Truffle HoundOn the Trail of the World’s Most Seductive Scent, with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs


A Veranda best new fall book

A captivating exploration into the secretive and sensuous world of truffles, the elusive food that has captured hearts, imaginations, and palates worldwide.

The scent of one freshly unearthed white truffle in Barolo was all it took to lead Rowan Jacobsen down a rabbit hole into a world of secretive hunts, misty woods, black-market deals, obsessive chefs, quixotic scientists, muddy dogs, maddening smells, and some of the most memorable meals ever created.

Truffles attract dreamers, schemers, and sensualists. People spend years training dogs to find them underground. They plant forests of oaks and wait a decade for truffles to appear. They pay $3,000 a pound to possess them. They turn into quivering puddles in their presence. Why?

Truffle Hound is the fascinating account of Rowan’s quest to find out, a journey that would lead him from Italy to Istria, Hungary, Spain, England, and North America. Both an entertaining odyssey and a manifesto, Truffle Hounddemystifies truffles-and then remystifies them, freeing them from their gilded cage and returning them to their roots as a sacred offering from the forest. It helps people understand why they respond so strongly to that crazy smell, shows them there’s more to truffles than they ever imagined, and gives them all the tools they need to take their own truffle love to the next level. Deeply informed, unabashedly passionate, rakishly readable, Truffle Hound will spark America’s next great culinary passion.

Rowan Jacobsen is the author of the James Beard Award-winning A Geography of Oysters as well as American Terroir, Apples of Uncommon Character, and other books. His books have been named to numerous top ten lists, and he has been featured on All Things Considered, The Splendid Table, Morning Edition, and CBS This Morning, and in the pages of Bon Appétit, Saveur, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He lives in Vermont.

Rowan Jacobsen

 

There is unquestionably a romance to the truffle. The image of a French or Spanish farmer combing the land with their trusty pig searching the remote woods for the elusive truffle. Which once found will be served as a delicacy in the best restaurants around the world

The truth is that there are no pigs involved. Nor is this elusive funghi limited to the wilds of France and Spain. But as Rowan Jacobsen told us when he spoke with us about his new book, when it comes to the truffle the truth is stranger and more interesting than fiction.

Booksaboutfood.com (BAF): I was really intrigued by your book. So thank you for taking the time to chat. From what I know about gathering truffles and wild mushrooms, it’s a world that almost has a mystical shroud of mystery around it, for lack of a better expression.

Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah. And more so in some ways, because of course the key difference between mushrooms and truffles, is truffles are hiding underground. So they have that extra element of mystery because you can’t find the darn things without your faithful canine companion.

BAF: It also seems that just getting access to that world must have been a little difficult because it’s almost like a secret society..

Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah and I think similarly to mushrooms, there’s certainly like that too and any other resource I guess, where the spots are important to know, and that knowledge is key to making it work. So they don’t give away that information lightly. But it’s funny, I think what I found worked was that they didn’t really want people to know about them, the hunters I’m talking about, but they wanted everyone to know how awesome their dogs were. So the key was that I was going to be promoting their dogs and then they would be like, “okay, you can come with me.”

BAF: Was it hard to even find the actual dog owners?

Rowan Jacobsen: I sort of used similar techniques to what I’ve found has worked in with other stories I’ve worked on, which is it’s always word of mouth. As soon as you can make a couple dents into these inner circles and get the trust of one person then that person can be your entree to other people. And then one sort of leads to the next, and then they say, “oh, you should talk to so and so,” so that is always the key. If you just come from nowhere, they’re not going to talk to you. But if you’re a friend of so-and-so, then you’re okay.

BAF: There this image of a small town, where everybody knows who the poacher is, and it’s like, that’s his job. Is it the same sort of thing with truffle hunters? People know that’s them. You just leave him alone to do it.

Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, totally. It’s accurate.

BAF: Where were you personally, in the world of truffles, prior to writing this, were you a fan? Were you just intrigued by it or did you have a dog?

