A man with a wicker basket lined with blue checkered cloth walked towards me. It was early November, the height of truffle season in the northern Italian region of Piemonte, and this truffle hunter was delivering a haul to a local restaurant where I’d just had lunch. I could have let him walk right by, he was moving quickly with his trusted dog following closely behind, but instead I said hello, and asked, if that basket might contain what I thought it did? And if so, could I take a quick look?
Better than that, he replied, you can have a sniff. He unfolded the checkered cloth and exposed a pile of white truffles inside, some larger than a grapefruit. He raised the basket to my nose for a sniff of their potent and earthy perfume. I had never seen so many giant white truffles in a single place before and began to wonder about their value, about how their worth can make or break a truffle hunter’s income for the year. One quick sniff and a photo later, and he rushed into the restaurant to make his delivery.
I recently wrote about Piemonte for AFAR magazine, in a story called: How to Do Piedmont Like an Italian Winemaker. During my visit, I met winemaker Michele Chiarlo, who has witnessed 61 vintages in Piemonte. For AFAR, he shared his picks for where to drink wine, where to eat white truffles, and where the winemakers go to eat and drink. I benefitted from his local knowledge during my trip, bumping into the truffle hunter after a lunch recommended by Michele.
In order for my trip to Piemonte during truffle season to be complete, I wanted to see a truffle hunt with my own eyes. When I asked about it at my hotel, I was surprised to learn that some local truffle hunts take place after dark. That’s how I found myself trudging through a muddy hillside one evening, with only moonlight and a soft flashlight guiding the way. The truffle hunter released his dog from her leash and followed her lead; I followed him. Before long, the dog began to dig. When her digging turned into enthusiastic digging, the truffle hunter grabbed a pile of earth, smelled it, and finished the digging himself. Plucking a plum-sized white truffle from the dirt, he brought the treasure to his nose and tossed the dog a treat.
As we continued the hunt, I asked, why after dark? Is there a particular reason why truffle hunting is better after dark? The truffle hunter smiled in return. “Of course it’s possible to hunt for truffles during the day,” he said. “But knowledge of where to find the best truffles is very valuable, and some people prefer to disguise that knowledge by going at night.” He paused to watch the dog sniffing along the edge of a tree trunk. “Plus, some truffles are on private land, and by night, there’s less chance of being seen — understand?” I smiled and nodded.
That night when white truffle was shaved tableside over a simple dish of pasta dressed only in butter and sage, I got to taste one of the season’s great pleasures. Only hours earlier, the truffle had been buried in the dirt somewhere on a hillside nearby.