Truffle Hunting in Alba
We drove to Alba on Sunday in an expedition planned by Alex’s thoughtful friend Alessandro. There were a total of eight of traveling from Torino to Alba, and I was in the car with Alessandro, Alessandro, and Alessandra. Every time someone said, “Ale,” there was a lot of confusion. We went to Alba to eat at a restaurant that none of us had ever been to, but there were great reviews. We also went to see the Truffle Expo.
When I say truffle, I don’t (unfortunately) mean the sweet, dense, chocolate confection. I mean the fungus that pigs and dogs hunt at this time of the year in Europe. Truffle hunters come from all over Italy to sell their freshly-hunted truffles. There are black truffles, white truffles, truffle honey, truffle pasta, truffle oil, basically anything made with truffles or that you would eat with truffles in the Expo. And there’s a street fair. We walked through the street fair, ate roasted chestnuts, and then Alex and I went into the Truffle Expo. I thought we were just going there to look, but it turned out we were going to shop for a gift for Alex’s dad’s birthday. For some reason, that little fact had been withheld. I wasn’t sure why until we walked into the Truffle Expo.
Truffles produce three kinds of odors. I learned about this by watching the original episodes of Iron Chef, but now I know it by experience. There’s the outer truffle odor, the inner truffle odor, and then the taste, which is completely different than the smell would lead you to believe. The outer truffle odor is what we smelled in the Expo. When we walked by a truffle hunter, the hunter would open the case to let the smell reach us so we’d know what a fragrant truffles they had, and you would get this waft of… earthy grossness… in your nose. I was feeling a little gagaliscious by the time we had found the truffle hunter of choice.
Truffles are extremely expensive. Alex bought a truffle of good quality (not great quality, but good) big enough that you couldn’t close your fist around it. I thought I would pass out when the hunter named his price, but Alex calmly reached in his wallet and pulled out more than we would pay for a fine dinner for our family at the nicest restaurant in Springfield. For a tartufo bianco d’Alba (white truffle of Alba).
We packed the truffle carefully, put it in the back of Alessandro’s SUV, and went to eat at the restaurant that sat on the side of a vineyard-packed hill outside Alba. It was difficult to find and had wonderful food. We ate and talked for a couple of hours, and then one of the women in the group got sick, and we ended up staying for quite a while until she felt good enough to get in the car and return home to Torino. It was 11 PM before we attempted to get back in the car, and when we opened the door, we discovered that truffle fumes had been escaping the truffle’s enclosures for the last 3 hours and filling the car with the stink of truffle. Alessandro said, “Truffles smell like gas,” and he didn’t mean gasoline. After experiencing the truffle’s levels of odor, I would amend his description to say the outside of a truffle smells like a mushroom that just eaten a load of garlic passed gas. It’s like stinky crossed the line into torturous. Alessandro pulled out a bottle of Bulgari cologne and sprayed the car down, and then only 3 of us could manage to climb into the fragrant SUV. We drove back to Torino with the windows down. Eau d’truffle beats eau d’Bulgari (for future reference).
The truffle has lived on the balcony since the wee hours of Monday morning, sealed in a glass container. Alex tried to put it in the refrigerator, but his mother moved it to the porch. I am slightly in awe/afraid of it. Having a truffle around is kinda like having a pet gremlin. We leave it all alone and don’t bother it, less it release its stinkyness upon us or multiply. We’ve shaved pieces from it twice, on bowls of buttered pasta. Then Alex shaved some on raw ground veal. When he began to eat it, I just had to leave the table and go lay down. The combination of raw meat, veal, and truffle odor was just too much for this Missouri girl.
It was a strange experience, this truffle. Truffle definitely smells better when you’re eating it, but it’s not the strongest-tasting thing in the world. It’s like your mouth tastes buttered pasta, but you’re smelling something completely different (and, good for us, something completely different than the smell in the car).
The truffle almost made Alessandra throw up, made three of us freeze to keep from gagging, and left us all smelling like Bulgari cologne and fungus farts. It did, however, make his dad ecstatically happy on his 74th birthday, and that (plus the good company of friends and a nice meal) made the truffle-hunting worthwhile.