Truffle Riches Drive Men to Secrecy, Crime in Italy

Sean Markey in Alba, Italy
National Geographic News
May 23, 2005
It smells like a rotten egg, grows only in the wild, and costs a small fortune. It can inspire poetry, romance, and crime. Dogs have been kidnapped—and ransoms paid—because of it.

We're talking about the white truffle, the fungus that grows mostly in Italy and only where it wants to—typically several inches below ground near the roots of oak and hazelnut trees.

Pound for pound, the tuber is the second most expensive food in the world. As for its taste, aficionados liken it to a mix of methane gas, garlic, and soil with hints of honey, yeast, and mushrooms. Yet gourmands covet Tuber magnatum pico.

"Today there is hysteria, this collective hysteria, for the truffle," said Marino Andrea, 33, the owner-chef of Antine, a one-Michelin-star restaurant in the Piedmont hamlet of Barbaresco in northwest Italy. "The price is frightening."

During the peak of the white truffle season, which typically runs from late October to early December, the tubers can fetch U.S. $1,200 to $2,300 a pound ($2,600 to $5,000 a kilogram).

That's ten times the price of more common truffle varieties. The only food that costs more is caviar.

Tuber magnatum can't be cultivated and grows only in the wild, which explains the need for trifolau, the hardy folk who roam Italy's woodlands in search of the small, buried fortunes with their truffle-sniffing dogs.

Dog Knappings

Romantic figures, trifolau are known for their barots (wooden walking sticks), all-night ramblings, and implacable secrecy.

"They are very, very particular persons," said Isabelle Gianicolo, 29, a botanist with the National Truffle Study Centre in Alba, the Piedmont city home to Italy's most famous white truffle market.

Scientists grasp only about 20 percent of all there is to know about the truffle, Gianicolo says. Perhaps even less is known about the trifolau.

Many trifolau brazenly fib to dodge her research questions, the botanist says.

"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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