Authentic Italy: finding the rare white truffle in Piemonte with Mario and Rex the dog

Piemonte is the real Italy: fine food made from basic local ingrédients, beautiful rolling hills of vineyards and kind people who seem to have understood something about the simplicity of loving life. Bypassed by those on their way to Tuscany or the Riviera not far away, Piemonte is still largely undiscovered, charmingly rustic and authentic. It is the home of the Slow Food movement after all and is well-known for its meals made of local ingrédients (bolito misto, bagna cauda, risotto….) of at least six courses. At the top of the ranking is the  ‘diamond of ingredients’, the white truffle.

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‘Going truffling’ with Mario and his mixed blood Pointer dog Rex early morning on the first day of this year seemed like a perfect way to start the new year. Rex is Mario’s newly trained truffle dog, in a long line of loyal hounds including the famous Rocky (who featured in footage shot of Mario on CNBC and the BBC) and probably the best truffler of all, York.

We followed Mario to a small valley close to Mombaruzzo (famous for its nutty amaretti) nestled in the rolling foothills all covered with bare Barbera vines.

The white truffle (“trifola d’Alba” – Tuber magnatum) grows close to the roots of the poplar, willow, hazlenut and oak trees uniquely in this area of Piemonte near to Alba. (A truffle is the fruiting body of a subterranean Ascomycete fungus, predominantly one of the many species of the genus Tuber.)

truffling 024The real white truffle grows during the short season of 21st September (the official first day of truffling is controlled by the government each year) and ends at the beginning of January. We were cutting it fine! Due to the very high prices of the rare white truffle (around 300€ per 100g that is 3000€ per kilo) it is shrouded with mystery and intrigue. Where best to find the truffles are heavily guarded secrets and the dogs that are trained to smell out these highly-prized nuggets are sought after and often stolen. They are often mixed breeds of Pointer, Brach and other hunting breeds who have strong noses!

2013 was a very good truffle year due to the humidity during the year essential for a ‘fragrant’ truffle. Yields were high so prices came down according to Mario (who sells his truffles to Michelin star restaurants in the area and in Monte Carlo. The black truffle or black Périgord truffle (Tuber melanosporum), named after the where it comes from, grows with oak and hazlenut trees. It sells normally half of the price and is less rich and complex in flavour.

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The dogs are trained when young with stong smelling gorgonzola cheese during the summer months but according to Mario ‘the best way to train a young dog is to let him accompany an older dog and learn from him’. The dogs are trained to sniff out the strong smelling truffles but as soon as they have identified the spot, to stop digging and wait for their treat (rather more banal dog biscuits). This way they do not dig into the flesh of the white truffle or, even worse, eat it! Mario has become a ‘white truffle personality’ and has been filmed by the BBC and CNN. He is popular with American tourists to the area who he takes to hunt for the elusive white truffle and then teaches them how to prepare a simple meal and match it with the local wine in his ‘cantina’ (he also makes wine from the local varieties of Barbera and Moscato).

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Once identified, Mario digs down carefully with the aid of a little spade to unearth the ‘golden nugget’. Back at home the tuffle is cleaned carefully removing any access soil. It can keep for a week or two wrapped in tissue in an airtight Tupperware container.

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Close to nature, the love of a master and his dog and the excitement of finding the rare white truffle. And enjoying them together afterwards shaved onto simple scrambled eggs. The white truffle is best enjoyed raw and has a creamy, rich slightly garlicy taste. What a way to start the year.

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Our traditional little Piemonte house ‘Casa Piccola’ set in the woods in the real Italy (near to the village of Mombaruzzo one hour and a bit from Genoa, Turin and Milan). Photos taken at a warmer time of year! Contact for more details.


Various Information and Related Articles

Here is an article about the hype that surrounds the white truffle in America and the Alba whte truffle fair.

Articles on the food of Piemonte, ‘the new food capital of Italy’! on Piemonte;

Main Events in Piemonte – mostly food based but also a Palio as in Sienna

The Asti Palio – 3rd Sunday in September

The Asti Palio is reputed to be the oldest in Italy, dating back to 1275, when Astigian jockeys raced through and over the vineyards surrounding Alba. At the heart of the programme are the bareback horse races around the triangular track in the main piazza of Asti. The pageantry that surrounds the event includes over 1,200 inhabitants in full medieval costume representing each of the 21 ‘comune’ of Asti and the surrounding area.

These 21 commune parade through the streets to the beat of hundreds of drums and one of the highlights is the flag waving and throwing displays, where huge banners are tossed high in the air in a fantastic display of colour and noise. These ceremonies both open and close the Palio.

For many more details please see the Asti Palio website

Corsa delle Botti – Nizza Monferrato – 4th Sunday in May

This barrel racing competition in Nizza Monferrato only dates back to 1978 and represents the race between the various wine producers, hurrying to deliver to their customers – the families of the region (a bit like the race to deliver Beaujolias Nouveau each year). The race itself is between the various ‘houses’ (wine producers) and, after a series of heats, leads to a grand final in the afternoon.

During the day, visitors can enjoy ‘monferratointavola’, where each of the local towns and villages offer regional food specialities, together with ample opportunity to taste the Monferrato wines.

The barrel racing takes place in the main square, while families enjoy the huge market and the funfair in the main square.

The Palio degli Asini at Alba – 1st Sunday in October

The Palio of Asini – Donkeys – deliberately mocks the Asti Palio and, since 1932, has developed its own status in the region. In 1275, the people of Asti raced for the Asti Palio under the walls and through the vineyards of Alba and, allegedly, wreaked havoc to the area. Thereafter the Asti Palio was run in the city of Asti and the Albese jockeys participated and registered many victories until they were no longer invited to take part. This led to the foundation of the alternative Palio – to play down and diminish the importance of the defeat in 1275. As in Asti there is a major historic parade, with over 500 participants in full medieval costume supporting an event renowned for its humour and casual attitude.

The Siege of Canelli – 3rd weekend in June

This celebration re-enacts the siege of Canelli in 1613. The small local garrison was supported by the local citizens, many of whom lost their lives, in successfully defending the city. As the official programme notes:

“ It is a celebration without embellishment. For two days more than 1,000 Canellesi wearing the traditional costumes of the period and always acting as if they were actually taking part in the most crucial events of a siege, re-create the atmosphere and the reality of a town under siege. The visitor becomes both protagonist and witness of the events, actor and spectator mingling with the officers and soldiers or with the farmers and their animals, sitting in inns and taverns often haunted by evil-doers and beggars…”

For us, this is the best festival we have ever been to, where the battles are just a part of the occasion, and the sights, sounds and general atmosphere are very special.

The Festival Delle Sagre, Asti – 2nd Saturday and Sunday of September

In most years, the main square at Asti is over-flowing with over 250,000 visitors who manage to consume over 800,000 portions of food at this feast/festival.

The square at Asti is full of small stalls and catering facilities, where each region promotes its own speciality food and visitors either eat on the move or can compete for one of the available chairs and tables.

Tractors pull trailers that are decorated to show a typical local scene through the streets. This could be livestock grazing, a small house built on the back of the trailer, or the production of wine.

This is an ideal opportunity to check out a wide variety of local dishes without having to travel throughout the region.

4 thoughts on “Authentic Italy: finding the rare white truffle in Piemonte with Mario and Rex the dog

    1. Will be there this weekend and will pass on your regards if you like. I live in the vineyards of Bordeaux and am a wine guide here (as you can see from the themes of most of my blog). We have a house in Piedmont since 1997 and Mario is our neighbour! I am hoping to start SIP wine tourism (small independent producers) there too.

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