A rare glimpse into the world of 'white diamonds'
I knew I had come to the right hotel when I asked to speak to the proprietor and was told that he was out, hunting truffles.
White truffles, one of the rarest and most highly prized foods to grace a table, were the reason I had come to this medieval hilltop village in the Langhe region of Piedmont. It is around here, and only around here, that the king of the truffle world grows. And it is to the restaurant of the hotel La Contea that pilgrims flock each autumn from as far away as Germany to pay homage to the legendary fungus.
It was not surprising, I was to discover, that La Contea's owner was not at home when I arrived. During the three-month truffle season, procuring enough of the valuable delicacy to satisfy his customers is almost a full-time job for Antonio Verro, a garrulous and jovial fellow universally known throughout the region as Tonino.
"My clients come here for truffles, so I have to find them for them," Tonino told me after returning well after 10 o'clock that night.
I had realized why a little earlier in the evening, as I tasted white truffles for the first time. (At about $2,000 a pound, "white diamonds" are not on my weekly shopping list.)
Tonino's staff had laid a table for me in the corner of the kitchen, where I could sit and watch "the spectacle," as the head waiter put it, of 75 top-class eight-course meals going out. I also had a good view of the box full of truffles - nubby beige lumps that could have been pebbles - from which the chef would regularly pluck a piece.
I was presented with a small plate of veal tartare sprinkled with gray-brown slivers of truffle. Tentatively, I nibbled on a shaving: It tasted delicately of autumn leaves and forest floor, earthy and fragrant. Interesting, I thought, but worth the rave reviews that generations of gastronomes had given the white truffle?
A couple of courses later, truffles turned up again, enriching duck-liver mousse served with a warm potato croquette. This time I was on the verge of declaring myself disappointed, as the taste of the truffles almost vanished behind the rich, gamey flavors of the mousse.
And then came the dish that tore aside the curtains of my doubt and revealed the full splendor of the white truffle.
It was a simple dish of tagliatelle, tossed in butter, sprinkled lightly with Parmesan cheese, and then slathered with truffle shavings.
The aroma was unlike anything I had ever smelled - enigmatic and elusive. There was a clear tang of garlic, strong undertones of damp leaves, a hint of tar and tobacco, a waft of honey and fermenting hay. It was heavenly.
Lest this sound too lyrical, I was to sniff truffles the next day that smelled more of ammonia and old socks. "The white truffle covers an extraordinarily wide aromatic scale," says Isabella Gianicola, an expert with the National Center for Truffle Studies in Alba.
White truffles are never cooked: Too much heat destroys their fragrance. They are merely shaved or grated over a bland food - a fried egg, risotto, pasta - that brings out their uniqueness.
They are found in a few places around the world, growing on tree roots; they have never been successfully cultivated. Oregon and the Istrian peninsula in Croatia boast versions - but the Alba truffles are in a class of their own.
Sought out by local men with trained dogs, often at night to keep the source secret, white truffles ripen between September and the end of the year, and are best eaten fresh. That, and their aura of magic, is what fuels the frenzy of the annual truffle market and fair in Alba, held on weekends in October and early November.
Thousands of visitors throng the narrow cobblestone streets, checking out shop windows full of truffle-related gadgets such as plane-like olivewood shavers, stiff brushes (all you need to clean a truffle), and small glass bell jars under which the precious pepite can be presented at table.
A 3 euro ($3.60) ticket buys you entry to the truffle market set up in a large white tent off Alba's main street. There, dealers sell truffles of varying size and quality for between $80 and $160 an ounce.
Caveat emptor, though. Not all the truffles on sale come from around Alba, according to people in the know, and the market inspectors say they cannot be certain about a truffle's provenance. A particularly good Croatian example might match an unusually dull Alban one, and the flavor depends on ripeness, the tree onto which the fungal parasite latched, and the soil in which it grew.
I was fortunate to accompany Tonino on a truffle buying expedition, although he is too suspicious of the merchandise in Alba to go there.
Instead, just as dawn broke, we drove into an almost deserted parking lot in the small town of Nizza Monferrato. Three other men, wrapped against the morning chill, stood by their cars. Tonino gave these rival buyers a brief hello, and opened the trunk of his hatchback, to signal that he was in the market for truffles.
Fifteen minutes later, an elderly man in a frayed tweed jacket drove into the lot. Tonino's 12-year-old grandson, Alessandro, approached him, muttered a few words, turned, and nodded to his grandfather.
With purpose in his stride, Tonino walked over to the man and took a package wrapped in kitchen paper from his hand. Inside were two truffles the size of my thumb. Tonino rolled them between his fingers, inspected them closely, and sniffed quickly at them.
The man wanted 250 euros ($300) for them. Tonino took them back to his car, and weighed the two little nuggets on the kitchen scale he keeps in the trunk. He agreed to the price and signaled to his other grandson, Diego, to pay the man in cash.
The semiclandestine scene repeated itself a dozen or so times over the next couple of hours, reminding me of nothing so much as furtive drug deals, except that most of the participants were near or beyond retirement age.
During the truffle season, Tonino said, he attends this "market" twice a week, and also makes two or three rounds of his regular suppliers at their homes. Assuring a supply, he explained, when he goes through four or five kilos a week at his restaurant, "is all a matter of trust."
"I don't want to pay too much, but I can't pay too little or they won't come back to me," he said of the truffle hunters. "When I visit them I take a bottle of olive oil as a present, or some good pasta" to smooth negotiations.
By half past 9, when Tonino had just over a kilo (2.2 pounds) of truffles in the polystyrene cooler he keeps in the back of his car, he decided to call it a day. But even as he tucked into breakfast in a local eatery, truffle hunters continued to file in, their jacket pockets bulging, to show him their wares and bargain over a sale.
Eventually we set off for home. Before we left, I opened the cooler one last time, bent my head to the little bundles nestling inside, and inhaled deeply. The morning air had never smelled so good.