Hugo McCafferty takes us through the Alba forest before dawn to unearth the truth about the dark side of the white truffle.
In Alba, Piedmont, in Italy’s northwest, the truffle hunt is a tradition stretching back centuries. Today the Alba white truffle is sought-after all over the world, fetching high prices at auction and served in the world’s finest restaurants. In Alba though, the truffle hunters, or trifolau as they are known in the local dialect, still walk the forests at dawn with their dogs, carrying on an ancient tradition.
There is a dark side to the Alba white truffle, however. Intense competition among hunters has seen the practice of targeting dogs, laying out poison for them to eat, resulting in agonising, slow deaths. The truffle’s natural habitat is under threat from the increased cultivation of wine and hazelnuts, and the forest is disappearing.
Listen to The Dark Side of The White Truffle and read the full story below.
When the truffle hunter kills the headlights of his four-wheel drive Fiat Panda, we’re left in total darkness - thick, inky blackness you don’t often see. We are in the middle of the forest in Asti, in Italy’s Piedmont region and we are looking for white truffles.
After a while, without artificial light to affect your eyes, your vision adjusts, and you can make out the shape of trees or a clearing up ahead. You can make out the shape of the white truffle dog, a Lagotto Romagnolo, sniffing this way and that, around the base of trees, always moving.
The autumn air is cool with a slight warmth in the wind. There has been rain during the previous night, so the ground is soft, and the nose fills with the rich, loamy scent of the forest.
The trifolau, or truffle hunter, uses the white dog at night, or when they hunt before the dawn as the dog reflects the moonlight and acts as a guide through the forest dark.
“It is better to hunt at night,” says trifolau Giovanni Sachetto. “There are fewer distractions for the dogs, fewer people and fewer animals, so the dogs can concentrate on truffles.”
“Do you hear that?” he asks stopping dead. The forest is a symphony of sound, of humming insects, the wind in the trees and soft crunch of the leaves underfoot. This background is broken only by the dog’s sniffing and snorting along the ground, encouraged by his master’s voice.
Each dog is different, each master has his own language and Sachettino won’t tell us the name of his prize dog when we ask him. “Any name is good,” he says. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t want word to get out of which dog is his best. You hear stories…
In Montferrat and Langhe, where the white truffle grows, the air is thick with legend, with mythology and local lore about a tradition that goes back longer than we have written these things down. You hear tales of good truffle dogs eating poisoned food on their hunts and dying slow, painful deaths. You hear of vindictive acts among truffle hunters, of secret territorial skirmishes and a deep-seated jealousy of anyone who does well. But like everything in the world of the white truffle, the truth is elusive and the locals guard their secrets closely.
Giorgio Grasso, a retired tractor mechanic, welcomes us into his home in Asti. His wife Olga has prepared a lunch of typical local dishes, vitello tonatto, anchovy and red pepper, and of course, local white truffle grated over plain pasta. This is what people come here for. Yes, the area is famous for its wines, Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, some of the world’s best wines are grown right here, but it’s the truffle and the International Alba White Truffle Fair that draws thousands of visitors from all over the world every autumn.
Giorgio is as local as they come, as authentic an expression of the terroir as the wine that bears the DOC label (Denominazione di Origine Controllata). Once upon a time, Giorgio also walked the forests of the Langhe at dawn looking for truffles, but he lost two dogs to the maleficence of some other truffle hunter and it was for him, too painful to continue.
“They poisoned them,” says Giorgio. “They poisoned them with rat poison. Two dogs of mine and one of my father’s dogs, a marvellous dog. A vial of pure strychnine…
“Lately, they’ve started putting muzzles on the dogs so they can’t eat, but they’ve found another way. They take a leaf, they put some herbicide on it and the dog licks it. So as soon as the dog finds the poisoned leaf it start licking, at that point it’s too late and after a couple of days, it dies.”
These stories persist, even reported in the national news - whole areas in Asti cordoned off as Carabinieri swept the forests for poisoned food. With their own trained dog, they found poisoned meat balls, some with razor blades inside, designed to cause an excruciatingly painful death for the dog that eats it.
“Grandpa got his dog poisoned also,” says Giorgio. “Zhor in Barbaresco, because a truffle hunter from Alba got beaten up by some truffle hunter from the Barbaresco rabble. He had been looking for truffles in a ‘forbidden area’.
