Truffle Riches Drive Men to Secrecy, Crime in Italy

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"They have pockets full of truffles. They smell like a truffle, like an enormous truffle." Yet when she asks truffle hunters where they found their quarry, they'll declare, "No! I don't have any!" Gianicolo said.

One reason for the secrecy is that ripe truffles release millions of spores. Soil that yields a truffle one year can do so again, making a truffle patch a lucrative piece of real estate.

Another reason for secrecy is the truffle's staggering price. While some truffles can be smaller than a raisin, others can be enormous—and a windfall for their finders.

Last November, Giovanni Monchiero, 42, unearthed a 400-gram (0.9-pound) truffle, humungous by any standard.

Asked through a translator what it was like to discover such a fortune, Monchiero said, "A heart attack!"

A short fellow with rosy cheeks and hazel eyes, Monchiero trains truffle-sniffing dogs at the University of Truffle Hunting Dogs, which was founded in 1880 by his great-grandfather. Monchiero runs the school out of his garage and two-story stucco house that sit on a hilltop in the Piedmont village of Rodi.

The university's only employee, Monchiero sometimes goes by the name Barot IV.

Monchiero says he can teach a dog the basics of truffle hunting in two to three weeks, but that it can take him four years to train a dog to perfection.

Well-trained truffle dogs—and their noses—are so important that they are sometimes poisoned or kidnapped.

Andrea, the Barbaresco chef, recalls a time nearly eight years ago when crooks kidnapped a truffle dog owned by his cousin, who lives in the nearby town of Mango.

Andrea says the thugs demanded a ransom of one million Italian lire (about U.S. $500 dollars), which the cousin paid. The dog was returned safely.

A "Family Illness"

"They are criminals," said truffle hunter Renato Agnello, describing the people behind such misdeeds. "For a real truffle hunter, the animal, the dog [comes] first."

Walking his favorite truffle dog, Lady Diana, through a Piedmont vineyard and a small wood overlooking the Tanaro River last February, Agnello, 66, said he has hunted truffles for nearly 60 years.

Asked through a translator if truffle hunting was a hobby or a vocation, Agnello replied, "It's an illness, [one] that is brought further in the family from father to son." Unlike other trifolau, Agnello says he doesn't mind telling people when, if not where, he finds a truffle.

"If the people know there are truffles, restaurants work, wine producers work, hotels work, and this is important for the whole area," he said, speaking in a mix of Italian and Piedmontese, the local dialect.

Besides, he added, his son-in-law is a mechanic. "If tourists come and when they are here they break their car, it is also work for my family."

Agnello said last season was quite good for white truffles. He found between 2.2 to 4.4 pounds (1 to 2 kilograms) a week in late November and early December.

The trifalou said that when he finds especially good truffles, he visits the cemetery where his father is buried. His father hunted truffles just ten days before he died at the age of 88.

There, at his father's gravestone, Agnello said he says something like, "I found a big truffle in that place you remember."

So just where are those spots? The truffle hunter isn't telling.

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