Rowan Jacobsen: You know, I was intrigued because of the mystery surrounding it, but I was not a huge fan. And the first time I had a good one, I realized why it was because I had never had a good one before that, my first experiences were pretty typical. I think a few pasta dishes with some truffle over the top that I now suspect was probably the black summer truffle, which is not very aromatic. And then also lots of truffle oils and other packaged truffle products, which are all spoiler alert, but they’re all flavored with a synthetic chemical. That is an okay mimic of one of the compounds in a truffle. But in terms of capturing the overall complexity of a fresh truffle smell, it’s not even close. So I think like many people, those experiences had taught me to be fairly nonplussed by truffles. And it was only once I smelled, I just happened to be in Northern Italy at the right time of year, which is right now actually, smelled a really high quality fresh shuffle that must have just come out of the earth in the previous day or two and thought it was the most amazing arresting thing I’d ever smelled. And so that was the beginning of the journey.

BAF: So what gave you the inclination to actually write a book about this? Where did you… Was it just a personal journey for you to okay, ‘follow the truffle’ sort of thing?

Rowan Jacobsen: I was certainly fascinated by the secrecy and the fact that there was so little known about where these truffles were actually coming from. And most people really didn’t have a very good idea of what a truffle even was or how it was getting to their plates, including me. So it seems like I could tell that there was just a big disconnect between the real world of truffles and the tiny amounts of information we were all being fed. So anytime you see that sort of situation, you think, oh, okay, this is there’s some light should be shed here, there’s room for more enlightenment. That, and I thought I could have a really good time doing this.

BAF: Well, the truffle seems still to have this image of somebody walking around the woods in the mountains of Italy with a pig, but that’s not really the case, is it?

Rowan Jacobsen: Not really, it’s more like somebody walking around the woods in Romania with a dog is probably more accurate for white truffles and for black truffles, which are really the dominant one, it’s guys in Spain with huge plantations farming them. So that’s… People don’t realize that almost all the black truffles are farmed. The white truffles are still wild, but they come from Eastern Europe as much as they come from Italy now.

BAF: Well, I think farming is certainly the one thing I don’t think people realize that people have literally a planted forest to make it happen.

Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah and that goes all the way back to the early 1800s when some guys in Provence first realized, they first noticed that the truffles were almost always under Oak trees. And this one guy realized that if he planted Oak trees, he’d get truffles underneath. And then he started realizing that he could take the Oak seedlings from under other producing Oak trees and transplant them to his land. And then they would produce truffles too. So he hadn’t quite understood the connection, which is that the shuffles are symbiotic with the Oaks and they are attached to the roots of the Oaks, but he definitely realized they come under Oaks for whatever reason. So then there’s this huge wave of truffle farming in France in the 1800s. But it wasn’t until the 1970s really that the French again, figured out that you could actually germinate the spores of the truffle and inoculate tree seedlings in a greenhouse with those spores and plant those little seedlings. And then a few years later, you’d get truffles on those trees and that was really what kicked off what’s become a worldwide wave of truffle farming.

BAF: Now, every truffle comes from an Oak, but not every Oak has a truffle, or is that not the case?

Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, no, it’s a fungus that grows with Oak trees and other trees and trades with the tree and they both need each other. The fungus is really good, much better than the tree at getting minerals and water from the soil. And it basically binds itself around the roots of the tree and sends those minerals and water into the tree in exchange for sugars that the tree sends back. And the tree’s making that through photosynthesis and the truffle can’t make those sugars. So it’s a mutual relationship that is essential for both parties and actually almost no forest in the world would exist without these mycorrhizal relationships as they’re called and truffles are just the fruit that the fungus makes when it wants to produce more of itself.

BAF: Were you aware of the vastness of the industry? Because you traveled to a number of countries and certainly racked up the air miles.

Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, I did. It was right before COVID so I got it in just in time. But no, I wasn’t. And I was really surprised how many different countries are contributing to the truffle economy. Because what you hear about are basically Italy and France, but Spain is the number one producer of the black winter truffle and all of Eastern Europe produces a lot of white truffles and other black truffles are coming from Iran and China and Turkey and quite a few other places. And in the US we’re farming quite a few truffles too. And then we also have wild truffles, so they’re really a worldwide thing.

BAF: So there is actually an industry here in the states or it’s coming into its own.

Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah and people have been trying to farm, it’s the same black winter truffle that France is famous for and that Spain farms. People have been trying to farm it in the US for a few decades with mixed success. But now it seems to be taking off, there’s probably a few hundred truffieres as they’re called in the US, many of them producing nothing, but some of them producing a few pounds of truffles a year and that’s expected to grow and become tens of pounds of truffles and hopefully hundreds of pounds of truffles a year. But that hasn’t happened yet.