“So this guy went back home, made some poisoned food and he went back in that area and he scattered the poisoned food. Zhor ate one of them. I remember I found him in his kennel, crying, in very bad shape. I took him to the vet and he managed to save him. It was rat poison. After that, Zhor was afraid. In the areas he knew, there was no problem, but in the new areas he was very afraid and he wouldn’t look for truffles.”
You have to wonder, what makes a man do such a thing?
“Invidia [envy],” says Giorgio. It’s a word we hear again and again. While locals are reluctant to expand on what they mean by ‘invidia’ some explain that it comes from a local mentality, of an agricultural society so poor for generations, where people struggled to eke out an existence that there is a resentment when people do well. People must stay grounded and humble.
These days, during the truffle season, a trifolau can stand to make anything from 10,000 to 20,000 euros, (the truffle hunters are reluctant to say, exactly), if the weather is right and the dog is good. But of course, it wasn’t always that way. The recent global obsession with the white truffle has distorted the market, and that in turn, has infected the art of truffle hunting.
“My father was going night and day,” Giorgio explains. “Almost every night. Either my brother or I were taking care of the animals, during the morning or during the night, so he could go with the dog hunting for truffles. I was around 7 years old.
“He would leave in the night around 8.00 pm and he would return in the morning. Always on foot, never by car.
“He taught us also to find truffles without the dog, when we were grazing animals. In the field you look for the soil swelling around the base of the trees, then you tap on it with a stick and if you hear rumbling it means the truffle is there.”
Traditionally, truffle hunting has always been a way of life for people in this part of Piedmont, but it was also a way to survive. A good season would mean the difference between eating and not eating. The dog was crucial for finding them and so was treated like a member of the family. Even better sometimes, as Giorgio explains.
“The dog was more than a member of the family. I remember when we were children, during the truffle season, the dog would get to eat raw eggs because they give strength, while we were only eating bread.”
Sometimes truffles would turn up on a widow’s doorstep in the morning, which meant she could afford school books for the children. The white truffle was highly prized but not as much as today. Giorgio explains that his mother was bringing a bucket containing 6, 7 or eight kilos of white truffle to Alba every Saturday. They would sell for 1,000 Lire a kilo.
Today the truffle is big business in Alba, with the larger specimens selling for hundreds of thousands of euro at auction, but for the trifolau, it retains its mystery. Indeed, listening to the truffle hunters, it is almost a mystical thing.
The trifolau walks alone in the forest, accompanied only by his dog, sometimes for eight or nine hours a day. He sees the dead of night, the light of the moon and the golden dawn, hidden from the eyes of those at home in bed. Autumn is the in-between season, on the cusp of light and dark and it’s the realm of the truffle hunter, walking through the night, in search of gold.
The truffle is elusive, mysterious. Nobody knows how or why they grow, only that they do and through experience, the hunter gets a feel for where to look, where to direct his dog. Always the dog. There by the trifolau’s side. It creates a very strong bond between them.
“My father never left his dog,” says Giorgio. “Even when my little sister passed away when she was a baby, he walked 9km in the dark to meet a Settimino and ask for help. Always with his dog.” A Settimino was someone born prematurely, in the 7th month of pregnancy. They were believed to be clairvoyant, to be able to sense the presence of spiritual entities and have to have the power to heal.
“My father used to say: ‘you treat the dog as a beast, but don't hit them or mistreat them,” says Giorgio.
“You could get beaten by him if you dared to do that. Both the truffle dog and the volpino ruled the house. The dogs were sacred in our home. That’s why we have two dogs now.
“The postman of Barbaresco was pushed up against a tree by my father,” Giorgio recalls. “Because he threatened his dogs, saying he was going to poison them, because he had been hunting in an area where he wasn’t welcome to hunt.”
“You’re are getting emotional,” says Giorgio’s wife, Olga.
“I’m not getting emotional,” says Giorgio. “it’s just I’m thinking about things I almost forgot…”
Over a bottle of Nebbiolo, with the autumn light streaming through the window and the stove burning wood in the corner, we are unearthing memories of Giorgio’s past. Some of it unknown even to his children, who ask their own questions about their grandfather. Like how did he learn to hunt for truffles?
