Wine Culture Magazine

Carlo Marenda, with his dogs Buk and Gaia, leads a simulated truffle hunt in Alba. Supplied photo

As unpredictable weather and the modern world encroach on an ancient, mysterious, and nearly impenetrable agricultural tradition, Good Wine Gal landed on a “simulated” canine-led white truffle hunt in the hills near Alba, on a recent foggy October afternoon. Here’s an exclusive insider tour with Carlo Marenda from Save the Truffle of this ancient and rare practice—and why it needs saving.

The Hunt

Marenda gently digs a truffle from the ground. Supplied photo

Carlo Marenda meets me at 3 p.m. on the side of the road, up in the hills above Treiso, about half an hour by car from Alba. After brief introductions (during which the slim, modest Italian does not mention that he has been written up in the New York Times and more recently called upon by the Stanley Tucci TV crew), our small group of three crosses the main road and starts up a gravel farmway. To the right sit oak and wild chestnut forests. To the left, a steep vineyard slopes away, grapes not yet harvested, giving way to a vista of the fog-prone, hilly Langhe where Nebbiolo grows. As a wine educator and drinker, I’ve been fascinated by this region, and its unique symbiosis in producing both rare wine and rare funghi. 

We veer off the trail and into a sanctuary of tall deciduous trees. Marenda says it has been the hottest summer on record, and that a lack of rainfall is challenging for the truffle ecosystem. The pathway disappears and now we are on a carpet of fall pastels of gold, rust, beige and yellow, of dried leaves, earthy smells and the feeling of forests at home, bringing the comfort of pumpkin-pie season to mind. It’s here, in this forest, that Marenda fills us up with the history of the truffle, the dogs, and his personal mission. 

Buk and Gaia are now nose-to-ground as Marenda whistles a solitary note, a message to reign in their exploration. The excitement is mounting. Suddenly Gaia stops, paws the earth and starts digging. Marenda gets down on his knees: this is serious. He samples the earth where Gaia is digging, passing me a pinch of dirt. It smells distinctly… truffle. He signals Gaia to stop digging, and, holding her gently with one arm, scrapes the earth with a small dull blade, uncovering a misshapen jewel. It’s the size of a Canadian loonie and now in plain view: a black truffle. By the end of our walk, he has three of these treasures in his pocket, including a glamorous celebrity guest-star: the Alba White Truffle.

Meet Carlo Marenda

Marenda holds a black truffle and an Alba white truffle. Supplied photo

Carlo Marenda is the youngest truffle hunter in the area, licensed now for seven years. He hunts nine months out of the year in search of black and white truffles that fetch 40 euros for a measly, precious 100 grams. Born and raised in Alba, he’s a real Piedmontese. By his side are his trusted dogs, predominantly a breed of Spinone, Buk (mature at 10) and Gaia (just three years old). Both follow Marenda’s lead for their ultimate reward: a taste of truffle. Can you blame them?

What do I mean by “simulated” hunt, you ask? Well, truffles have been buried days before the tour. Though it sounds perhaps inauthentic, the simulated hunt has a serious modern-day purpose: the hunt is designed to teach visitors of the legacy of the truffle, highlighting the forest ecosystem necessary to produce truffles and provide training for the dogs. The real truffle hunt is offered only in the late fall and winter months, after a good amount of rainfall. Hunts start early morning or late at night, often in the dark requiring guests to dress warmly and be comfortable with rustic more challenging conditions of darkness. And the locations, in many cases, can be secret, and not always accessible to visitors, as this experience is. 

To date Save The Truffle has raised 30,000 euros, from ticket sales and donations directed towards reforestation and preservation of the truffle. If our “simulated” experience somehow enhances this ancient and rare cultural tradition, and helps provide the support for its continuation, I’m here for it. Like the Spinones and Marenda himself, I’m captivated by the truffle’s aroma and flavour and its magical alchemy with the wine of the region. Like Marenda and his well-trained canine assistants, I’m willing to walk miles to experience it at its source. 


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