BAF: I seem to remember a couple years ago, wasn’t there a problem with the Chinese truffles or there was some sort of incident or happening?

Rowan Jacobsen: Oh yeah. So China has a native truffle that looks almost identical to the French black winter truffle, but has much less smell. But the people who were selling black winter truffles in France and Italy started importing a huge amount of these Chinese truffles in the 1990s I think it started and selling them as black winter truffles. And basically they would cut, it was just like cutting flour into cocaine or whatever. They would cut their very pricey black winter truffles with 20%, 30% of these Chinese truffles, which they bought really cheap for 20 bucks a pound or something and were then turning around selling for 400, 500 bucks a pound and they had no smell basically. But if a few mixed into a very aromatic lot of truffles, there’s no way you could spot the questionable truffles. So they got away with it for a while. Then they got caught and now it’s probably not done so much anymore, but it was definitely a scandal back in the ’90s.

BAF: I think that’s what I was thinking of. But it’s interesting, you mentioned the illicit drug trade and comparing it. I said there’s just so much mystique and intrigue around the truffle industry that it’s almost comparable that people, cutting their supply with filler and whatnot and the whole secrecy, which I think in a lot of ways just. 

Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, it’s exactly dynamic.

BAF:: Now can I ask a little bit about the dogs involved? You mentioned the owners are very proud of them. How did they go about actually training as a dog to do it? Just as a narcotic dog would just train it to the smell I assume?

Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, that’s basically right. You expose the dog to the smell reward with a treat right away and then you keep doing that and you make it a little harder each time. So you start hiding the truffle in your house or under a pillow and if the dog finds it, the dog gets a treat. Then you might even play fetch with the truffle and the dog gets a treat each time. So the dog learns that when he or she finds that smell and brings it back, they get a nice little biscuit or sausage or whatever. Then you make it a little harder. You go outside and maybe you play on the lawn, you bury the truffle and they have to find it. And then eventually the hard part is when you suddenly transition to hunting in the wild, but if the dogs are good enough and some are some aren’t, they will have no problem spotting those underground truffles in the wild by smell sometimes from 50 yards away, they’ll like just hone in on a truffle. It’s amazing.

BAF: Is it limited to a specific breed or breeds or?

Rowan Jacobsen: You get different answers on that, there’s an Italian breed called a lagotto Romagnolo That’s famous for truffle hunting and it’s been bred for truffle hunting for centuries. And of course the towns will tell you, it’s the only dog that makes a great truffle hunter and lagotto’s are great. They’re high energy, they kind of look like poodles. They’re actually one of the four runners of poodles. They’re smart. And they live to truffle hunt so they’re always up for a truffle hunt. So they are great, but I’ve seen a lot of other dogs that can do it too and some of the top experts I’ve been with have said to me, any dog can do this, just get them when they’re young and interested, maybe when they’re about a year old and just make truffle hunting the most fun thing in the world for them.

BAF: So were you able to get out and handle the dogs yourself?

Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, for sure. I loved watching the dogs work. The intelligence is just great and just what they can do through scent is just amazing. We know that their noses are way better than ours, but to actually see that in action is a whole different thing. It’s not just that their noses are that much more fine tuned than ours. They somehow, you can tell, they’re getting sort of like a mental map of the area in their minds produced purely through smell. Because they will, at first it looks like they don’t know what they’re doing. They’ll kind of just zig zag back and forth, sniffing on the ground the whole time and you think they’re going in all directions, they’re not zooming in on anything, but what they’re doing is it’s almost like listening in stereo, they’re sort of producing this mental map in their minds. So then they’ll do that for a while and suddenly they’ll just stop and go and scratch at a spot and say dig here. So their brains work completely differently than ours and watching sort of the give and take between the owner and the dog is really fascinating.

BAF: So I have to ask what happened to the pigs, these legendary pigs that people used.

Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah, most people still think it’s done with pigs, but nobody’s used a pig in probably a hundred years, but so the pigs did do it and pigs are very enthusiastic about truffles. In fact, probably the reason people got interested in truffles in the first place was cause farmers would see their pigs slipping away into the woods and to like eat these things whenever they got the chance. So then you put a little lead on your pig and you go with your pig and do it. But the pigs really like to eat the truffles. And it’s very hard to convince them not to eat the truffles, especially when they get big. So dogs are way easier to work with. And they’re also easier to transport in your car, of course everyone’s using cars now. And if you have to load a giant pig into your car, it’s hard. And also everyone knows exactly what you’re doing, so there goes your secrecy right there.

BAF: Yeah, they can follow the pig sort of to your spot. I know you touched on this before, but were you aware of the vastness of the truffle world when you started out?

Rowan Jacobsen: I really wasn’t. Pretty quickly in Italy I would sort of like… The Northern Italians when pressed would say “oh well, yes, some of the truffles come from here. But it’s true, some of the truffles come from central Italy ”and then you go down to central Italy and they when pressed say, “yeah, some of the truffles come from here. But it’s true, some of them come from Croatia.” And so then you go Croatia and they say, “well, we have some, but actually Serbia has more.” And it sort of keeps going like that. The frontier keeps expanding and you realize these truffles are coming from all over the place. And it’s this really mature elaborate network that’s completely underground, much like the truffle organism itself. It’s kind of interesting how the network of truffle trade mirrors the shape of the organism beneath the ground. But so completely invisibly to the taxman at least, all these truffles from all over Eastern Europe are finding their way to dealers and eventually to Italy and are being mostly sold in Italy.

BAF:  That description did nothing to demystify the secret organization we were talking about. Now you mentioned Iran, did you go there?

Rowan Jacobsen: I didn’t, but the hunters I saw surprised me. There’s really two major black truffles. There’s the black winter truffle, which is the one that smells really amazing and then there’s a black summer truffle, which also grows throughout Europe and has much less scent, but is really common. So people tend to find large quantities of it. So it’s used a lot in the industry in products and then the places where you’re not going to be getting a fresh truffle on your plate that you’re going to smell. And it’s a lot cheaper, but it’s become really cheap because countries like Iran that never had a truffle market have sort of learned that there’s huge demand for these things in Western Europe. So a few years ago Iran began dumping huge quantities of black summer truffles on the market. And the price went down to $20 a kilo or something. Kind of what the Chinese truffle was commanding and other countries as… So there’s always new countries who sort of are discovering this insatiable demand in Western Europe for truffles and are feeding it.

BAF: I should ask, when you decided to write this book, you had this idea in your mind and when you’re writing and creating, it always expands and changes, but the final vision and where you went and what you did, how did that compare to what you envisioned?

Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah. It ended up being more elaborate once I realized that some of these other countries were way more central to the truffle trade than I had expected. And also I thought… There’s been a lot of pieces of writing that have sort of exposed the scandal that not all these truffles are coming from Italy, but I found the scandal less interesting than the reality that all these people in all these countries are hunting these truffles and each area sort of has their own culture. And sometimes the truffles have a distinctive regionality to them. So I actually thought it was something to celebrate more than to try to turn into a scandal story. So what intrigued me was that there’s actually way more diversity of both truffles and places producing truffles in the world than we’ve been led to believe. And it seems like it’s a ripe time to celebrate at that diversity rather than keep focusing on Italy and France.

BAF: Just talking to you now I just get this vision of what they call the old world wines and the new world wines. Everybody knows wines from France and Italy, but Greece has wines and there’s more wines in Croatia and other places and it almost sounds like the tradition of these two countries, but people forget that these other countries are coming up and developing their own industry as well.

Rowan Jacobsen:  I actually use that metaphor in the book. But that’s the right comparison to make because there was a time when France had gotten so good at mythologizing wine that everyone believed that the only good wine was Burgundy, Bordeaux and Champagne. And then it turned out that you could make great wine in lots of different places with lots of different grapes. And that’s what’s happening in the truffle world is we’re discovering that there are lots of great truffles out there, including the United States. United States actually has some native species that are not well known, but have some pretty great aromatics.

BAF: Some people do wine tasting, are people doing truffle tasting and are there connoisseurs of different areas and whatnot?