“He learned in Neive,” says Giorgio. “Where they used to call him: U jai el trifulau, (the blond truffle hunter) because he was fair-haired.
“I followed him. He didn’t teach me, I just followed him. It’s like learning a new job, if you don’t have a senior who shows you the tricks you don’t learn.
“I ruined a dog by not following what my father showed me. I was with Zara and this other dog in Barbaresco. It ran into a bush and a pheasant took off. I thought it went after the pheasant and I hit it with my stick. Then Zara, the older one, went into the same bush and she found a big truffle. That dog never put his nose to the ground again. It was afraid.”
“This feeling for truffle hunting, I got it from my family, because I started doing it with my father. The last time he went truffle hunting, it was after he had had a stroke and came home from the hospital. I remember, I arrived home and my mum said: ‘Dad is not home yet’, she said. ‘Where did he go?,’ I asked. ‘He went for truffles’... He walked the whole valley, close to the Tanaro river, from la Motta until home.
“I went looking for him under the Tanaro bridge, but I didn’t find him, so I came home. At around 11 pm I saw the dog coming home and after a few minutes there he was, walking home. This was two weeks after he had had a stroke. It was impossible to hold him back.
The truffle hunt has always been about the locals’ intimate relationship with the land. They depended on the land for everything, so they respected it. It’s a tradition that is under threat from our modern way of living and even here, things have changed very quickly in the course of just a couple of generations.
“Truffle hunting has changed, like everything has changed,” says Giovanni Sachettino in the darkness of the Asti forest. “There are too many truffle hunters who don’t know what they are doing with the land. They don’t know how to manage the environment of the truffle. They dig holes, but they don’t fill them back in, they interfere with the roots. There is less plants, less truffles, less everything.
“They come from all over, from Alba, from the Langhe from the south of Italy, from Romania, Morocco… for ten years we have Moroccan truffle hunters working these forests. It’s enough to get a licence from Piedmont and you can hunt everywhere. Our fathers and grandfathers would always say that, to train a dog takes two or three years, to train a trifolau, it takes a lifetime.”
Not only are there truffle hunters coming from all over, but there are those who have no qualms about sullying the art in order to make easy money. We hear constantly how difficult it is to find truffles and yet there is an international truffle fair in Alba that demands huge amounts of truffle to sell, there are restaurants that are booked out in truffle season and must provide them for their guests, so we are told, in whispers, that not all the truffles on sale are the genuine article.
People import truffles from other parts of Italy or from Eastern Europe and bury them in the ground with genuine Alba truffles, when they dig them up again, the foreign truffles will have assumed the distinctive aroma of the Alba white truffle. At least for long enough to sell them on.
The biggest threat to the truffle and its traditions however, is one that one that concerns us all and that is a dangerously diminishing biodiversity. The Langhe in Piedmont is a fabled landscape, once densely forested, the land peaks gently in hills or bricchi as they are known in the local dialect. Each bricch is a kingdom unto itself, with its own name and identity. They are known to the trifolau as intimately as family members.
Today if you look across the land from the Alta Langhe (the hills), you see it changing before your eyes. The rich, deciduous forest, cleared for wine production or Hazelnut trees. Viticulture has an ancient tradition in the area, but the global demand for hazelnuts has soared in recent years and many farmers have turned to a crop that is much easier to farm, with dependable yield. When you walk in a hazelnut grove, it has the eerie, dead silence of a monoculture, there is no life and certainly, no truffles. The white truffle is the song of a happy forest, of fertile, healthy soil and a variation of plants.
Carlo Marenda started Save The Truffle six years ago, an organisation that looks to protect and responsibly manage the terrain in which the white truffle grows. He is walking with us in the forest at dawn, the mist hangs all around, and you can sense it’s his natural habitat, his passion for the truffle is infectious.
“Until 25-30 years ago the farmer in this area, was a real person, someone who worked with his hands,” he tells us. “Now the farmer, the wine producers, the hazelnut producers are people that move to New York to sell wine, or London to sell cream of hazelnut, and the manual work is done by other people, people who arrive from the east of Europe, who work hard and also better, but people who don’t have that relationship with the land. They don’t know our history, they just do the work.
