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HUNTING

Hunting gastronomic gold in Italy’s truffle country

"It is not a job. It's a passion, a real sickness!"

Hunting gastronomic gold in Italy's truffle country
Dora the gundog hunts for truffles. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

It is the early hours of the morning and Giovanni Sacchetto is explaining why chilly autumn nights find him trailing by moonlight through the woods around Alba in the Piedmont region of northern Italy.

Sacchetto, 64, and his beloved companion Dora, a sprightly Lagotto Romagnolo gundog, are on the hunt for white truffles, the hard-to-find fungi famed amongst foodies for their earthy scent, and their equally heady prices.


Dora. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

“I can go to bed at 11:00 pm and be up again at 3:00 am, ready to go out again,” Sacchetto says. “It is not for the money. It is a sickness you have inside.

“A truffle is a strange thing. And it's lovely, because it's so strange.You never know where you might find one. Never.”


Dora and Sacchetto. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Now nine, Dora has been Sacchetto's constant companion since she was an eager young puppy learning how to use her sensitive nose to sniff out truffles buried beneath the forest floor.

“I'm not saying it is better than a wife, but for a truffle hunter his dog is something… indescribable,” Sacchetto says with a smile.


Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP+

Part of humanity's heritage

The Romagnolo breed is known for its acute sense of smell but individual dogs still have to be trained, starting with pieces of gorgonzola, the whiffy Italian blue cheese, buried under ground, before graduating to actual truffles.

Now when Dora locates a truffle, she wags her tail excitedly over the spot where a valuable tuber awaits – usually buried between 10-30 cm (4-12 inches) below the surface.


“I'm not saying she's better than a wife, but…”. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

For her it is a game – her efforts rewarded with a treat in the form of a biscuit or a little piece of dry bread.

Sacchetto was 14 when he first went truffle hunting, with his grandfather. At the time, it was about putting food on the table, he recalls.

Now it is more of a hobby, but secret spots are still jealously guarded.

“I've been doing this for 50 years, I know all the plants, all the paths.”


A truffle which sold for €100,000. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

At one time, truffles were more plentiful but the cutting of some trees and the effects of pollution on others has reduced the autumnal bounty, he says.

Fears the delicate ecosystem that produces the white truffles could be at risk has triggered a crowdfunding initiative aimed at raising 50,000 euros to ensure better management of the local woodlands.


An Alba truffle seller. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Antonio Degiacomi, president of the National Centre for the Study of Truffles, says wooded areas around Alba have been neglected, with faster growing species threatening to crowd out truffle-friendly trees like oaks and lime trees.

“There is not an imminent threat but we have to be pro-active,” he says.

Helpful measures include thinning denser woodland and planting new trees but coordinating action is complicated, notably because the hunters who know where truffles are produced often do not own the land on which they forage.+


Truffles are presented with their weight and price at Alba's market. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

'Like fine wine'

Tracking down edible fungi is an Italian obsession with some 200,000 active enthusiasts nationwide, of whom 4,000 are based in Piedmont.

The country is so proud of its truffle culture that it has asked for it be enshrined on a list of humanity's intangible heritage maintained by the UN's culture body, UNESCO.


Truffles are presented to potential buyers. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Alba is already well known in gastronomic circles as home to some of Italy's most famous red wines and it has been hosting an annual white truffle fair since before World War II, drawing in thousands of gourmet pilgrims for nearly two months of tasting, buying and selling.


A tourist smells a truffle at Alba's fair. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

This year's festivities conclude on November 27th and prices are averaging 3,000-4,000 euros ($3,300-$4,400) per kilo.

For Swiss enthusiast Marie-Claude, it is a price worth paying.

“Just the scent is something unique,” she said. “Personally I like it best with something really simple, just on some pasta or a risotto.”


A woman assesses truffles at the fair. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

Matteo Baronetto, head chef at the Michelin-starred “Del Cambio” restaurant in nearby Turin, concurs.

“The thing that is very specific to the Alba truffle is the incomparable lightness of its aroma, and its elegance,” he says as he assembles a salad of seasonal vegetables speckled by ultra-fine shavings of the local delicacy.


Gianmaria Bonino, a specialist in white truffle production. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

“It is such a pure product of nature that us chefs have to be at the service of the truffle, and not the other way round.”

Harvested from September 21st until the end of January, truffles need both rain and cold to thrive, according to Sacchetto.


A man sniffs a truffle. Photo: Giuseppe Cacace/AFP

“The colder it is, the better the truffle,” he says, adding that no two are exactly alike.

“The truffle is like wine, each zone has its own smell and those from Alba are the most perfumed.”

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FOOD & DRINK

RANKED: The 11 worst food crimes you can commit according to Italians

From fruity pizza toppings to spaghetti bolognese, an international study has revealed which of the most common 'crimes' against Italian cuisine are seen as most and least offensive.

Pasta with sauce on top and vegetables on the side.
The Italian food police are on their way. Photo: logan jeffrey on Unsplash

It turns out that putting cream in carbonara is not actually the worst thing you could do when holding a dinner party for Italian friends.

And, while not ideal, neither is snapping your spaghetti before cooking it, or even serving it as a side dish.

The many unwritten rules around eating and drinking in Italy are often baffling to foreigners, while Italians themselves are famous for raging against what they see as “disgusting” interpretations of classic dishes.

