Save Piedmont's Endangered Species
By Per-Henrik Mansson, European senior editor
Next time you enjoy the intoxicating aromas of white truffle, Piedmont's expensive and rare delicacy, you may think of the murder of Lilly, the poisoning of Rocky or the deaths of the score of other truffle dogs that regularly perish in suspicious circumstances each truffle season.
The truffle hunt that takes place each fall in northwestern Italy's scenic wine-growing area has become a brutal business. It's also become big business. Once a pleasurable pastime for a few vineyard growers and farm workers in Piedmont, truffle hunting now has hordes of "cacciatori," or hunters, looking to make serious money from the ugly, potato-shaped gastronomic rarity.
Free-market entrepreneurship motivates them all to get out of bed in the middle of night to endure the fog, rain, frost, sleet and snow common during Piedmont's truffle season, from September into December. Truffle hunting is best done at night, when the dogs can concentrate on sniffing out the distinctive-smelling truffles without diurnal noises and distractions.
Prices have reached stratospheric levels as clients all over the world clamor for the elixir that is white truffle. Formally known as "Tuber magnatum," it's best enjoyed by slicing a blanket of slivers on top of pasta, risotto or eggs sunny-side up--the favorite style of many truffle hunters. When eaten this way, a top-notch white truffle--either "super-extra" or "extra-grade"--will rise from the dish like a genie to release its pungent, earthy, almost primordial and downright aphrodisiac aromas.
The dog killing mirrors the tense rivalry among the growing ranks of the "trifolai," or truffle hunters. The nuggets now command $800 a pound on the truffle market in Alba, held throughout the hunting season. Not bad as extra--often net--income for a farm worker or retiree.
The truffle grounds may not have turned into killing grounds for dogs if an increased truffle crop had been able to absorb the increased flock of harvesters. But just the opposite is happening.
An environmental catastrophe threatens Piedmont's white truffle with extinction. And it's time something is done about it.
We could start with a "Save Piedmont's White Truffle" campaign. We could place the white truffle from the Alba region on the list of endangered species, right up there with the great ape and the panda. If the World Wildlife Fund can sensitize the world about the plight of Africa's black rhinoceros--down to a population of 2,550--or the precarious situation of the mountain gorilla--620 still alive and the globe's most monitored animal--why can't we foodies do something about the white truffle?
It's not too late for all lovers of the famed white truffle to unite. Drastic action is required to prevent this delicacy from being wiped out from Piedmont. Imagine India without its tigers or California without its bald eagle; now imagine gastronomy without the white truffle.
Above all, it's time for the Italians to get their acts together. That's easier said than done.
To replant and save the white truffle grounds would cost an estimated $1.7 million, according to Agostino Aprile, president of the Associazione Trifolau dell Albese, the area's truffle hunters' group. The political authorities have talked about paying half of the money, provided the region's 8,000 truffle hunters pay the other half. Most won't pay. Too bad, because if they did, that would clinch the deal to establish a fund to help save the truffle woods.
"The authorities understand the importance of truffles to Piedmont's image in Italy and abroad," says Aprile. "I seek to convince the hunters. But many are very individualistic types who don't understand the importance of paying their fees."
Meanwhile, the truffle's natural habitat is being destroyed, slowly but surely. This is happening just as the ranks of truffle hunters have ballooned. As an example, in the 4,000-person community of Monta d'Alba, the number of truffle hunters have quadrupled in 20 years, from 10 to 40, says Aprile.
Aprile, 41, estimates the truffle crop has dropped by 25 percent to 30 percent over the last 30 years. But truffle hunters I spoke to estimated the drop at at least 50 percent in the past decade alone.
The white truffle is not a mushroom, and how it grows remains a mystery. Despite comprehensive research funded in Italy, scientists haven't succeeded in domesticating the tuber. So we remain dependent on this wild species' ability to procreate in its natural habitat, which is limited to certain regions in Italy, including Umbria and Tuscany.
One thing is clear: Pollution is taking a toll on the delicate truffle habitat. White truffles thrive in a clean environment. They disappear in areas where dirty, sometimes chemically-gorged streams run close to the roots of the truffle-hosting trees.
