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Piedmont’s white truffle: Saving an old treasure

From the January 2017 issue.
Piedmont’s white truffle: Saving an old treasure

Piedmont’s precious white truffle is among the most sought after delicacies in the world. But with the truffle-producing forests of the region now under threat, a campaign has been launched to help guarantee the future of this culinary treasure.

Words by Josephine McKenna and photos by Susan Wright

Carlo Marenda is strolling along a leafy path with his lively dogs, Emy and Buk, in a landscape ablaze with autumn colours in the heart of the Langhe region in Northern Italy.

Spectacular vineyards coloured orange and crimson crisscross the surrounding hills and shouts can be heard from the grape pickers below as they clip grapes from the neat rows of vines that deliver Italy’s top red wines.
With a whistle, Carlo orders his dogs into the woods in search of one of the world’s culinary treasures, the highly-prized white truffle, which in 2016 sold for €450 per 100 grams (or $AUD650).

“Piano, piano,” 34-year-old Carlo yells at his dogs as they race up the muddy slope a few kilometres outside the town of Barolo.

But his canine companions are distracted today and return with nothing. So he will rise at 4.30am the following morning, rouse the dogs and try again.

“Truffle hunting is not a job, it is a passion, a sickness,” he tells. “You are living with nature in a very powerful way. I feel at one with nature and my dogs.”

There are 4000 truffle hunters – called trifalau in local dialect – in this part of Piedmont. Like the gold diggers of years gone by, they are driven by their obsessive search for the elusive aromatic funghi and are reluctant to share any secrets about where they find their prize.

The stakes are high when you consider the world’s largest white truffle, which weighed in at 1.89 kilograms, was sold by Sotheby’s in New York for $US61,250 ($AUD80,000) in 2014.

But these days the truffle hunters’ passion is under siege.

Forests are suffering from the ferocious spread of imported trees and plants that are ravaging the natural environment; suffocating oaks, poplars and other trees that enable the white truffle to flourish in the rich, damp soil.

The hunters are also seeing the size of their woodlands shrink as hazelnut groves and vineyards are extended for lucrative commercial production.

“In the last 30 years we have lost 30 per cent of the forest because they’ve added new vineyards and nut trees,” Carlo says.

The truffle hunters have another worry too. The forest floor is no longer being cleared by farmers who once collected wood for their fires or domestic animals such as pigs and goats that kept the undergrowth under control and made access to the truffles easier for the dogs and their owners.

Concerned about the fate of Carlo and the other trifalau, the National Center for Truffle Studies in Alba has launched a crowd-funding campaign to raise €50,000 and help preserve six distinct truffle-hunting areas in Piedmont.

In the first few weeks alone the campaign raised more than €10,000 and drew interest from around the world.

To read the full story, pick up your copy of the January/February 2017 issue of Italianicious.

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