Rowan Jacobsen: That’s one thing I’m hoping to promote more, because it’s really fascinating and it’s hard to get the opportunity. It’s hard to get four or five different truffles in the same place at the same time because they have a seasonality to them, but I’ve done it once or twice and it is really fascinating. And people have a really good time. What we tend to do is we’ll get wine glasses and each wine glass gets a single truffle in it wrapped in a paper towel so you can’t see the truffle. And also the paper towel helps kind of capture the aromatics, which can be really volatile. And then you put a little cap on each of the wine glasses and you just pass them around and everybody sniffs as they go and it’s the best way to suddenly grasp how different some of these truffles are from each other.

BAF: Can I ask you, throw objectivity out the window, do you have a favorite variety?

Rowan Jacobsen: I wouldn’t say I have a favorite, but there’s definitely… I’ve been surprised that some of the others out there that are lesser known can definitely go toe to toe with the white truffle and the black winter truffle, which get all the press. There’s a couple species in America, like the Oregon white that is actually more powerful aromatically than the Italian white truffle so much so that it actually puts off some people. It’s intense, but it’s amazing and unheralded. So I think that’s one that’s going to get a lot more attention. And then there’s one in the eastern US called the Appalachian truffle that is very sort of suave and sophisticated and I think it can go toe to toe with the French black winter truffle.

BAF: We say eastern US, are we talking New England or are we further south, Carolinas or..?

Rowan Jacobsen: All of the above apparently. And people are really just trying to figure this out now. I went hunting them a few weeks ago in the Appalachian Mountains in a location that I am not allowed to disclose, but there a couple different states. And we found them in both states and they seem to be fairly plentiful and I know they’ve also been found in New England and upstate New York and Quebec and North Carolina.

BAF: I assumed they wouldn’t go that far north.

Rowan Jacobsen: It’s surprising. They have a crazy range like Texas to Quebec and Michigan.

BAF: Do you have oak trees in your backyard?

Rowan Jacobsen: I don’t and I also don’t have a high enough pH. Truffles seem to almost all like a really high pH. So they need a lot of calcium in the soil. So when people are farming them they actually put lots of lime down. But the places to look in the wild are, especially in the us, which doesn’t have a lot of high pH areas are any anywhere where you’ve got like a seam of limestone.

BAF: I guess it’s almost weather isn’t as important as the actual chemical and mineral makeup of the soil it seems.

Rowan Jacobsen: Yeah. I think that’s true.

BAF: When it comes to truffles, this could be a personal thought, but would you say less is more when it comes to truffles?

Rowan Jacobsen: Yes and that’s a very observant point. You do not need a lot, so they’re famously very expensive, but you only need a few grams. So it’s kind of like saffron, per serving they’re not quite as scary as their reputation financially, but yeah. 

People often… You’ll go to a fancy restaurant in Italy or New York, especially if you’re a sort of a high roller and the line that makes me cringe is they’ll just say “make it snow.” In other words, they’ll tell the waiter to just shave away so that truffle’s covering my pasta and that’s really not the way to go. They’re an intense, but strange aroma. And I’ve actually started to think of them almost more like a flower than a food. You just want a little of that bouquet in your meal. You could even, this is heresy, the truffle sellers probably wouldn’t like me saying this, but you almost don’t need to eat the truffle at all. I’ve almost thought you could use it like a bouquet, just have a truffle in the center of the table instead of a flower arrangement just to perfume your meal and you don’t actually have to have any truffle in your dish.

BAF: You know somebody’s going to spear it with a fork and put it in their bag or something.

Rowan Jacobsen: Well, I guess that could be a problem, that’s true. The show kind of bothers me and because it’s so expensive to sort of justify that price. They have to make the big show of it. But I actually prefer it as one little element just to sort of raise the complexity and surprise in a dish.

BAF: You brought up saffron. Nobody’s going to go around and throw a big pile of saffron on a dish.

Rowan Jacobsen: Right, don’t make itsnow saffron on my food, please.

BAF: Well, that’s going to wrap it up. I don’t want to take more of your time. I have a couple more questions if I may, what do you have next? You’ve written this wonderful book, what’s next?

Rowan Jacobsen: I’ve actually been working on a truffle article for Outside about the Appalachian truffle, which I mentioned. It should be out in a couple months. And so that that’ll be about this truffle that’s found throughout the east and these hunts that I went on the Appalachians and hopefully we’ll sort of introduce that truffle to the US and maybe grow a community around it.

