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White Alba Truffles

Host: Back on the first Savvy Traveler show I hosted last June, I remember Peter Mayle -- of "A Year In Provence" fame -- waxing rhapsodic about truffles in France. I tried so hard to understand what makes these mushrooms so precious, so expensive. I have to admit, much as I loved talking to Peter, in the end, he didn't sell me on truffles. So I want to give somebody else the chance.

Our contributor Judith Fein has just thrown herself into a truffle- hunting expedition. I'm going to sit back and listen, and see if I can catch on to her enthusiasm for the little fungi.

Truffle Hunt

By Judith Fein [3/22/2002]

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Judie: First, let me swear I'm not making this up. I am the first American to go on a safari....in Italy. Okay, there are no guns, no broad savannahs, no wild beasts -- because this is a truffle safari and I'm tracking wild mushrooms. If I bag any, I get to take my prey home. Before you laugh, let me tell you that truffles sell for up to $2,500 per kilo, so I stand to make -- metaphorically speaking -- a killing.

The truffle safari I'm on is in the beautiful province of Umbria, and I'm trekking through a grassy field with oak trees all around. I'm following truffle hunter Luciano Beccafico and translator Manuela Ciri. And we're all following the most important member of our party -- a scrawny, white and brown two-year-old named Birillo, Luciano's dog. A dog? I thought people used pigs to ferret out the famed fungi.

Manuela (translating Luciano): He says we use dogs -- in France they use pigs. It's much easier to carry a dog in your car than a pig.

Judie: Suddenly, Birillo trots briskly off to the left and buries his snout in the ground. Luciano encourages him:

Luciano: Dai...dai...dai...click....click...click......

Judie: He scores! He's found me a truffle! Luciano runs to the spot and gently pushes Birillo away so he doesn't eat or damage the truffle. Then, with a long pole with a small spade at the end, Luciano digs up the 'shroom -- and actually smiles at it. The truffle is ripe and ready to eat. And what does Birillo get for his labors?

Manuela's translation: The dog hasn't eaten the truffle, so now he gets a prize. He knows that every time he finds a truffle he gets a little piece of bread -- that's his prize. It's a great exchange, no? You give me a truffle and I give you a piece of bread. These kinds of dogs are not usually fed bread, so for them it's a delicacy. They really go for it.

Judie: Luciano quickly covers up the hole Birillo has dug. The fungi are scarce and he doesn't want to leave any traces for other truffle hunters. He also wants to preserve unripe truffles that Birillo might sniff out in the future.

Manuela's translation: Truffles could be here, and if they're not ripe, they don't have much smell.

Judie: Meanwhile, Manuela holds my ripe, newly found truffle up to my nose. It looks like a little whitish lump.

Manuela: Can you smell it?

Judie: I would think it's a stone.

Manuela: But it doesn't smell like a stone. If the truffle's not ripe, the dog doesn't smell it -- he's got a bigger one....

(Luciano makes noises and runs to Birillo. )

Judie: It's sort of between seasons -- too late for white winter truffles, too early for black summer truffles. Today, Birillo is digging up bianchetti, or whitish truffles. They're at the low end of the fungus scale -- "only" $250 a kilo, about a tenth the price of white truffles. But they are still truffles. And now that I've got a few of them, I want to know how to use them.

Luciano: Per Tutti la cocina.

(He and Manuela laugh)

Manuela: From hors d'oeuvres to dessert, wherever you put it, it's good. We even have chocolate truffles....

Luciano: Antipasto....a primi.....arrosto......

Judie: Since I'm now salivating over these scarce mushrooms, I want to know if there are any tricks to finding them

Manuela's translation: When you're walking through an area where there could be truffles, the first thing you do is look under the trees. If you're looking for black truffles, a plant that has the association will not have much grass under it because the truffle exudes a substance that has a killing effect on the grasses.

Judie: Although Luciano is an expert tracker and a fungal encyclopedia, he also holds down a job as a fireman. It's an iffy proposition to depend upon scoring truffles for a living. Some years he's lucky, and other years he finds "niente." If there's a drought and not enough humidity, for example, the truffles won't grow.

Manuela's translation: You basically take the dog and you see. And if you find nothing you'll find next time.

Judie: The $60 novices like me pay for the safari helps to tide over local hunters like Luciano during the lean years. And the safari price includes a wonderful lunch at a nearby country restaurant -- with truffles.

(Accordion music)

Judie: At the table next to us, a group of hunters are playing the accordion as we eat antipasti, wild boar salami, boar ham, omelet with truffles, spaghetti with truffles, boar stew and cheesecake -- without truffles. The pros congratulate me on my first hunt and assure me it was a successful beginning.

Okay, I've gotta shuffle to pack up my truffles. All 10 of them. Ciao for now.

In Umbria, Italy, I'm Judith Fein for the Savvy Traveler.

More about Judy:

Judith Fein's Global Adventure Web site: www.globaladventure.us

Savvy Resources:

To find out about a truffle hunt in Umbria, go to:

Aspen Magazine: On The Hunt For Truffles

The Truffle FAQ

The Floriade horticulture festival in the Netherlands

Here's some information about kinds of truffles and seasons when they are found:

Type: Bianco pregiato ("Precious White") Season: October - December
It has a smooth surface with a pale color sometimes tends to be brownish-green almost creamy. It grows in soil with a good quantity of sand and a good percentage of clay - also near lime trees and various kinds of oak, sallow and poplar trees. It is the rarest type and has the highest commercial value with a pleasant perfume. It can be confused with the "Bianchetto," but can be distinguished by the notable difference in aroma and its bigger size.

Type: Bianchetto (Whitish) Season: February - March
It distinguishes itself easily from the other truffles by it's distinctive Perfume -- also by the rare and imperfect veins. It grows in calcareous ground and is usually found in conifer woodlands (pine and black pine).

Type: Nero pregiato ("Precious Black") Season: December - February
Characterized by its black exterior and lumps, it is the most precious truffle on the market and the main ingredient in numerous international recipes. It grows in hilly and mountainous areas with oak and walnut trees.

Type: Scorzone ("Big Surface") Season: June - August (can be found all year long)
The thin, black-colored surface is found in calcareous ground (rubble - like, gritty, clay), or even volcanic rock. It is mature almost all year, around even during the summer period. It is widely collected and commercialized also for industrial purposes, like the production of high-quality tinned food.

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