Hunting for the world’s most elusive ingredient

We travelled to Italy’s mountainous Piedmont region to search for the rare white truffle – and learnt how to cook them. Now you can do the same.

The white truffle is one of the world’s rarest and most sought-after ingredients. Occurring only naturally, these pale, aromatic fungi cannot be farmed; instead they must be foraged by teams of specially-trained dogs and – sometimes – pigs. The majority of white truffles in Italy can be found only in Piedmont, encouraging both wide-eyed obsession and a certain amount of healthy competition. Ever encouraged by a good story and the thought of an authentic meal, we packed our bags and set off to meet the truffle hunters in person. But why? Because we wanted to turn this authentic Italian tradition into a Black Tomato experience you can sample for yourselves.

We’re unapologetic gourmands at Black Tomato. But we also know that our clients love to get out of the restaurant and peek inside the kitchen (and beyond). Our (sometimes mud-caked) winter journey to Piedmont led us to experience an authentic way of life in one of the country’s most beautiful regions, while gaining a deeper understanding of the relationship between recipes, people and places. The white truffle tastes truly incredible and is strangely exhilarating to search for – but it also tells us a lot about life in this historic corner of Italy. The resulting itinerary gives travellers the chance to experience this appetizing journey for themselves. This is what you can expect from it.

A local truffle hunter and his dog

On the scent of truffles

Welcome to the capital of Fungi

Alba, a bucolic town set amongst the rolling Piedmontese foothills, is at the centre of the white truffle community. Gastro-tourists and restaurateurs from around the world head to this so-called ‘truffle capital’ to get a taste of the scarce tuber’s obsession-inducingly rich flavour. Local restaurants – many of them Michelin-starred – offer up steaming plates of tajarin, the region’s notorious egg pasta, generously coated with shavings of this aromatic ingredient. Each Saturday and Sunday, the town hosts its own White Truffle Market at the Cortile della Maddalena, which runs through until 27 November. It is a happy, communal pairing of local produce, local wine, food, and – of course – truffle. 

After all, no self-respecting local kitchen is complete without at least one item on the menu with a truffle focus. Over the weekend, we would come close to sampling each and every method for preparing it (along with wines from neighbouring Barolo and Asti, both of which are notorious culinary communities in their own right).

But there’s nothing more satisfying than finding and cooking the truffle for yourself. But in order to do this, you’ll need a little help.

“Gastro-tourists and restaurateurs from around the world head to the so-called ‘truffle capital’ to get a taste of this scarce ingredient.”

The hunt begins

Mist was rolling over the plains and the foothills when we set out with our team of local guides; a family and their expertly-trained truffle dog. The sun, still low in the sky, cast bright rays between the trees. It was the start of a warm winter’s day. 

The forests rise and fall over crags, streams and dark earth. At times muddy and slippery, we realise total absence of human sound; without a single car or machine interrupting the stillness. Our guide remarks that this is exactly how the Romans hunted for truffles. Nothing has changed (except, perhaps, our thankfully solid boots – which arrest at least one near slapstick fall).
While the dogs darted and padded between the foliage, our talk turned to the hard-earned skills needed to uncover these flavoursome (and highly valuable) ingredients. The ‘crop’ grows beneath the forest’s surface, making raw visual identification impossible. The dog is trained to stop, alert, at any point where he can scent the tuber’s helpfully powerful aroma.

It is at this point that our guide, a seasoned hunter, fell to his knees and joined the dog in scratching away at the earth. Eventually he resorted to an iron‘T’ shaped tool, which he used to twist and tug the earth apart; separating roots and drilling a hole into the earth. Eventually he stepped back, pulling the truffle – earthy, lumpen, and pungent – out of the soil. 

“This,” he said, “is our dinner.”

“Eventually our guide stepped back, pulling the truffle – earthy, lumpen, and pungent – from the dark soil.”

Cooking with truffles

Successfully loaded up with a small bagful of white truffles (the result of several hours work), we joined our guide by car and headed to the kitchen of a local chef who was to show us how to prepare the truffle in a traditional Piedmont dish – and to pair it with a local wine. 

The dish – naturally – was thoroughly local. The wine? Also local: Barolo.

Piedmontese cuisine – as our chef explained – stands apart from the food of other Italian regions. Olives do not grow well in its cooler, hillier climes, meaning that local recipes rely on butter and lard. This adds a natural richness and heartiness to its meals, which also typically involve game and cooking sauces on incredibly low heats for long periods. While slicing one of our truffles at close to light speed, he noted that Piedmont is where the ‘slow food’ revolution began. “It’s imposed by the local ingredients, the climate, the soil.”

This means what? Forget about pizzas and light summer pastas. Living cheek by jowl with France, Austria and Italy means you’ll be tasting rich risottos, flaky polenta, and cheese fondue. Truffle – the kingpin of big flavours – is a natural accelerant to the fire of this muscular local cuisine. 

After a morning spent rambling on our hands and knees through the craggy, mist-damp woodland, we wanted only one thing: a big, rewarding meal.

The resulting dish we cooked up – alongside our attentive personal chef – was the above-mentioned tajarin: a thin albeit rich egg pasta with a sauce of butter, sage, and – yes – truffle. The unusual name is Piedmontese dialect for the more commonly known tagliatelle, yet this vibrantly yellow dish is distinctly local.

After a day spent exploring the landscapes, towns, and eateries of Piedmont, we were reminded of just how satisfying it is to source and cook your own ingredients; to reconnect with landscapes and communities. With a little help from local experts, we gained a rare window into Italy’s less-well-known North and the ingredients which have shaped it – not least the elusive white truffle.


This food-focused experience can be included in any of our Italian itineraries; simply ask our Travel Experts. For those who want to explore the food and culture of Italy in greater depth, head to our destination page.