The Alba White Truffle
The Truffle, fruit of the earth and the mists of the Langa…
Treasure unearthed by dog and trifulau working as a team
When the autumn mists start to drift over the hills, blurring their outlines, and the cold begins to turn increasingly bitter, under cover of darkness men and their dogs set out along trails jealously guarded in their memory, across the slopes and crags and up and down the ravines and gorges of the Langhe and Roero.
This is the hunt for the White Truffle of Alba that takes place each year from September to December. Almost a pilgrimage, born of experience amongst the poplar, linden, oak and willow trees, with dogs unleashed by their owners on an enthralling quest that will be the subject of stories in the local inns and markets throughout the winter months. Just as it has always been, with atmospheres and legends feeding the imagination to make this one of the most characteristic and visited places in the world.
But the Alba White Truffle is also important to the local economy, and equally significant is the contribution it has long made to household incomes in the farming community. So much so that as long ago as 1741 it was defined as the fruit of Divine Providence.
Alba, the jewel of the Langhe, cradle of food and wine
Combined with the farsighted intuition of celebrated “pioneers” of the trade in truffles and local entrepreneurial skills, the unique, universally recognized qualities of the Tuber Magnatum Pico have made Alba the undisputed world capital of the truffle, and an international mecca for foodies. And this has clearly had a very positive effect on the prestige of the area and its products. In a nutshell, for Alba and its surrounding area the truffle has proved to be the most appealing and exclusive promotional vehicle, raising the profile of a world of winegrowing, craft enterprises and industrial undertakings that is second to none. It represents an economy that has come of age, capable of engaging with the environment, with climate change, with tourism. A true emblem in its perfect synthesis of tradition and the modern world of local ingeniousness and “savoir faire”.
The Alba White Truffle takes centre stage in an economic challenge
that is increasingly fought in the field of image and ideas
Habitat and the Hunt
The hills of the Langhe and Roero around Alba
The ideal environment for the Alba White Truffle (Tuber Magnatum Pico) is oak woodland, but it can also be found among willows and poplars along the banks of streams and ditches, in gardens and in avenues of linden trees.
Clearly the soil needs to be right: limestone or clayey calcareous soil with silica is ideal.
Altitude is also important: truffles are few and far between above 600-700 metres.
The hills of the Roero bordering on the plain surrounding Turin make an excellent habitat for truffles, as do the hills of the Langa around Alba and the areas around the towns of Mondovì and Ceva.
A sea of hills where harsh, wild scenery alternates with more gentle landscapes tamed by man, and Alba is the natural meeting point, the capital.
Because Alba has always meant the market, the fair. For the truffle too.
A sea of hills where harsh, wild scenery alternates with more gentle landscapes tamed by man, and Alba is the natural meeting point, the Capital
What is the Alba White Truffle?
Tuber Magnatum Pico
The truffle is a hypogeous fungus, meaning it grows underground. Like all fungi, its roots are formed by a very dense, branched network of whitish filaments (hyphae), which extend over several substrates. The tuber-shaped fruit is composed of a fleshy mass – called “gleba” – protected by an outer skin known as the peridium. The various types of truffle are easy to identify from the structure and colour of these components.
Truffles are mainly composed of water and mineral salts absorbed from the soil through the roots of the tree with which they live in symbiosis.
Depending on the tree it lives and grows with, the Alba White Truffle can vary in colour from white, at times with shades of pink, to grey tending to brown.
The best conditions for the network of hyphae (known as the “mycelium”) to develop a truffle are mainly found around the roots of poplars, lindens, oaks and willows.
After it has formed, the truffle becomes an out-and-out parasite, extracting aroma, flavour and colour by sucking in the lymph that the roots draw out of the soil.
The truffles with the most persistent aroma and best keeping qualities are those that grow in contact with oaks, while linden trees produce the lightest and most aromatic specimens. Their shape – generally roundish – depends on the nature of the terrain: if the ground is soft, they become smoother, while if it is hard, the truffle struggles to find room and will become more gnarled and knotty.
Truffles ripen between the end of August and January, with each root generally producing only one truffle a year.
The craft of the trifulao, steeped in mystery and dedication
Ever since its Fair began in 1929, Alba has given this fungus worldwide renown and prestige, promoting the image of the whole area and its finest products. Important truffle markets and festivals are also held in Ceva, Dogliani, Vezza, Canale and Montà d’Alba, and everywhere the markets are associated with the most “historic” locations in the centre of town, such as “Via Maestra” in Alba, and under the porticos in Canale.
The market itself is as mysterious an affair as you could possibly imagine. When it opens, the “trifolau” – truffle-hunters in the local dialect – remain calm, hiding the fruit of their search in big pockets in their traditional fustian jackets.
They talk of dogs and of rain, of seasons and of harvests, waiting for the market to get going and for the buyers to grow impatient.
Then they cautiously begin to bring out small packages wrapped in check handkerchiefs, starting with the smallest, and reserving the very best for the most patient of connoisseurs. Then, with their business done, they hurry back to the hills to wait for nightfall, eager to return to the rocks and ravines to follow their life’s dream; a truffle like none other seen before.
It is when the aroma of truffle becomes
intoxicating that the trifolau shrewdly clinches his best deals…
The Truffle in the kitchen
Simple yet robust fare, conjuring up feelings of autumn and open fires…
The truffle is the undisputed star of Alba cuisine, a style of cooking with strong flavours and intense aromas, accompanied by thoroughbred wines. From bagna caoda, which in its ingredients – vegetables, garlic, oil and anchovies – harks back to the area’s close links in olden times with the coastal region of Liguria, to fondue; from thinly-cut tajarin pasta to wild game; from vegetables to cheese; from boiled meats to mushrooms: a succession of unique flavours.
And above all else the truffle: the scent of a season.
In Alba it is served raw, in slithers sliced using a truffle-shaver: delicious on hot dishes and with light sauces, perfect with fondue, tajarin and Piedmontese-style risotto, and superb on Alba-style steak tartare and porcini or egg-cell mushroom salads, for the real gourmet there’s nothing better than truffle sliced raw onto a simple fried egg.
Dishes that lead to endless discussions on the properties of the white truffle of Alba, with connoisseurs debating which is best: the smooth, symmetrical truffle from the sandy hills of the Roero, or the knobbly, knotty one that grows in the compact soil of the Langhe. Because food only becomes culture when you associate it with the history, geography and life of the area it comes from.
So here the cuisine engages and arouses the senses, even flirting with the truffle’s aphrodisiacal properties.
Properties which on these hills are a given: because although these “cite pugnà ‘d bej seugn” (handfuls of sweet dreams) are eaten raw, they exist to provide warmth.