolao Luigi since he was a puppy, raised to know that every truffle he finds would get him Luigi’s affection and a small treat.
At this time of the year, the soil is often wet with the occasional rainfall, filled with the natural smell of wet grass. We walk down a small path of gravels and soon get lost in the woods. But Johnny knows where to search: he is guided by the unique smell of truffle and motivated by his owner with short sentences in the local dialect and indications given with his long walking stick. A unique relationship develops between the two, almost a symbiosis: the dog provides the trufolao with his impressive sense of smell and in turn he gets the love and shelter provided by his owner. As we keep walking, I start thinking this is the perfect match to the symbiotic relationship that truffles have with the roots of some tree species, like beech, poplar, oak, birch and hazel: truffles are hidden under ground and grow around the roots of these trees. So it can take a few minutes or a much longer time, but inevitably I hear “Dai, Johnny, ai suma” (“go Johnny, we got it”): this is when I know the inseparable couple has found something. Under the roots of a large tree, the dog starts digging the dirt and after a few seconds Luigi takes over with his special small tool, paying attention to extract the white truffle without damaging the roots of the tree or the ground, so that the miracle of this land will be able to repeat itself the following year. Johnny wags his tail and runs around his owner; Luigi then takes out a small treat from his pocket and hands it to the dog. It is a moment of excitement, as Luigi shows us the little gold of this land, before carefully wrapping into paper and putting safely into a container to preserve it and avoid that the dog keeps smelling the same truffle.
In an hour we find three small white truffles and a number of black ones, thanks to the extensive experience and know-how of Luigi and the wet nose and keen sense of smell of Johnny. Black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) are easier to find as they can be grown under special kind of trees planting spores under their roots in the spring: some will start maturing in the summer, hence the name “summer truffles”, but will continue to be found in the fall and winter. White truffles (Tuber magnatum) cannot be cultivated, cannot be conserved for over a week or two, and can only be found in the fall and winter times. They have a stronger and distinctive smell and taste that will turn any dish into a unique delicacy. You can find white truffles at the local truffle market of Alba (Fiera del Tartufo), which happens every year in this season, but remember that marks only the start of the truffle season and sets the price for truffle depending on supply and demand. Every local would tell you the best time for truffle is a bit later, in November and up to December, when the weather is a bit colder, but there is a better selection of the whi
te truffle of Alba in most restaurants.
You can also get great spreads and olive oil with truffle (black and white) to take home with you, but most of them use synthetic flavors and do not even contain real truffle as an ingredient. So it is worth buying them from a respected seller, like TartufLanghe, or from a local shop like Tartufo D’Oro, owned by Luigi and his wife. Every time we go to Langhe we stop at one of these sellers, or if you really do not have time to venture out of Alba, a few shops on the main street definitely have a good selection, but you may end up paying a bit more.
The best marriage from local traditions is with hand-made tagliolini or risotto, with thin slices of meat or even with eggs or with the local castelmagno cheese. The best chefs now call it the “gold” or the “diamond” of the kitchen. Like Johnny, we almost feel wagging our tails every time we set our feet in one of the restaurants we love so much around Alba and start smelling the amazing white truffle: at this time of the year we just can’t wait for the unique taste to be shared with the best local wines, in the company of good friends.