Almost ten years ago I was hugely lucky to be introduced into the world of white truffles following an invite to a charity dinner in Hong Kong. An Italian chef cooked the entire one kilogram fungus, which cost 95,000 euros at auction, over six courses for sixty diners. I had never tried one until then, so the way I described it in my piece for cnn.com was an honest reaction, if a little flowery:
“An extraordinary taste, unlike any other, of musky, smoky richness, vaguely redolent of garlic. If Tolkien’s Middle Earth were to be served as a dish, then this was it.”
Fast forward ten years and I jump at the chance to finally visit Middle Earth, namely the annual white truffle festival in Alba, about 90 minutes south of Turin in Piedmont. In the centre of the historic small town is a large white tent where truffles are bought and sold by amateur and professional hunters alike.
The market only runs for 5 weeks every autumn. You pay a couple of euros to get in as it has clearly become a big commercial draw, with faces and accents from around the world. As you cross the threshold into the tent, the senses are assaulted. The smell is genuinely other-worldly: not only from the thousands of truffles of all sizes, but also a range of stalls selling white truffles in every form, from cheese to sausage, pasta to chocolate, honey to olive oil. There are mountains of porcini and mushrooms, dried herbs and chillis and of course cases of local Barolo, Brunello and Montepulciano.
Some hunters show off photos of their dogs – the ones who do the real work – while others wear camouflages and khaki, the unofficial uniform of the trifolau. The serious buying and selling may well take place elsewhere, but nonetheless a considerable volume of the rare delicacy are admired, sniffed and sold.
However if you’re unsure about dropping upwards of 30 euros on something which often looks like it was removed after an operation, there’s even an official, certified truffle inspector who will independently assess your truffle for quality and provenance.
Here are some of the faces of the hunters and crowds, the produce and of course the truffles: