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A nose for the truffle in Italy's Piedmont

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HEAVY mist lingered on the morning of our great adventure — a truffle hunt in the grape-laden hills of the Piedmont region in northern Italy.

Our truffle hunter appeared out of the fog to greet us, strolling up a lovely country road as a brown-and-white mutt trotted at his side. He had on worn black boots, carried a curved walking stick and had deep crinkles on his face. Hollywood could not have produced a more appealing practitioner of the ancient truffle-hunting trade than Beppe Farenetti.

That should have been our first clue.

Yet we were infatuated. Not just with Farenetti but also with the idea of trampling through muddy woods in search of the holy grail of foodies: plugs of white truffles said to be buried here and nowhere else in the world.

A pungent and root-like fungus, truffles are a valuable delicacy, shaved over eggs, noodles, rice dishes, sometimes even raw meat. Black truffles are more commonly found in France, but gourmets prize the rare Italian white truffle, tastier and more fragrant than its European sister.

The retail price for a single ounce of white truffle is about $300, which shows the lengths dedicated foodies will go for a taste.

We had anticipated the hunt, expecting it to be the highlight of our group's weeklong culinary tour of Piedmont, near Italy's northwestern border with France. The 12 in our group — couples, travel buddies and a few singletons — were from the United States, Canada and England.

I had come to Piedmont in late October with Kathy O'Green, a lifelong friend who shares my passion for cooking and travel. We viewed it as the trip of a lifetime for a pair of working Southern California moms eager to chuck the daily stresses, if just for seven days (plus a side trip to Venice).

So far it had delivered. Our tour already had taken us to hilltop caverns where Barolo wines are coaxed into perfection and to villages where makers of local specialties offered us samples of their delicious wares. We had walked through medieval castles and slept in a hill-top former convent dating to the 17th century. Three days into the tour, we still were adjusting our palates and appetites to a busy schedule of three-hour lunches at good inns followed by four-hour dinners at even better restaurants.

Our guide kept us away from tourist traps for an informed look at some of Piedmont's finest food, wine and ancient architecture. The autumn mists that settled over the region's fertile hills and valleys each morning added to the romance.

But this morning's hunt would remind us that, in the eyes of some, all travelers are tourists. And a savvy truffle hunter knows you have to give the tourists what you think they want.

*

A foodies' weekOUR group was led by Pamela Sheldon Johns, a cookbook author who organizes several tours of Italy's diverse culinary regions each year. Sheldon Johns was in her 30s when she left her job as an Orange County special-education teacher to follow an interest in cooking.

By 2000, she was spending so much time in Italy that she and her husband, Courtney, found a villa in Tuscany and made it their home. Besides food tours, the couple run a bed-and-breakfast on their ivy-covered estate and grow olives.

Pamela Sheldon Johns' connections with many of Italy's top chefs and winemakers showed in the quality of the tour. Most nights, we ate at white-tablecloth establishments and sampled wines of such quality that I — a beer drinker — finally understood what all the fuss over big reds is about.

But I had never traveled with a tour group and was apprehensive. What if I wanted to sleep in one day? Would the tight schedule make it impossible to ramble around new places, following my nose? And what if Kathy and I didn't care for our traveling companions?

I shouldn't have worried: As it turned out, my fellow adventurers included many delightful, well-traveled and interesting people. Our tour leader left a more mixed impression. It sometimes felt as though she had done this trip one too many times. In any case, it was a minor quibble, and it didn't spoil things for me. There were just too many interesting things to do and see, and so many meals and glasses of wine to be consumed.

We started out in Turin, site of the Winter Olympics that began Friday. We stayed overnight at the Turin Palace, a large hotel whose main benefit was its convenient location across the street from the train station.

Over the next week, we traveled by bus south from Turin to the towns of Alba and Asti, and to the many hilltop villages that surround them.

Our days settled into a busy routine: We left our hotel early in the morning for a cooking demonstration or a visit to a specialty food maker. Around 1 p.m., lunch — a three- to four-course affair accompanied by fine wines and espresso with dessert — would follow at a nearby restaurant. We often crammed another activity into the late afternoon before returning to our hotel for a brief rest.

In the Italian tradition, dinner started promptly at 8 p.m., and it was a more elaborate, multi-course version of lunch. I can't think of one night when I hit my pillow before midnight.

Our accommodations were varied and included a sparsely furnished hotel room in the heart of Alba, where a big truffle festival was underway, to a couple of nights at the luxury Relais San Maurizio resort in the peaceful hills of the Langhe district. The higher-end rooms offered comfort and spectacular views, but our daily activities kept us so busy that we had little time to luxuriate in them. Several of my fellow travelers said they would have liked a little more free time.

*

Ravioli lessonsMY favorite stop came early in the trip. On Day 2, we settled into Relais San Maurizio, a former Franciscan convent from the 17th century. The hotel's restaurant, Guido da Costigliole, attracts a loyal patronage for its upscale fare, and we had a morning cooking class there.

Our tutor was Lidia Alciati, renowned for her agnolotti del plin, tiny ravioli filled with a savory blend of meats and herbs. Alciati and her sons took over the restaurant's operations after her husband died several years ago. "Mama" Alciati had been making the ravioli by hand every day for more than 45 years.

Her hands flew as she showed us how to make them. As Sheldon Johns translated instructions and tips, each of us took turns making a dozen. Although my results couldn't measure up to those created by Alciati's expert hand, the ravioli, which we ate for lunch later, were among my favorite dishes of the week.

My top dish was part of the same meal. Waiters in formal black coats brought out plates, each bearing a single fried egg. Using a special tool, they expertly coated the eggs with razor-thin shavings of white truffles and passed the plates around. The room fell silent as our group devoured them, accompanied by a glass of 1989 Barolo from the Mascarella vineyard.

I am not particularly fond of wine, nor do I understand the passion with which connoisseurs follow it. But this glass of red was different. The Barolo was mellow, its tasty vapors filling first my mouth and then my head.

The egg-and-truffle dish was also new, puzzling territory. How to describe its taste? Earthy and sensual, maybe. And no one flavor overpowered the other. The combination — the wine and the egg — was intoxicating.

After lunch, we went to Barolo Castle and made a quick stop at the tiny village bakery, where siblings — a brother and two sisters — have been hand-rolling long, thin breadsticks for 30 years. By the time we returned to the Relais San Maurizio, it was evening, and I was so tired that I begged off dinner, a selection of local salamis, cheeses and wines.

Our dinner table conversations usually revolved around wine and what we had seen that day. Truffles were another frequent topic: their taste, their pungent smell. We made a game of putting into words their flavor, odd shape and odor.

"How can something so unappealing in every way end up tasting good — in small doses?" asked Jeanette Shalove, a seasoned traveler from Connecticut who was in our group.

Lisa Sorrentino, a Calabasas mother of two, added: "Looks like poop, smells like mushroom incense and tastes like nothing I've ever experienced."

But my favorite description came from Piedmont native Sandro Minella: "Reminds [me] of musk, humus, some wild animal."

*

A truffle mysteryTHE day of the hunt, Farenetti handed out walking sticks and advice: It was better to watch as he and his dog Titina worked, at least at first, so he could demonstrate how to find truffles.

Be careful on the steep, muddy hills, he added, because it was easy to slip.

And we could inspect any truffles he found, he said, "but don't forget to give them back."

At Farenetti's command, Titina rushed into the dewy woods and began sniffing. At the base of a wild hazelnut tree, she began pawing the earth. Farenetti pushed her snout away and used a small hoe-like instrument to gently lift out a chunk of dirt. He sifted through it with his rough fingers until only a pea-sized nugget remained.

It was a black truffle, and Farenetti rewarded Titina with a small piece of salami. Then it was on to the next one. I was in close pursuit, hoping to get good photographs.

