Half a dozen dogs, mangy, dirty and thin, paraded around the square in Alba, the center of the Piedmont wine trade. They looked just like the hunting dogs you see in nearly any part of Italy at this time of year. But these were not mere working hounds. They were truffle dogs, and Alba, the white truffle capital of the world, was packed with thousands of people in the streets to celebrate the annual harvest.
Is there a more expensive food product? The mushroom is like gold dust, perhaps even more valuable. This year, the light brown mushroom was selling for about $375 for 100 grams. That would get you a truffle about the size of a golf ball.
My friends and I bought a couple of small ones from the shop of Ratti Elio in the center of town. We were walking around one morning with Nicoletta Boffa, wife of Pio Boffa, who runs the great wine estate Pio Cesare. Nicoletta, who grew up in the area, knows the truffle scene well. She explained that all the truffle dogs are white in color "because the truffle hunters always go out at night to find their mushrooms. They don't want others to see where they get their truffles, but they still have to keep an eye on their dogs, or they run away with the truffles!"
According to the merchants and hunters I spoke with in Alba, this year's truffle crop looks to be a very good one. Plenty of rain in August and September assured their development in the soil. The best white truffles come from Piedmont, but you can find them in Tuscany and Umbria, and some also come from Romania and a number of other Eastern European countries.
What's so great about tartufi bianchi? Are they worth the money?
I have to say yes. Part of the fun is the buying and preparing of the funghi. Generally, you prepare a simple dish of pasta, rice or polenta and then shave thin slices of the mushroom on top. The decadent, earthy, almost meaty character of the truffle enhances everything. The smells and flavors are unique. Some say it's an aphrodisiac.
During the weekend I was in Piedmont, I had tartufo bianco many ways. Some of my traveling companions thought it went best on raw veal prepared like a steak tartare. Others believed a simple tagliatelle pasta with butter was the answer. For me the best was a creamy, rich risotto made with a veal stock and Fontana cheese from Aosta. The buttery flavor and texture of the rice combined perfectly with the decadent truffle, giving it an ultra-rich flavor.I had this dish at the restaurant Locanda nel Borgo, just outside the village of Barolo.
We had some debate on what wine goes best with truffle dishes. Pio Boffa likes whites—especially something like his Chardonnay. Others prefer a fruity, juicy young Barbera. But I love a great Barolo. The fruit and firm tannins of the Barolo seem to cut through the wild, almost gamy character of the truffle and prepare your palate for the next bite.
But who really cares? I would drink and eat almost anything, given the chance to try a few slivers of white truffle.
Locanda nel Borgo Antico
Via Boschetti, 4
Via Vittorio Emanuele, 18