“Here is a good place,” Stefan, our owlish truffle-guide told us as we entered the forest. We were just outside Alba, in the Piedmont region of Italy. We had spent the last few days in the wine country, staying in a 19th century Gothic castle, hemmed in on three-sides by the Alps and discovering the simple, rich food of the area. It was early June and black truffles had just started making their first appearances on summer menus. With the first bite, we were hooked and wanted to go find some for ourselves.
Kira, our guide’s English pointer bounded ahead of us, tongue-wagging the whole way. The enthusiasm of her five years almost equaled our own. Patrick’s blue eyes shone as bright as Kira’s black ones. If it were not rude, he would probably hang his tongue out of the side of his mouth in excitement of what was to come. Piedmont had been on our list of places to visit for years and hiking through the hazelnut and oak forests in search of the elusive truffle was the ultimate culinary experience.
Black truffles are an uncultivable mushroom. They are more common than the highly-prized white truffle, but their habit of growing underground, away from sight, limits their numbers. They are held in the highest esteem by chefs and foodies alike, often called the “diamond of the kitchen”. In the last few days, Patrick had developed an unnatural affinity for them shaved paper-thin over his eggs in the morning and then again on buttered toast in the afternoons. He was becoming either a gourmand or a glutton, depending on the way you looked at it.
Today, instead of hunting for them on a menu, we were being guided by Kira’s sense of smell to find our own. She led us under the canopy of oaks. Fallen branches crunched underfoot; a wet mossy smell lay heavy in the air.
“The rain last night will have made good truffles today.” Stefan was confident. He was a third generation truffle hunter and had grown up combing these very woods with his father and his truffle sniffing dog. He pushed his black round glasses up the bridge of his nose. “They like cool and damp.” The crisp, misty morning air reaffirmed his belief that today we would be successful.
And, just as soon as Stefan had said it, Kira stopped and buried her black nose in the earth. She sniffed and moved on. She zigged and zagged between trees. At the fourth trunk, her slender white paws scratched furiously, flinging leaves and loam out behind her. Stefan scurried to the base of the tree and gently pushed Kira aside. With his right hand, he swept away the remaining earth to reveal our treasure—a black truffle the size of a golf ball. He pulled it out of the ground and held it delicately between his thumb and forefinger for us to see. The black knobby ball didn’t look like a gem, but we knew we had found gold. “A good place,” he reiterated and passed it back to Patrick.
Patrick cupped the precious find in his hand. I gathered the hair from my face and lowered my head. An intense aroma filled my senses and started my mouth to watering. I breathed in the musky smell of wet earth.
“It smells almost sweet,” I said. The truffles in the market always had a strong odor.
“It is fresh.” Stefan said while brushing the soil over the hole. “The smell will start to change within a day.”
For her part in the discovery, Kira jumped up and pawed at Stefan’s vest. With his free hand he produced kibble from a pocket. “Good work always gets rewarded.” Kira wagged her tail in delight. “Vai, vai,” Go! Stefan said and Kira raced farther into the woods, sticking her nose under every tree she came to.
Patrick tried to hand the truffle back to Stefan. “No, you take this.” He pushed the truffle back at Patrick. “Heat some olive oil and butter. Half, half, and shave this over cooked pasta. Thin, thin.” He brought his fingertips to his mouth and emulated a kiss. “Bellissimo.”
Patrick and I both smiled widely. Stefan was right. This is a good place.
Stefan’s Pasta with Fresh Black Truffles
16 ounces of tagliolini pasta
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ ounce black truffle
Parmesan cheese, freshly grated (optional)
Cook the pasta in highly salted water to al dente. (usually 12 minutes, but check the directions on the package) Drain, reserving ¼ cup of cooking liquid. Melt the butter and olive oil in a sauté pan over medium-high heat. Toss the drained pasta in the butter with the reserved cooking liquid and mix to thoroughly coat all strands of pasta.
Twirl the pasta into six bowls.
With a truffle shaver, thinly slice the black truffle over the top of the warm pasta.
Serve with freshly grated Parmesan on the side, although it does not need it.