Piedmont is between the two large industrial centers of Milan and Turin, and some truffle hunters blame acid rain for the dearth of truffles in places that had been reliable truffle-growing spots for decades. A curious particularity of truffles is that they will reach maturity each year at the same place on the same day. Each truffle hunter has a calendar that he follows year in and year out to remind him which day to harvest a given truffle.
Broad-leaved trees that host the growing truffles are being laid waste to make way for construction. The latest example is a large hospital project in Verduno, in the famed Barolo district, that takes up 50 acres of land, some of it prime truffle woods.
"Ten years ago, it took me four hours to do my rounds, there were that many trees," says Elio Pira, a 59-year-old truffle hunter from Verduno. "Now I can cover my area in two hours. There are just no longer many trees. And when they put up the hospital, truffle hunting will be virtually finished for me."
Truffle hunters who also grow grapes face a dilemma, as their two occupations often clash. Chemical fertilizers and treatments on vineyards, sometimes by helicopter, have polluted nearby truffle grounds. Worse, expanding vineyard acreage has taken place at the expense of woods that produced truffles. Piedmont's Barolo, Barbera and Barbaresco are on a roll, and vineyards roll over woods everywhere.
And as more truffle hunters compete for a smaller and smaller harvest, rivalry brings out the worst in some people.
"If you have a dog that's very good, other truffle hunters are envious," said Giuseppe "Beppe"Amianto. The 63-year-old grower, who farms 2.2 acres of Nebbiolo in the Barbaresco area, knows what he's talking about. His 15-year-old dog, Lilly, was one of the best, catching, Amianto claims, up to $176,000 worth of truffles (about 220 pounds, at today's prices) in a season.
"She was extra special," he says. "In fact, someone offered $2,300 for her. I refused. Then she was killed."
A trick widely known in the region was used to eliminate Lilly. It's called "spugna," the sponge death, an incredibly painful way of taking a dog's life. Spugna is made by taking a sponge like one used to wash cars and frying it in oil flavored with sausage or other meat until the sponge shrivels to a small, hard piece. Then it is buried in the ground where a truffle-hunting dog is likely to come upon it. When Lilly's sensitive nose picked up the aromas of the spugna, she dug it up and ate it. It was a mistake, but Lilly was trained leave truffles in the ground, not to ignore a meat-scented spugna. Lilly literally killed herself drinking. The spugna is very salty, inducing thirst, and as the dog drinks, the sponge bloats in the stomach, causing death by blocking the intestines.
"We are all afraid of this," says Amianto. "If you don't have dogs, you can't work. But they kill the great dogs. The other hunters know who has great dogs. They saw that my dog got kilos of truffles. All truffles zones have the same problems. It's like all wars. Once it starts, you never know when it will finish."
Rocky died by more conventional means: poison-laced meat. Giancarlo Alessandria is a cellar worker at Bel Colle, a winery in Verduno. He also farms some vineyards himself. He gave up truffle hunting after Rocky's death two years ago.
Alessandria still has tears in his eyes when he talks of how Rocky suffered over three months before dying. "I had paid $235 for him. One day he came home and started vomiting. He still had a piece of meat stuck in his teeth." Rocky became increasingly emaciated.
Even Bruno Currado, a veterinarian in Alba, couldn't save Rocky. "If I can get to a dog within half an hour, I can usually save it," says Currado.
Just in his region, he sees 20 dogs poisoned every year, half of them from poisoned bait laid out in the woods to kill a surprising increase in foxes, the other half victims of the truffle wars. In the entire Piedmont, he estimates 20 truffle dogs are deliberately killed each year.
"It's a bit like the gold diggers in the Wild West," says Aprile. "Those who find gold are happy, the others are envious. But I am an optimist and I am not discouraged."
He hopes a Save the Truffle Fund will be established within five or six years. My answer: I'll believe it when I see it.
This column, Unfiltered, Unfined, features the opinionated inside scoop on the latest and greatest in the world of wine, brought to you each Monday by a different Wine Spectator editor. This week we hear from European senior editor Per-Henrik Mansson. To read past Unfiltered, Unfined columns, go to the archives. And for an archive of senior editor James Laube's columns, visit Laube on Wine.
Sips & Tips | Wine & Healthy Living
Video Theater | Collecting & Auctions