READ ALSO: Seven surprising Italian food rules foreigners fall foul of

But in Italy, some of these food-related faux pas are viewed as far more upsetting than others, according to the results of a international study published by YouGov.

At the end of last year, researchers compiled a list of 19 ways in which foreigners are often accused of abusing Italian cuisine and asked people in 17 countries, including Italy, whether each was acceptable or unacceptable.

Of these, eight culinary practices were judged as being either fairly acceptable or divisive by Italian survey respondents.

Eating pizza at lunchtime instead of in the evening was deemed wrong by only a minority of Italians; while many also reserved judgement on people combining Bolognese sauce or ragù with spaghetti – which is famously not the done thing in Bologna.

Putting sauce on top of pasta, as opposed to serving the pasta coated in the sauce, meanwhile, was seen as mildly controversial.

However, the majority deemed 11 of the listed transgressions to be completely out of order, issuing a clear warning against certain habits which are widespread outside the country – and which, for the most part, were not seen as problematic by the majority of respondents in other countries surveyed.

Here’s the list of the very worst crimes against Italian food according to the study – ranked from the offences seen as deeply disturbing to those deemed slightly less terrible.

1. Putting ketchup on pasta – this was by far the most distressing item on the list according to Italians, scoring -82. It was one of only two food crimes on the list that Americans also deemed unacceptable (-48), with Spaniards similarly against (-46). However, in 11 countries people said this was perfectly fine, with Indonesians (+76) and Hong Kongers (+79) the most enthusiastic. People in Sweden also seem to enjoy pasta with ketchup, the survey found (+46).

2. Putting pasta in cold water and then boiling it – the results are clear with a score of -71: don’t do this in front of an Italian unless you want them to run screaming from the kitchen. Of course, you’re supposed to add the pasta to water that’s already gently boiling. Adding pasta to cold water was the most disdained practice around the world overall, including by Americans, with only Chinese (+16) and Hong Konger (+31) respondents more likely to be ok with it. 

3. Putting pineapple on pizza – there’s a reason you won’t see a Hawaiian listed on the menu in many pizzerias in Italy – it’s seen as the third-worst thing you could do to the national cuisine with a score of -63 .France isn’t keen either (-15) though Australia appears to have plenty of fans of fruity pizza toppings (+50).

4. Serving pasta as a side dish – think a mound of spaghetti would be a nice accompaniment to your grilled meat or fish? Think again if you’re in Italy, where the idea of having pasta as a contorno ranked as one of the worst possible food crimes with a score of -63. As all Italians know, pasta is served before the meat, fish or other main course, as a primo. No other country surveyed had a problem with this, though, and the French were especially big fans of pasta as a plat d’accompagnement.

5. Cutting long pasta with a knife while eating – the message is clear: don’t snap it, don’t cut it; you’ll need to learn how to twirl your spaghetti elegantly around your fork if you want to be invited back to an Italian home for dinner. This habit is another one people in the country apparently find disturbing, with a score of -46.

6. Putting cream in carbonara sauce – perhaps surprisingly, this famous crime against Italian cuisine – which regularly provokes furious online outbursts and stern warnings from Italian chefs – came in at only 6th place with a score of -45. As any Italian will tell you, there’s no need for cream in the authentic recipe.

7. Topping seafood pasta with cheese – this rule may not seem obvious to non-Italians, but we don’t recommend asking for the grated parmesan after being served a steaming plate of spaghetti alle vongole. It’s a major faux pas in Italy, where it scored -39, while Americans gave a far more positive rating of +38.

8. Rinsing cooked pasta in cold water – while many people abroad may think they need to rinse boiled pasta, Italians wouldn’t do this. Instead, many recipes call for the starchy pasta water to be conserved and used to finish the sauce. While perhaps seen as more senseless than revolting, this practice scored -23 in Italy.

9. Drinking cappuccino after lunch – Long, milky coffees are for breakfast in Italy, and while the barista probably won’t refuse to make you a cappuccino at 3pm, be aware that this might cause confusion and could turn other customers’ stomachs, as Italians gave this habit a score of -23. That’s despite the rest of Europe being fine with the concept; it scored +65 in Spain, +62 in Germany and +53 in France.

10. Boiling pasta without salt – Italians will tell you that a pinch of salt is essential in the cooking water for pasta, and leaving it out is highly controversial, with a score -17. Meanwhile, the British don’t see a problem (+15).

11. Eating garlic bread with pasta – While the rest of the world may ask what could possibly be wrong with this, the concept of filling a baguette with garlic butter and baking it just doesn’t really exist in Italy – even if it does seem to exist in every Italian restaurant on the planet outside of the country itself. Americans are particularly enthusiastic about this combination (+83), as are Brits (+80) but Italians gave it the thumbs down with -14.

The results also showed that attitudes to some of the established food rules are shifting among young Italians.

The biggest difference comes with drinking cappuccino after a meal, something which 18-24 year-old Italians tend to think is fine (+24), but which older age groups – and especially the over 55s (-36) – say is unacceptable. 

READ ALSO: The common Italian food myths you need to stop believing

Young Italians are also substantially more likely than their older peers to say that eating garlic bread with pasta or having risotto as a side dish is ok.

However, younger Italians seem to have turned against the practice of adding oil to the water when cooking pasta. Those aged 18-24 and 25-34 tend to consider this unacceptable, whereas their elders tend to see it as fine, the survey found.

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