 

Photo credit: Linda Sabbatini

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A Mark Kurlansky–esque romp through the science, history, and culture surrounding that most elusive of foodstuffs, the truffle…The author depicts a culture of truffle finding, trading, and eating that is as complex as the aromatic stew of ingredients that goes into one, and he commits to paper lovely images that combine both intrigue and a certain level of surrealism….It’s an altogether delightful narrative. Fans of pungent flavors-and pungent prose-will enjoy this mouthwatering grand tour of a culinary treasure. – Kirkus Reviews, starred review

A deep dive into all things truffle…well written and full of interesting characters and fascinating facts. – Library Journal

Jacobsen goes on a fruitful quest to discover what makes truffle one of the most sought-after ingredients in the world… You’ll leave Truffle Hound understanding why people feel so strongly about truffles and how to appreciate the extraordinary fungi. – Veranda, “25 Best New Books To Cozy Up With This Fall”

A worldwide catalog of truffle resources invites exploration, and some recipes give ideas for using the bounty. – Booklist

Jacobsen delves into the sometimes twisting history of this food, as well as into the science that makes truffle farming possible. Even as he examines the fungi’s complex history and analyzes questions about who gets access to truffles, Jacobsen’s writing remains accessible, unlike the costly object of his desire. Truffle Houndis a compelling story, but Jacobsen doesn’t leave readers empty-handed when the tale ends. The book also includes a glossary of truffle types, resources for acquiring your own truffles and recipes for after the decadent fungi arrives. It’s an appropriate finish to a delicious book. – BookPage

Jacobsen captivates with this dual narrative, both an eloquent and sensuous treatise on truffles and the enthralling story of his obsessive quest to learn everything there is to know about them… Jacobsen offers a thrilling dive into the secretive and lucrative world ‘of this subterranean wonder.’ The real delicacy here, though, is the arresting prose used to convey his reverence and awe. – Publishers Weekly, starred review

Truffle Hound

On the Trail of the World’s Most Seductive Scent, with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs

Rowan Jacobsen

Carlo Marenda and I pick our way through the cool, mossy woods by the light of his headlamp, his truffle dogs Emi and Buk just ahead, like ghosts at the edge of the dark. Emi sniffs the ground around each tree, a quick once- over for the slightest hint of the maddening scent of a white truffle, which lives several inches underground but is pungent enough to grab the attention of any mammal with a good sniffer. 

It’s late fall in northern Italy, and the white puffs of Carlo’s breath catch in his headlamp. The Italians say the best time to truffle is when there’s “a nip in the air and the trees are bare.” They also say the best time is at night, when the air is cool, the wind is still, and truffle scents pool on the forest floor. 

These trees aren’t quite bare, but the nip is there. For hours we’ve been wandering a Game of Thrones landscape of dark forests and medieval hill towns, every one topped by the jagged silhouette of a castle, dousing our lamps and lying low whenever somebody stirs in a neighboring farmhouse. Carlo has assured me it’s okay to hunt these scraps of woodland nestled between Barolo’s famously steep vineyards, but I’m not 100 percent clear on what “okay” means. I’m intensely alert, my consciousness pushed out to the tips of eyes, ears, skin, nostrils. 

We pad along, the only sound the trickle of the creek we are following and Carlo’s soft, steady “Dai, dai, dai” as he urges the dogs onward. Go, go, go. Emi and Buk are Lagotto Romagnolos, an ancient Italian truffle- hunting breed. Lagottos come in various combinations of brown, white, and cream. Adorable mops with bright beady eyes and bonkers enthusiasm, they remind me of Animal from The Muppet Show. Originally bred centuries ago for retrieving ducks from the marshes of Romagna, they are believed to be the ancestors of other water dogs like poodles, which they resemble. Their intelligence and energy make them excellent trufflers, but the training takes years. A skilled Lagotto can set you back $10,000. 

Insanity? Perhaps. But white truffles are the world’s most expensive food. In Alba, the city a few miles north of here where the annual Alba International White Truffle Fair is in full swing, it costs €3 to €4 per gram to get them shaved over your pasta. In the United States, they can fetch $3,000 a pound. They command such prices because no other food produces such arresting aromas, a cascade of sensation that can bring first- timers to tears, and because they can be found only in the wild, growing symbiotically with the roots of certain trees. A good truffle dog pays for itself. 

