- The Washington Times - Friday, February 10, 2006

ALBA, Italy — The dog’s tail wagged impatiently. Lady, a small, nondescript white and brown mutt, raced ahead to an oak tree, sprinted back and forth, nose thrust into the ground, then triumphantly started digging with gusto.

Looking up with an air of satisfaction, Lady was handsomely rewarded before her master carefully scraped the loosened dirt with his pick. The five visitors observing the ritual looked on expectantly.

Gingerly using his fingers to explore further, Giovanni Monchiero delicately removed his treasure: a large walnut-size white truffle, one of the epicurean riches of Alba in Italy’s Piedmont region.

Truffle hunting is a respected art form in and around Alba, and proper training of the dogs is at its heart. Any breed can aspire to the job, but selection depends upon a dog’s resume. It must have a “good nose,” and trainers can assess that after three days.

Once a dog shows promise, it can attend the Barot University of Truffle Hunting Dogs, so named by Mr. Monchiero (whose nickname is Barot), for two to three months of specialized training.

To the uninitiated, the truffle may be just a foul fungus, but to the gourmand, it represents the ultimate in gastronomic delights. It is judged by size, color, shape, texture, aroma — some would say offensive olfactory onslaught; others, fragrance of the gods — and overall perfection. There’s a lot to be said for this odorous little mushroom.

Although it is found in France, northern Spain, other parts of Italy and also in Asia and in commercial endeavors in Oregon, the region around Alba is considered the quintessential white truffle capital, the home of the tartufo di Alba.

The method of discovery adds to the mystique, so back to the dogs. Expertise comes with patience and experience. A canine’s first exposure to this white diamond of Italy is unimpressive. The truffle hunter (the well-regarded trifolao) tosses around a bag containing a dry truffle for the dog to retrieve.

As the canine student progresses, the bag is buried deeper and deeper in the ground. Truffles themselves can be buried as much as a foot below the surface, their usual giveaway pungency masked by the mound of dirt obscuring them from easy detection.

Like any good professor, Mr. Monchiero demonstrates the procedure necessary to complete the job: He gets down on all fours, pawing in an appropriate manner to reveal the desired goal.

Once the dogs begin to burrow deeper and deeper on their own, the hunter must make certain that his four-legged partner does not dig so deeply that it destroys the truffle or even mars its surface with a slightly misplaced paw.

After observing this procedure, Jennifer West from Sante Fe, N.M., remarked: “What would truffle hunters do without their amazing dogs? They’re so dependent on their intelligence and sense of smell. It was fascinating to watch them work together.”

A more poignant picture was expressed by Mr. Monchiero: “I like truffle hunting because it allows me to be in touch with nature and the night life of the woods. But even more, I like the special feeling that exists between me and Lady. It’s something that people ‘from the outside’ cannot fully understand.”

The truffle hunter ultimately is responsible for the quality of the truffles extracted. He always carries a stick-cane with which he directs the dogs in the woods during the hunt, as well as a sapin, the ultimate tool for prodding up the sumptuous prey. Mr. Monchiero, a fourth-generation truffle hunter, has been plying his trade since boyhood, and he knows its many tricks.

“Truffle hunting is a passion that was transmitted to me by my father,” he says. “To me it means keeping alive my history and the tradition of my family.”

Truffle hunters are as protective of their search techniques as professional football coaches are of their plays. Whereas a deer hunter may boast of his conquest, the truffle hunter will play down his success in order to avoid others trespassing on his territory.

“Used-car salesmen and truffle hunters are the two most devious types of people in the world,” Mr. Monchiero says.

Most truffle hunting takes place from deep night to dawn, mainly to protect the highly prized placement of the little white treasures. Also, there’s less distraction then for the dogs. Illumination provided by a new moon is ideal, and after 3 a.m., the formation of dew aids a dog’s ability to smell. This is not a venture undertaken lightly, or without the truffle hunter, truffle-hunting dog and prime truffle-hunting conditions all in sync.

Different hunters have their preferences. Some prefer a white dog because it’s easier to see at night; others, a black dog, all the better for hunting because no one else can see it. Some opt for the dark of night; others, the dewy dawn.

Categories include winter white truffles (most expensive) and summer white truffles, just as there are summer black truffles and the rarer winter black truffle (very expensive) from France’s Perigord. Black truffles are much hardier than white truffles and may be cooked and preserved; white truffles must be eaten as soon after removal as possible.

People are not ambiguous about truffles, but even those who do not appreciate their culinary allure may still value their appeal as relationship enhancers as Valentine’s Day approaches. Scientific research has revealed that truffles contain pheromones, subtle communicators of sexual attraction.

Whatever the powers of these most prized white truffles of Alba, the season begins in mid-October and lasts about 75 days.

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