Everyone to their battle stations: the city is besieged! Carabinieri have surrounded the lovely Piedmont town located two hours from Turin! During several months, Alba’s heart will beat for a weird and wonderful thing: the white truffle, alias Tuber magnatum Pico.
The denizens of ancient Greece and Rome thought that the mushrooms were the ‘daughters of lightning’. In medieval times, it was believed that witches feasted on them at the full moon. We now realize that neither lightning nor witchcraft have anything to do with their growth. And connoisseurs know that just any old truffle would not merit such a commotion: there are certain decisive criteria that guarantee prime quality.
O truffle, where are thou?
Truffles thrive ten to fifteen centimetres under the ground in cool and humid milieus. The delicate truffle hunting process, also called cavage, must be effectuated with a cavadou, a special pick-like tool which makes it possible to unearth truffles without damaging them. The mushroom is generally found near the roots of five trees: oak (common, holly, sessile...); poplar (black and white); willow; linden; and hazel, all of which thrive in the region around Alba. The truffle’s colour should be whitish to dark beige, and it may have pink veins. Compact to the touch, it smells of wild garlic with a hint of minerals.
Only three kinds of dogs are able to find truffles: the mongrel, the Italian lagotto romagnolo and the Italian pointer, or bracco, in order of truffle hunters’ preference. Mushrooms are gathered at night, when foraging is more discreet, sounds more easily muffled and truffle hounds, which do not generally have good eyesight anyway, must rely even more heavily on their sense of smell. Pigs used to have the honour of truffle hunting, but they were not always able to resist feasting on the buried treasures they’d nosed out.
98,000 euros for 750 grams
Once it has been unearthed and any soil ever so delicately brushed away, the prize is weighed, examined and evaluated by experts before being locked up until the auction. An inconspicuous police presence accompanies every step of the process in order to avoid any unpleasant surprises: the truffle – like every other source of ‘easy money’ - has sparked many a lethal passion. A truffle hunter named Franco, for example, found his best pointer - ‘a bitch worth 10,000 euros’ – dead. Poisoned by a jealous neighbour.
The grand auction day has finally arrived. The sun rises red over the grapevines and washes the facades of the medieval Castello di Grinzane in a gentle pink light. Knights in coats of mail brandishing swords and halberds prevent curious bystanders from entering. Inside the castle (a ten-minute drive from Alba), the atmosphere is very tense. Mad rumours roam the halls; they say that a truffle has been found that weighs over two kilos. We take our seats. The satellite connection with Hong Kong leaves much to be desired but no matter, Italians have loud voices. And when money is at stake, communication is always possible. The auction begins a half hour late but the mood is now more relaxed. Stars of Italian television are here to help host the event. Hong Kong always offers the highest bids – the real money is obviously not in Alba. Fifteen hours later, the gavel bangs down for the last time: the finest specimen, a truffle weighing 750 grams, has sold for 98,000 euros – that’s 26.5 ounces for £81,755 - to a bidder in Hong Kong, naturally!
Profits are destined for various charities and institutes. In 2001, they were used to help the families of the firemen of Italian descent who had died during the attack on New York City’s World Trade Towers.
Foire internationale de la truffe blanche d’Alba : www.fieradeltartufo.org