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A rare glimpse into the world of 'white diamonds'

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 27, 2004


I knew I had come to the right hotel when I asked to speak to the proprietor and was told that he was out, hunting truffles.

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White truffles, one of the rarest and most highly prized foods to grace a table, were the reason I had come to this medieval hilltop village in the Langhe region of Piedmont. It is around here, and only around here, that the king of the truffle world grows. And it is to the restaurant of the hotel La Contea that pilgrims flock each autumn from as far away as Germany to pay homage to the legendary fungus.

It was not surprising, I was to discover, that La Contea's owner was not at home when I arrived. During the three-month truffle season, procuring enough of the valuable delicacy to satisfy his customers is almost a full-time job for Antonio Verro, a garrulous and jovial fellow universally known throughout the region as Tonino.

"My clients come here for truffles, so I have to find them for them," Tonino told me after returning well after 10 o'clock that night.

I had realized why a little earlier in the evening, as I tasted white truffles for the first time. (At about $2,000 a pound, "white diamonds" are not on my weekly shopping list.)

Tonino's staff had laid a table for me in the corner of the kitchen, where I could sit and watch "the spectacle," as the head waiter put it, of 75 top-class eight-course meals going out. I also had a good view of the box full of truffles - nubby beige lumps that could have been pebbles - from which the chef would regularly pluck a piece.

I was presented with a small plate of veal tartare sprinkled with gray-brown slivers of truffle. Tentatively, I nibbled on a shaving: It tasted delicately of autumn leaves and forest floor, earthy and fragrant. Interesting, I thought, but worth the rave reviews that generations of gastronomes had given the white truffle?

A couple of courses later, truffles turned up again, enriching duck-liver mousse served with a warm potato croquette. This time I was on the verge of declaring myself disappointed, as the taste of the truffles almost vanished behind the rich, gamey flavors of the mousse.

And then came the dish that tore aside the curtains of my doubt and revealed the full splendor of the white truffle.

It was a simple dish of tagliatelle, tossed in butter, sprinkled lightly with Parmesan cheese, and then slathered with truffle shavings.

The aroma was unlike anything I had ever smelled - enigmatic and elusive. There was a clear tang of garlic, strong undertones of damp leaves, a hint of tar and tobacco, a waft of honey and fermenting hay. It was heavenly.

Lest this sound too lyrical, I was to sniff truffles the next day that smelled more of ammonia and old socks. "The white truffle covers an extraordinarily wide aromatic scale," says Isabella Gianicola, an expert with the National Center for Truffle Studies in Alba.

White truffles are never cooked: Too much heat destroys their fragrance. They are merely shaved or grated over a bland food - a fried egg, risotto, pasta - that brings out their uniqueness.

They are found in a few places around the world, growing on tree roots; they have never been successfully cultivated. Oregon and the Istrian peninsula in Croatia boast versions - but the Alba truffles are in a class of their own.

Sought out by local men with trained dogs, often at night to keep the source secret, white truffles ripen between September and the end of the year, and are best eaten fresh. That, and their aura of magic, is what fuels the frenzy of the annual truffle market and fair in Alba, held on weekends in October and early November.