Carlo Marenda of Save The Truffle
“The old farmers would harvest the grapes, start the wine production, then move to the forest, cut down the old trees for firewood, plant new trees. He would remove the leaves for the animals, but now there are no famers with animals. It’s all changing for hazelnuts. It has all changed very, very quickly.
With such drastic change to the local economy and the physical landscape, there comes a time when it is necessary to stand back, see the woods, not the trees. This is the work that Carlo is trying to do.
“On the other side, these people have a lot of money,” says Carlo. “My thinking is that they only have to reinvest 0.1% back into the land. I have many friends involved in the wine industry and I always say to them, please reinvest something back into the environment. Most of them have some area of forest on their land and they need to nurture it. We need to work on biodiversity in this area, not just work connected to the soil, but to the panorama.
“If you go to the hill of La Morra and the Barolo area, you cannot talk about the truffle, it’s difficult.”
Marenda is trying to cultivate a culture of co-operation in the area, which much like the truffle itself, is difficult, elusive. Truffle hunting is solitary pursuit, every trifolau for himself, there is no union, no association that oversees the management of the land.
“In Italy we have the denomination, a label for food from a particular area – Barolo, Barbaresco wine, Murrazzano cheese… we have the label on the wine bottle,” says Carlo. “Why don’t they do the same with the truffle? For truffles and for mushrooms, in Italy we don’t have any labelling. Nothing.”
“Some time ago I was speaking with Angelo Gaja, one of the biggest wine producers in the region and he said to me, Carlo, ‘I don’t know who is responsible for the truffle in Alba.’
“Slow Food, a global organisation,” says Carlo, “they go to Africa, to teach people there to look after their food system and they never say one word about protecting the truffle here. The universities, they talk about biodiversity, they never want to talk about truffle. We had two students who were writing their theses about the truffle, and we helped them, but in the end, they changed their subjects, because some things you can’t talk about.
“Now the next problem is that on the Alta Langhe, the high Langhe, we are starting with the sparkling wines. Sparkling wine is the new Champagne they say, so they change the configuration on the top of the hill. There is so little forest left and it’s going to have a knock-on effect in the ecosystem.”
The secretive world of truffle hunting exists within a black market economy. There is no traceability for the truffle. Truffle hunters tell us that all business is done with cash. During the season, a trifolau always has a roll of cash in his pocket, he sells truffles, he buys them, he pays someone off, it’s an Italian world of cash-in-hand. So it’s difficult to regulate. Nobody really knows what the annual truffle harvest is in Italy, so they can’t monitor it. For that we rely on the word of the trifolau, the locals all speak of how the truffle harvest is, whether there has been enough rain, you can hear it on the streets of Alba.
Trying to create a new culture of transparency and cooperation in the murky world of the white truffle is, as they say, like trying to herd cats, but Carlo is not undeterred. He sees a new generation of truffle hunter that is as much environmentalist as trifolau, as they have always been. Climate change is affecting the truffle, which makes the need to act more urgent.
“We see the change of the weather, related to climate change. We see an extension to the summer season. It seems this year we are on the right way, but last October we had some days where it was around 25 degrees during the day, and 15 -18 at night. No rain, No truffles.
“We can’t manage climate change at a local level, so it’s very important now that we manage what we can. If in a forest, we neglect to take care of it for a couple of years, the truffle hunters aren’t clearing paths, the undergrowth becomes too thick, blocking out the sun; less humidity, we find less truffles.
“We take care of the forest, if we have heavy snow and tree branches break, we have to clear them. We take some saplings and we move them.
“We are a new generation of truffle hunters and we ask the support of the oldest ones, but they won’t be around to see the future. So it is hard for them to find the energy to do this work.
“It’s clear that in the next 20 years we will lose a generation of the oldest truffle hunters, particularly in Piedmont, in the Langhe. We need to take care of them, we need to work with them to create a new breed of truffle hunter.”
Highly prized all over the world for its unique aroma and flavour, people are willing to pay exorbitant amounts of money for the truffles unearthed in the Langhe. They are rightly considered a gastronomic treasure, but perhaps we are missing their real value, one you can’t put a price on.
The truffle symbolises the Piedmontese’s traditional relationship with the land, one we are at risk of losing throughout the world. The natural world in which we have always depended on for our very existence is under threat, and if we lose it, we lose the greatest treasure of all.
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