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White mischief


Lisa Gerard-Sharp follows Italy's truffle trail in search of the famous aphrodisiac, the 'white diamond'

"Truffles Taste and smell of people and sweat," says celebrity chef Giorgio Locatelli, "everything that life tastes and smells of is in there. "emperor Nero called truffles 'the food of the gods' while excitable food critics wax lyrical about truffles as `the sex of the gods'. Clearly, pungent Italian truffles bring out the primeval in the best of us.

Hot on the truffle trail, I'm on a mission to snuffle out Italy's top truffles and snaffle tips from the country's best chefs. Dubbed the white diamond, this dirty-brown tuber is a princely treat found in Tuscany, Umbria, Emilia Romagna and Piedmont. But the 'truffle school' near Alba is the only option for a devoted truffle-hound.

In a vaulted, vine-clad castle, we novice trufflers come face to face with the world's ugliest tubers. Truffle-master Roberto Pisani teaches us to scratch and sniff like manic dogs. "You can forget a colour, a tone of voice, but never a smell – it's there within you, somewhere, even if we are not as instinctive as dogs."

The school is staged in the stronghold of Montiglio Monferrato, near Alba. The course involves all five senses but we focus on our noses. At once the most primitive and most subtle of senses, a sense of smell is our least-tapped faculty. We may only use ten percent of our nose but we can `recall' these scents by tapping into 'race memory', an imprint that brings us back to primeval `dogginess'. Unnamed scents are passed round to identify, from boiled sweets and black cherry to hay, garlic, pepper and ammonia. In a balanced white truffle, honey, hay and garlic should prevail, with no single aroma predominating. Just when I am priding myself on the ability to recognise `bosky-ness', my confidence as a `nose' is destroyed. In rating the final truffle scents, I mark the strongest one as best, which turns out to be an industrial fake.

Chastened but sceptical, I can't fathom the appeal of these gnarled knobs until a lunch conjured up by chef-sommelier Carlo Zarri at Ristorante San Carlo. Conveniently, Alba's top truffle spots are close to northern Italy's finest vineyards and an array of velvety Barolo, Barbera and Barbaresco reds. A surprisingly affordable feast showcases truffle risotto washed down with oak-aged Barbera d'Alba; fondue with truffle shavings paired with Barbaresco; and randomly-cut ribbon pasta with nettles and more truffles. White truffles lose their taste when cooked so must be served raw, finely shaved at the last minute.

More costly than gold or diamonds, truffles can attract a prohibitive price tag, which plays into their mystique. Tuber Magnatum Pico is the grand name for the prized white truffle that can be auctioned for up to €300,000 apiece at November's glitzy auction at Grinzane Cavour Castle. Decorative dancing girls and scantily-clad beauty queens parade wizened-looking truffles on silver platters - while satellite links reach the key truffle-buying capitals. "Everybody talks about the price," claims Giorgio Locatelli, "but the focus should be on making sure you buy from the right people, the guys who are protecting the truffle terrain. Otherwise nature will say, 'Enough, I'm not going to give you any more.' It isn't just a snobbish thing to pay a lot of money – it's about protecting the legacy of the land."

The white truffle season, stretching from October to January, turns the whole of southern Piedmont into one long food festival. Alba attracts foodies to its annual white truffle fair, but so too does Turin, with November's Salone del Gusto, which is replete with tastings, cookery shows and Slow Food feasts. In Turin's vast Porta Palazzo market, autumn means white Alba truffles as well as wild porcini mushrooms, chestnuts and superb Piedmontese wines. Tuscany responds with a popular white truffle fair in San Miniato, even if variants of black truffles are available all year round. As for neighbouring Emilia Romagna, Sant'Agata's October truffle fair is the most engaging celebration, with communal tables spilling onto cobblestoned squares, and lashings of truffle-flecked pasta dishes at low prices. The stalls overflow with aromatic truffle oils, truffle spreads and even truffle-infused grappa.

Eager to experience a truffle hunt, I drift into the misty oak groves of southern Piedmont with Giuseppe, one of the local trufulau, or truffle hunters, as wizened as the white truffles he's dedicated his life to. We amble towards the thickets of poplars and oaks, prime truffle territory. White truffles grow in symbiosis with the roots of oak, willow, hazelnut and poplar trees and are harvested by the hunters, who rely on little save a hoe, a stick and the dog itself.

Aphrodisiac or not, the Alba white truffle oozes sex appeal. When we stumble on a truffle, my nose first recoils. It's akin to being plunged into a farmyard reeking of manure, mouldy compost, mushrooms, methane, musk, muddy clods of earth. The second whiff is pure pheromones, essence of sex – all emanating from this ugly, wizened knob. I love it, as does the panting truffle dog beside me.


White truffles do this to people, twist your language into soft porn. "What's so special about white truffles?" asks a latecomer to the hunt. "If you have to ask, you haven't sniffed one - you haven't lived," is Giuseppe's curt reply.

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