My friend Patricia Wu, a freelance food writer shared this wonderful story about Gigi the truffle hunter!
Gigi, a four-year-old mutt, is worth his weight in gold. Gigi (short for Luigi) is the best truffle hunting dog Renato Agnello has ever had. Agnello should know. He’s one of the best truffle hunters in the Piedmont region of northern Italy , home to the renowned white Alba truffle.
The 73-year-old Agnello first went hunting for the world’s most expensive mushroom with his father when he was 6 and has been hooked ever since. A grin lights up his weathered face as he remembers his biggest find - a 510-gram white truffle in 2001. That's about 18 ounces and it's a pipe dream this year. Unseasonably dry weather has made the rare mushroom even more scarce this year.
Truffles are composed of 80 percent water so rain is needed to help them grow. Humidity also helps to bring out the mushroom’s legendary aroma ... making them easier to find. That’s one reason why truffle hunters, or trifulau as they’re known, go hunting at night.
There are other reasons to search under the cover of darkness. No one wants to tip off a rival to a good location and it’s quieter at night so the dogs are less easily distracted. Competition for truffles, also known as white gold or diamonds of the kitchen, is so fierce that a trifulau would never dream of letting his dog go outside on its own for fear of it being kidnapped by a jealous rival. The night foraging is why truffle hunting dogs are mostly white or light-colored. They're easier to see in the dark.
Since it’s about 3 p.m. when my friends and I follow Agnello into the woods, we’re not expecting much. Our guide explains that truffle hunting trips for tourists are simulated. The trifulau plants a black truffle in the ground for the dog to find so that tourists can see the process. Black truffles are used since they’re less expensive than the white ones.
We follow Gigi as he scurries forward eagerly sniffing and pawing. Truffles develop underground near the roots of certain trees. White ones only grow wild and almost exclusively near Alba. Agnello proudly says that, "The soil of Alba cannot be copied or reproduced." Certainly, no one has been able to cultivate a white truffle yet. So the prized mushroom brings a gleam to every chef and foodie's eye. In the Piedmont region, that's just about everyone as it is home to more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other region in Italy .
Suddenly, Gigi is digging excitedly and his tail is wagging furiously. He has found the planted black truffle! We all clap and cheer as he gets a treat for his “find.” As we head back, I ask Agnello if he eats a lot of truffles. He says no with a wink and a smile and explains that, “Truffles are legendary aphrodisiacs.” Since he goes truffle hunting every night during the season instead of spending time with his wife, eating them would be a problem. A bark from Gigi interrupts my next question. We head over to where Gigi is again digging furiously. Agnello drops down to his knees and starts digging deeper and deeper into the hard, dry soil with his bare hands. About 7 inches down, Agnello finds a white truffle. It looks like a very small, misshaped potato. He lifts it out and the aroma is unmistakeable -- a blend of fresh mushrooms, the earth, hay, a rainy fall day and maybe a hint of garlic. Agnello is stunned at the find. He has never unearthed a white truffle on a hunting trip with tourists in the middle of the afternoon.
Agnello estimates that this truffle weighs 20 grams or about .7 ounces. That's much smaller than the average size of 30-40 grams. Size is just one factor in evaluating a truffle. It also must be very fragrant and just the right consistency. It can't be too hard or it’s not ripe. But, if it's soft, it's overripe. Gigi’s find passes the muster and Agnello estimates it's worth about 50 euros or $75. That may be conservative. The lack of rain this season has driven prices to twice what they were last season -- about 4,000 euros for one kilogram or about $150 per ounce. Consumers are paying about $200 an ounce for white Alba truffles. One ounce is enough for several dishes.
But Agnello says he doesn’t plan on selling it. He’s retired from truffle hunting for profit and now does it simply because it’s in his blood. He is a fifth generation truffle hunter and he’s teaching his 13-year-old granddaughter the secrets of the family trade.
So what will Agnello do with Gigi’s find? He says he will give it to a friend. Truffles should be eaten as soon as possible. It starts to lose moisture and decay as soon as it is out of the ground. The soil on the truffle helps to preserve moisture so it is not brushed off until the truffle is ready to be served. It only lasts about five days in the best of conditions. It must be wrapped in a damp cloth and placed inside a glass container and refrigerated. Incorrect storing will make it spoil even faster.
As Agnello tells me about dishes made with white truffle, I wonder how anyone manages to keep one around for more than a few hours, much less a few days. White truffles are shaved into thin slices and eaten raw over a simple pasta or risotto so that the truffle's flavor and fragrance takes center stage. It also can be paired with thin slices of raw beef, polenta or cheese fondue.
As I ponder the mouth-watering possibilities, Agnello thinks about the rest of the white truffle hunting season. It runs until about January so there is still time to make up for this year's disappointing start. Agnello tells us the forecast calls for rain as he drives off with Gigi, the truffle hunter's best friend.
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