Truffle season is upon us once again, starting in Northern Italy with the 91st International Alba White Truffle Fair. As the unmistakable garlic-and-gasoline scent of the world’s most expensive ingredient permeates the cobblestone alleys of the old city, tens of thousands of fresh white truffles will disappear in a parade of egg and pasta dishes from Italy’s top chefs. In December, the torch will be passed to France’s black winter truffle, star of dozens of open-air markets and festivals across Périgord and Provence.
But amid the sensory epiphanies, few festival-goers will realize that things are not quite what they seem. Despite the official line, most white truffles no longer come from Northern Italy, and most black truffles don’t come from France. This is scandalous only because the powers that be insist on maintaining the ruse. The truth about truffles is much richer, livelier, and more inspiring, so it’s only a matter of time before it gets out.
Allow me to speed things up. I began tagging along with truffle hunters three years ago, after a Proustian moment with a particularly pungent white truffle in Barolo. I’ve unearthed white truffles in central Italy, Croatia, and Hungary, and I’ve been told by hunters that the real happy hunting grounds are in Serbia and Romania. A family-run truffle-supply company claims that most are sold as Italian truffles.
White truffles can be found only in the wild, but today most black truffles are farmed. I’ve had good ones from France but equally amazing ones from Australia, California, Kentucky, and Spain. The little-known Teruel region of Spain alone may produce a majority of the world’s supply, including many truffles that are later granted French citizenship.
Despite the official line, most white truffles no longer come from Northern Italy, and most black truffles don’t come from France.
This should be great news. Dozens of countries have colorful communities of truffle hunters and truffle farmers, each with their own style, and many of these countries are beginning to celebrate their local terroir. This isn’t limited to white and black winter truffles, either. I’ve tasted close to 20 species that have real culinary charm, and there are many more whose potential has yet to be explored.
Amazingly, none of this would be possible without dogs. Truffles grow underground and can be located only by an animal with a superior sniffer. Although pigs were humanity’s original truffling partners, they’ve been passé for over 200 years (notwithstanding the recent Nicolas Cage thriller Pig, which features a truffle-sniffing hog as a central character). Dogs are easier to work with, and less likely to eat the truffle.
My favorite part of truffle hunting is watching the dogs. I’m in awe of their ability to pinpoint an invisible truffle across a stretch of forest and to communicate with their humans, and I’m amazed that this billion-dollar industry is still completely dependent on them. Behind every great truffle, there’s a great dog.
This year, much as I love it, I won’t be heading to the Alba fair. Instead, I’ll be somewhere on the East Coast, pursuing the Appalachian truffle—an American species with a stunning sienna coat and a unique aroma every bit as beguiling as the European greats. I can’t divulge where I’ll be—spots are guarded ferociously—but I can say I’ll be following a great dog, a real prodigy who may be pioneering a whole new American truffle culture, literally from the ground up.
Rowan Jacobsen’s Truffle Hound: On the Trail of the World’s Most Seductive Scent, with Dreamers, Schemers, and Some Extraordinary Dogs is out now from Bloomsbury