Renato Agnello has been a truffalato for 67 years, hunting the elusive white truffle as his father and grandfathers did for generations before him. He was trained by his papa, starting at the age of six, here in the oak and hazelnut woods of northwestern Italy. Today Renato is demonstrating how he and his dog, Gigi, go searching for the underground fungus that looks like a knobby rock. It can sell for thousands of dollars a pound and adds a distinctive, subtle, earthy flavor to foods.
While we stroll the leafy woodland, Gigi sniffs here and there, gets excited at one spot, then turns away. Whatever her sensitive nose picked up, it wasn’t a truffle. I ask Renato why hunters don’t use pigs; aren’t they known for finding truffles? Yes, but it seems that pigs find them both delicious and sexually appealing and can go into frenzies when they root them up (who knew?) So here is Gigi, a dog with presumably no erotic hopes, bounding through the woods.
Piedmont is the region best known for white truffles, and the town of Alba is where they’re most celebrated. Every October and November, the Truffle Fair draws visitors from around the world to taste, buy, and join in hunting expeditions. Virtually every restaurant serves white truffles, sliced or in sauces. The more common black truffle is usually cooked, but white truffles are often eaten raw, thinly shaved over pasta, risotto or a cream or meat sauce.
Searching for truffles is the secret work of autumn nights, with hunters jealously guarding treasured spots. Renato says that truffles are becoming harder to find, as vineyards replace woodlands in this top-quality wine region. He remembers the cabbage-sized truffles his grandfather found; those big ones are very rare these days. But now Gigi is digging frantically at the base of a tree, so we hustle over and Renato reaches a hand in the hole. He pulls out a truffle no bigger than a pea, the only one he gets this afternoon. Gigi’s happy–she did her job and expects a treat. We do too, in a local restaurant that serves truffle bits on a tasty veal dish.