My morning started out like it always does: Two Italian coffees (I don’t even drink coffee, but am somehow talked into two cups every morning by Rossella, the proprietress of my bed and breakfast, Il Quercin in Castelnuovo Calcea), a couple cornettos with bread and homemade jam, and yoghurt made by Carlo, the B&B’s proprietor.
But this morning was different because after we fed the donkey (yes, Carlo and Rossella have a donkey!), Carlo took me to go truffle hunting with Beppe, his lady friend, and their truffle hunting dog.
As we drove, Carlo explained that most truffle hunters search for truffles on public land, but Beppe owns a section of woods, allowing him privacy while hunting: Both a luxury and a necessity in this sport. And it is a sport.
The woods are steep, and as we meet up with Beppe he gives me a look up and down to make sure I have the proper clothes. It’s humid in the woods, there are plenty of mosquitos, and proper footwear is a must. Beppe introduces me to his dog, a two year old female hunting dog, and although she has been trained to sniff out truffles, she acts just like any other dog: she aimlessly runs around, doesn’t always come when called, wants to jump all over you, and is easily distracted.
Within one minute of starting our hunt, however, she beelines to a spot not too far away and begins to dig. Beppe calls her back, the woman doling out a treat while Beppe hobbles forward with his cane to the spot she’s marked. For an older couple, Beppe and his lady friend are incredibly agile, him dropping to his knees and digging into the marked area vigorously, calling the dog back to dig deeper, and eventually hitting gourmet gold: two truffles totaling the size of my palm.
They hand me the truffles to smell, and they are beautifully aromatic. In fact, the whole woods smells of truffles: nutty, earthy, and slightly sulfurous.
We move along, Beppe shouting what sounds like, “il itaire,” at the dog. When I ask Carlo what he is saying, he shrugs, “They are speaking the language of Vinchio (the neighboring municipality of Calstenuovo Calcea in Asti), and I do not understand it.”
We climb the steep hills of the woods carefully, every now and then the dog stops to dig and the process starts over. Beppe drops to his knees, takes a handful of dirt from the ground to smell it and mutter something I cannot understand. Sometimes, Carlo explains, since the dog knows she will receive a treat if she digs, she does so even if there are no truffles to be had.
After we found our fourth truffle in less than 45 minutes, Beppe declares that I am good luck.
As we end our hunt, Carlo tells me that I am lucky for the experience: truffle hunting is so competitive, it is rare Beppe allows anyone to travel with him. He also notes that most truffle hunting happens after dark so that the trifolau (truffle hunters) can work secretly, and because truffles supposedly smell stronger at night, making it easier for the dogs to find them.
“It is strange,” Carlo says, “but very interesting.”
QUICK NOTE: Since tortufi lose their aroma and flavour very quickly, it is smart to consume them quickly. Don't wait! I'll be picking up a truffle before I leave for Chicago, but, as per Carlo's advice, did not want to take one home from our hunt!
VIDEO OF THE FIRST TRUFFLES WE FOUND: