White truffle hunt and auction in Piedmont

In a castle high in the Piedmont hills, an auction is taking place. In the auction room, a medieaval place more suited to a meeting of round-table knights, three satellite links have been set up – with Milan, Berlin and Hong Kong. Gorgeous and slightly absurd Italian babes with lots of cleavage, dewy lips and very, very high heels stand alongside the auctioneer offering ‘un bacio’ – ‘a kiss’ as a bonus to a would be bidder. As the value of the item on offer rises, so does the nature of the kiss. I wander out of the room when a woman with abnormally thin arms and abnormally large breasts offers “un bacio sulla bocca” “a kiss on the lips” to he, and it is certainly a he, who will bid 10,000 Euros for the item on offer. All is quiet outside the auction room. The earlier excitement of the ‘mini palio’ that welcomed us – a row of Alice in Wonderland knights, bugles held aloft against the stunning background of a Piedmont autumn and the distant, snowy Alps has now been re placed by the good-natured and slightly tense bidding in that hot, crowded, baronial hall.

But, sitting on a red velvet cushion, alone in a back room is the object of all this desire. I walk into the room and gaze down at it. There is nobody in sight. I could reach out and take the gnarly, nubbly, muddy white truffle, for that’s what it is, and tuck it in my pocket. This is the annual international white truffle auction – held at the Castello di Grinzane in Piedmont. I’ve come to Piedmont to discover the white truffle. Over 3 days I’ve eaten truffles with every meal. I like them but, to me, the biggest discovery in coming to Piedmont is Piedmont. Why do we all just keep going so religiously to Tuscany? The gentle Piedmont hills (and they have plenty of charming hill towns to match Tuscany and Umbria) have one very, very big feature that Tuscany can only dream of. Beyond the hills and the towns, float the Alps – gleaming white in the slanting autumn sunlight. And, if mountains don’t do it for you, then a town as charming as Alba, certainly will. But back to those truffles, and by the way, I’m still alone with the prize specimen. Later it will be purchased for 143,000 euros by a restauranteur in Hong Kong.

White truffles, I have learnt, must never be cooked. They are grated and added to other dishes. They don’t work well with dramatic dishes. Simplicity is the key. Adding them to eggs is supposed to be one of the finest delicacies. Frankly I found it a bit bland. And, adding parmesan to kick the flavour up a notch is frowned upon.

I did spend a wonderful afternoon in another castello in the Piedmont hills in the company of a truffle connoisseur. His nose is trained in the way that of a perfumeur ‘nez’ or a wine connoisseur. He looks for a combined scent of hay, honey and garlic. Before meeting the truffle ‘nose’, I spend a morning out with a couple of truffle hunters. Their dogs are muzzled ‘to protect them from potential poisoning by saboteurs.’ The hunters take me through a birch wood, the dogs dig up a couple of small specimens. But this is a charade. Real truffle hunting goes on at night and in secret. The bounty is too valuable to be hunted in. The dogs are not forgotten at the auction. Each time a truffle is paraded across the stage on its cushion, the name of the dog that found it is announced. Pluto, found that 10000 Euro specimen, by the way. But his master’s name is kept secret.

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