Aphrodisiac or not, the Alba white truffle oozes sex appeal. My nose recoils from the truffle aromas. It’s akin to being plunged into a farmyard reeking of manure, mouldy compost, mushrooms, methane, musk, muddy clods of earth. The second whiff is pure pheromones – all emanating from this ugly, wizened lump. I love it, as do the panting truffle dogs sharing the moment with me.
“Truffles taste and smell of people and sweat,” claims celebrity chef Giorgio Locatelli. “Everything that life tastes and smells of is in there.” Just another Monday morning at truffle school in Montechiaro d’Asti, in the misty oak groves of southern Piedmont. Giuseppe, as earthy as the white truffle he’s holding aloft, is getting into his stride with the life-and-sex-and-death theme that truffle-hunters adore. “We have a saying that these ‘white diamonds’ carry the powers to make women more tender and men more virile. But the best death for this truffle is on my plate.” He conjures up images of steaming tajerin – the local noodle pasta – flecked with potent truffle shavings.
Unfortunately it’s wishful thinking. Eating a white Alba truffle is like putting a gold ring on your risotto. More costly than gold or diamonds, Alba’s white truffles are rarely eaten by the trufulau, the licensed truffle-hunters who scour the fields with their faithful dogs. As pungent as it is pricy, the white truffle is a paradox. It is a princely treat that has been harvested by peasants since Roman times. “What’s so special about white truffles?” asks a latecomer to the hunt. “If you have to ask, you haven’t sniffed one, you haven’t lived,” is Giuseppe’s curt reply.