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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

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

Michelin-starred food has its merits but it doesn't fit with the Italian tradition of cuisine, argues Silvia Marchetti and some frustrated Italian chefs. There's nothing better than a plate of steaming lasagne, she says.

OPINION: Michelin-starred cuisine is just not suited to Italy

I’ve never been a great fan of sophisticated dishes, twisted recipes and extravagant concoctions that leave you wondering what is it you’re actually eating. T-bone steak with melted dark chocolate as topping, burrata cheese with apples, spaghetti with blueberry sauce aren’t my thing.

Hence, I never eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, and it’s not because of the exorbitant bill – paying €200 for a salad simply because it was grown in the private garden of a chef which he personally sprinkles with mountain water each morning, is a bit over the top.

I just don’t think such fancy food has anything to do with the real Italian tradition.

The ‘nouvelle cuisine’, as the name suggests, was invented in France by chef Paul Bocuse. And it’s ‘nouvelle’ – new – not anchored to past traditions.

The philosophy of serving small morsels of chic food on humongous plates as if they were works of art is the exact opposite of what Italian culinary tradition is all about.

We love to indulge in platefuls of pasta or gnocchi (and often go for a second round), and there are normally three courses (first, second, side dish, dessert and/or coffee), never a 9 or 12-course menu as served at Michelin establishments (unless, perhaps, it’s a wedding).

Too many bites of too many foods messes with flavours and numbs palates, and at the end of a long meal during which you’ve tasted so many creative twists you can hardly remember one, I always leave still feeling hungry and unsatisfied. 

So back home, I often prepare myself a dishful of spaghetti because Michelin pasta servings often consist in just one fork portion artistically curled and laid on the dish. In fact, in my view Michelin starred cuisine feeds more the eye than the stomach.

The way plates are composed, with so much attention to detail, colour, and their visual impact, seems as if they’re made to show-off how great a chef is, than as succulent meals to devour. I used to look at my dish flabbergasted, trying to make out what those de-constructed ingredients were and are now meant to be, and then perplexed,

I look at the chef, and feel as if I’m talking to an eclectic painter who has created a ‘masterpiece’ with my dinner. I’m not saying Michelin starred food is not good, there are some great chefs in Italy who have heightened a revisited Italian cuisine to the Olympus of food, but I just don’t like it nor understand it.

There’s nothing greater than seeing a plate of steaming lasagne being brought to the table and knowing beforehand that my taste buds will also recognise it as such, and enjoy it, rather than finding out it’s actually a sweet pudding instead.

More than once, after a 4-hour Michelin meal with a 20-minute presentation of each dish by the chef, the elaborate food tasted has given me a few digestion problems which lasted all night long.

Michelin-starred food has started to raise eyebrows in Italy among traditional chefs, and is now the focus of a controversy on whether it embodies the authentic Italian culinary experience. 

A Milanese born and bred, Cesare Battisti is the owner of restaurant Ratanà, considered the ‘temple’ of the real risotto alla Milanese.

He has launched a crusade to defend traditional Milanese recipes from what he deems the extravagance and “contamination” of Michelin-starred cuisine. “Michelin-starred experiments are mere culinary pornography. Those chefs see their own ego reflected in their dishes. Their cooking is a narcissistic, snob act meant to confuse, intimidate and disorientate eaters”. 

Arrigo Cipriani, food expert and owner of historical trattoria Harry’s Bar in Venice, says Michelin-starred cuisine is destroying Italy’s real food tradition, the one served inside the many trattorias and historical osterias scattered across the boot where old recipes, and cooking techniques, survive.

“Tasting menus are made so that clients are forced to eat what the chef wants, and reflect the narcissistic nature of such chefs. Italian Michelin-starred cuisine is just a bad copy cat of the French one”, says Cipriani.

I believe we should leave French-style cuisine to the French, who are great at this, and stick to how our grannies cook and have taught us to prepare simple, abundant dishes. At least, you’ll never feel hungry after dinner.

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