The sought-after white truffles picked from the hills and forests surrounding Alba by certified hunters who love the land can't be cultivated, and so are without harmful chemicals
I wasn't thinking about sustainability when I entered the room. In fact, I was thinking about a high school locker room and how I hoped the exhibition hall didn't smell like one. The place didn't have the faintest smell of truffles until you reached the center, and even then you couldn't get a true sniff of the so-called "white diamonds" until the hunters opened their precious cases filled with their finds from the forest. Each person paying the €2 fee to enter the building where the truffles were (along with other assorted gastronomic items) was greeted with a smile and the look of banality.
I suppose we all have our own reasons for visiting Alba, a small town in northern Italy, this time of year, during the white truffle season. Mine was purely to discover what brings people here from all over the world to look, smell, eat, and most of all buy these mushrooms, perhaps one of the most sustainable products I can imagine. Alba, a town also known for the Ferrero factory, which produces Nutella, is at the center of the white truffle trade. The most sought-after ones on Earth come from the surrounding hills and forests where women and men use their dogs to find them.
As we entered the truffle hall and saw all of the hunters (trifulan) gathered in the center, their truffles stacked on top of classic blue-checked napkins, I suddenly understood what drew people here. The magic white truffle (tuber magnatum) for which some people pay upwards of $1,500/lb can't be cultivated, so it's chemical-free and detached from the destructive practices of large-scale farming operations. (That doesn't mean that some haven't tried, though.) The black truffle, of lesser quality, has been grown and cultivated in other parts of the world, including Italy, China, and even in Tennessee. But those who want the real thing come here.
Part of the mystery surrounding the truffles is how well the people who find them -- the true Italian's that have lived here for generations -- know the land. They have lucrative arrangements in places to hunt each autumn. These characters are not well known, but for people in New York, Hong Kong, London, Dubai, and other cities where chefs and restaurant owners are willing to pay top dollar for truffles, these people represent the pure essence of their trade. Without their knowledge and their ability to pass that on to a new generation, white truffles might disappear from dishes.
Inside the main exposition area I started talking to a truffle hunter named Romina Casette. As I walked past her, she waved me over to have a sniff of her finds in the case. "Maybe you can help me," I said. "I'm interested in knowing more about the sustainability of white truffles." Since the 1950s, she told me, much of the forested land in the Alba region, having been blessed by God to grow grapes perfectly, had been turned into vineyards. This increase in vineyards, while improving the overall economic output of the region, has greatly reduced the amount of area available for truffles; the necessary tubers or spores by which truffles reproduce were destroyed in the process of converting forests. "The wilder, the better," Casette said, referring to the forests and fields where she hunts. If the land has been cultivated or changed in some way, then you have no way of knowing if or where the truffles will grow.
A key part of truffle hunting is knowing where truffles have been found in the past. As Casette told me, if you find a large truffle in one spot this year, and you harvest it according to the guidelines of the consortium, then you will most likely find one of similar size there the following year.
The guidelines are set by the region to help in the industry's continued success. Each trifulan has to be licensed to hunt, and the license is given only after passing an exam. Each hunter must have an understanding of how to dig up a truffle, how to replace the earth in the hole, how to properly use the correct tools in the field, and how to manage the dogs so that they don't, by chance, eat the truffles. Since the Earth is such a mysterious being, "it is only by the grace of God," Casette goes on, "that we continue to find these each year." If the hunters truly care about the land in which they find their truffles -- and at current prices you can be assured that they do -- then there is no reason to want to destroy it.
At dinner after the exhibition I had some white truffle shaved over my plate of fresh pasta. The first thing I noticed was the price: €3.40/gram. It seemed like a reasonable addition to the bill. The waiter brought over the truffle along with a small scale, weighed the truffle before, shaved a few pieces onto my pasta, then weighed the truffle again, noting on a piece of paper the before and after weights. The first bite was superb: fresh Earth with a hint of wild mushrooms -- essentially, a taste of the forest. I tried to go slow with the dish, giving it the time I thought it required, a pace that would honor Casette's work.
Images: Jesse Dart.