by Jessica Pierce
I have eaten truffles several times this fall. They are served at restaurants all over Piemonte, shaved over pasta, whipped with soft eggs, and even sliced into pumpkin soup.
I love the earthy and nutty flavors that they add to food and I was determined to find and dig one out of the dirt. I heard stories of old guys and their dogs hiking through the woods at dawn to search for buried truffles, and now I was ready to find a truffle of my very own.
My roomie and I met Giuseppe, a local hunter, at Alba’s Medieval Food Fair and we set the date. We arranged to meet the hunters in the village of Valle Talloria. Waiting for us on the tailgate of an antique Fiat 500 were two men wearing tan hunting clothes and green rubber boots. Next to the guys stood Luna, a little white Lagotto Romagnolo bred for truffle hunting. She had a shiny black nose and her once-white paws were caked with brown mud. Her tail was wagging energetically. We followed the old Fiat into the dark woods and parked along the side of a leafless hazelnut grove.
At 6:30 pm this November evening it was already dark. We grabbed flashlights and headed into the woods. Giuseppe was the actual hunter, while his friend Giacomo followed to make sure we didn’t get lost. When we reached somewhere around 300 meters in elevation Giuseppe began to speak to Luna in the Piemontese dialect, and at the sound of his voice she went nuts searching for truffles. He spoke quickly and excitedly to the dog and she scampered around the area with her nose to the ground. Moments later Luna came back, expecting a biscuit and a scratch behind her ears. Giuseppe said if she didn’t smell any truffles, she would quickly come back to him for the treats. He also mentioned he’d been feeding truffles to Luna since she was a puppy and she was a big fan.
Giuseppe continued this exchange of biscuits for her searching through the woods. We reached a small oak grove and he again spoke to Luna in Piemontese. She made her usual lap around the area and suddenly we heard a whimper as fallen leaves began to fly into the air. Giuseppe shouted “Hurray, my beautiful girl, Hurray!” and ran towards her.
Luna’s tiny paws franticly tore into the earth and Giuseppe skidded to a stop next to the dog. He began to speak calmly and gave her a hug. The hug was genuinely loving, but it also stopped Luna from digging into the truffles and tearing them apart. Excitement filled the air—as did the intense smell of truffly earth—and we gathered around the hunters, pointing our flashlights towards small hole in the ground. As Giuseppe excavated the truffle he constantly praised Luna for her find. He used a few small tools to dig out the truffle and at the same time tossed biscuits off to the side, distracting Luna from gobbling her find.
Within a few minutes we had a perfumed black truffle in our hands. This happened three times during the hunt. Luna found two black truffles and then she found one elusive white. She was even more thrilled when she discovered the noticeably more fragrant white truffle; as was I, since it was my turn to pull the truffle from the earth. I tossed a biscuit to Luna and stuck my pick into the ground, digging out my very own 25-gram white truffle. Earlier, when we were initially driving towards the woods, I wondered how the team would keep their truffle spot a secret, but after hunting I realized there was no way we could find anything without the help of Luna and Giuseppe.
Last night I ate a chestnut soup layered with Brussels sprouts and topped with truffles. I thought about Giuseppe and Luna and smiled as I ate. I now have a truffle hunt under my belt and yet another Piemontese experience checked off my list.
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Jess Pierce is currently a student at the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy. Previously, she the General Manager and Sommelier at Ned Ludd, an American Craft Kitchen in PDX. She also worked at Brooks Winery in Amity for the 2010 & 2011 harvests. Jess plans to return to Portland, eventually.