Pigs were humanity’s original truffling partners. Pigs are natural and enthusiastic consumers of truffles, and truffling probably evolved from farmers observing their sows uprooting truffles with abandon. By the Middle Ages, and likely long before, farmers in France and Italy had trained their pigs for the hunt. 

But pigs love truffles too passionately. It’s difficult to stop them from eating the truffles they find (stories abound of nine- fingered truffle hunters), so by the 1700s people were already switching to dogs, which happily work for treats. Besides, truffling is a secretive affair; if you’re loading a four- hundred- pound porker into the passenger seat of your Fiat, everyone knows exactly what you’re doing. 

Suddenly Emi doubles back on her trail and plants her nose to the ground, sweeping back and forth. “Piano, piano,” Carlo coos to her. Slow . . .  slow. She lingers at the base of a poplar tree, and I begin to get my hopes up, but then she pulls away and keeps hunting, and again I wonder what I’m doing out here in the middle of the night in a muddy forest at the foot of some of the most celebrated vineyards in the world, when I could be in one of Barolo’s spectacular cantinas drinking those wines instead. But I know. I’m here because a few days ago I walked into a restaurant, here in the peak of truffle season, when the whole region goes pazzo for the little white fungi, and there in the middle of the dining room was a fat one under glass like a bulbous pearl, and I lifted the glass and took a sniff and my world exploded. 

I have smelled lots of yumminess before, but this was different. It was not the warm, cozy scent of chocolate chip cookies baking. Nor was it mouthwatering. It was hardly a food scent at all. It was more like catching a glimpse of a satyr prancing across the dining room floor while playing its flute and flashing its hindquarters at you. You think, What the hell was that? And then you think, I have to know. 

That all went through my head in the seconds it took me to walk from the truffle display to my table, where I joined a distinguished group of wine writers and food aficionados. This was an important meeting, for which we’d all flown great distances, and I was supposed to be bringing my A game. Instead, I sat there in a daze, experiencing something I’ve recognized many times since: I couldn’t stop thinking about that truffle. This wasn’t an intellectual exercise; I believe I had a look on my face like the one my dog gets when he discovers some exquisitely stinky carcass along the roadside. 

Introductions were made, at which point I said, “I’m sorry, I have to go smell that again.” I stood up, set my napkin down, walked back to the display, lifted the glass, and snorted like John Belushi. 

Truffles have very little taste. Like flowers, their strength is their scent, and they wield it for the same purpose: to attract animals that will help them reproduce. Like mushrooms, truffles are the fruiting bodies of subterranean fungi that live their lives in the soil as netlike filaments attached to tree roots. But unlike mushrooms, which use wind and water to disperse their spores, truffles stay underground, wrapped in a protective coat known as a peridium, and keep their spores on the inside, like a mushroom that never unfolds. Most are about the size of a button mushroom, though they can get much larger. 

Slice open a truffle and you’ll see a beautiful marbled interior, with a fine honeycomb of white “veins” enfolding countless pockets of microscopic spores, which usually turn dark when ripe. Truffles depend on animals to dig them up, eat them, and spread these spores far and wide. To achieve that, they produce a dumbfounding array of aromatic compounds. The scent seems to emanate from every atom of the truffle, and it works: squirrels, slugs, mice, foxes, pigs, deer, bears, beetles, baboons, and many other animals go crazy for the things. And so do we. 

No words can do justice to the scent of a white truffle, though much ink has been spilled in the attempt. Common terms include garlic, cheese, earth, sex, and gasoline, but they all miss the mark. The late food writer Josh Ozersky may have come closest, describing it as “a combination of newly plowed soil, fall rain, burrowing earthworms and the pungent memory of lost youth and old love affairs.” Not the kind of thing you easily forget. 

I returned to the table and muddled my way through lunch, but I was useless. I kept asking my dining companions if they wanted to go smell the truffle. In my mind, I was trying to make sense of all the underwhelming truffle experiences in my past, the truffle fries and truffle salt that almost smelled synthetic, like freaky wax models of the real thing. Even the handful of pricey truffle dishes I’d had in American restaurants had been utterly drained of their mojo compared to whatever I’d just encountered. I’d never understood the truffle thing, and now, suddenly, I had to.

 

 

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