Titina seemed to put her nose down for only a second before Farenetti moved her away, lifted some leaves off the ground and almost immediately produced a strawberry-sized truffle. "Bene, Titina!" he praised the dog. "Carne grande — big meat!"

We rushed up to inspect the find and were suitably impressed. Within two hours, Titina had located a handful of mostly gravel-sized truffles, except for the carne grande.

As the end of the hunt neared, Farenetti and Titina found the biggest truffle of the day, a black specimen the size of a golf ball.

Kathy nudged me. "Did you see how he marked the tree?" she asked.

Indeed, it was next to an old farm implement on the ground.

Kathy said she had watched as Farenetti directed Titina to the tree.

Despite our creeping suspicions, we kept them to ourselves, content when Farenetti generously gave us all the truffles he had found, sang a few songs in Italian and, with a wave of his hand, bade us farewell.

But several others in the group had shared our doubts, and for the next several hours, we speculated that the biggest truffles had been planted so we would not be disappointed.

What I learned later that day deepened our suspicions. By chance, I had made an appointment to talk with a local man whose family had trained truffle-hunting dogs since 1880. It wasn't often, I reasoned, that you had the opportunity to learn trade secrets from a fourth-generation master.

Giovanni Monchiero and his forefathers were the real thing. He had 75 years of yellowed Italian newspaper clippings detailing the family's "University of Truffle-Hunting Dogs" to prove it.

In a little room that doubled as a museum, Monchiero explained the process he uses to train dogs.

Mutts are better than purebreds, he said, and foremost, the hound must have a "good truffle nose."

Then he said something that made my ears prick up. Most of the truffle hunts that visitors go on are simulated, he said, because the real foraging almost always takes place at night to keep fertile territory a secret.

I asked what he meant by simulated.

The truffles are planted before the hunt — or at least some of them are, he said.

I asked Sheldon Johns about it after I returned home to Ojai. Did Farenetti plant some of the truffles?

Probably not, she said. The first time she went truffle hunting with Farenetti, "I thought the same thing," Sheldon Johns said. "But then we found over 50 truffles, and I doubt that he would have planted all of them."

But what about a few, just to make sure no one was disappointed? "I don't think so," she said, adding, "but I can understand if there are suspicions."

I called Kathy to let her know that we had not solved the mystery of the carne grande truffles.

But did it matter? Not really.

We had come for adventure and a respite, and those we had found.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Tasting tour

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, Air France and Lufthansa offer connecting service (change of plane) to Turin, Italy. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $658 until March 31, increasing to $740 until May 25.

TELEPHONES:

To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 39 (country code for Italy) and the local number.

THE TOUR:

Culinary Arts International, 27 W. Anapamu St., No. 427, Santa Barbara, CA 93101; (805) 963-7289 or in Italy 0578-798-370, http://www.foodartisans.com . Our tour was run by this company, which offers guided weeklong tours of Italy's culinary regions throughout the year. Includes cooking classes or demonstrations at local restaurants. Cost for Oct. 22-28 "Truffles and Risotto," which includes a visit to the Slow Food Salone del Gusto food festival in Turin, about $3,550.

WHERE TO STAY:

Turin Palace Hotel, 8 Via Sacchi, 10128 Turin; 011-562-5511, http://www.worldhotels.com . A 130-year-old hotel that is elegant and close to Turin's attractions. Doubles from $210, including buffet breakfast, service and taxes.

Relais San Maurizio, Hotel del Monastero, 39 San Maurizio, 12058 S. Stefano Belbo; 0141-841900, http://www.relaissanmaurizio.it . On a serene hilltop setting. The former monastery has 33 rooms and suites. Doubles from about $250, including continental breakfast, service and taxes. The hotel's restaurant, Guido da Costigliole, has one Michelin star and offers excellent Piedmontese cuisine and hard-to-fine wines.

TO LEARN MORE:

Italian Government Tourist Board, (310) 820-1898, http://www.italiantourism.com .

— Catherine Saillant

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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