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Truffles--no Trifling Affair

January 12, 1986|SHERRY VIRBILA

ALBA, Italy — I have eaten what I'm sure must be more than my share of good things in this world. But this fall in Piemonte, the wine region southwest of Milan as famous for its tartufi as for its big, beautiful reds, I thought I just might have gone too far. There was a period when I ate white truffles-- tuber magnatum , the glory of Alba--two times a day for five days straight.

I got my first taste at Felicin, a country restaurant in Monforte d'Alba. One bite of an innocent-looking mousse and my mouth was so suffused with truffle I knew I was never going to brush my teeth again. Then came a plate of butter-drenched tajerin , hand-rolled, hand-cut noodles. Calling himself "the man with the golden arm," the owner shaved thin slices of truffle over everything until the perfume was so intense I thought I would swoon. My companion sat back and let it approach his well-trained nose. "Oak," he pronounced, explaining that truffles found under other trees--lime, willow or poplar--each have a slightly different aroma.

The most important thing for a truffle hunter, says Benvenuto Boasso, a young contadino and head of the truffle hunters' association of Alba, is a smart hungry dog. Boasso, his father, his father's father, and all the men in his family as far back as he can remember have always been trifulao ("truf fle hunter" in the local dialect) during the truffle season, which lasts only from September through February. (During the rest of the year, they have more mundane occupations.) To train their dogs, they leave them for 8 or 10 days without eating, and then present them with a truffle to smell and a little rotten truffle mixed in with some food. Once the scent of truffle is associated with eating, Boasso takes the dog out to hunt. He does this at night, when there's less to distract the dog--and when no other trifulao will be able to see exactly where he goes. When the dog manages to sniff out a truffle, he's rewarded with a piece of bread from the trifulao's pocket. This is a hard life.

This year, because it didn't rain once from May to October, truffles are scarcer than usual. Still, Boasso has a stash of recent finds at his house in the hills, and the entire house reeks of truffle. His car smells as if it runs on truffle juice, and even his clothes are permeated with the heady stuff. He brings out one example as big as a grapefruit and the neighbors wander over to have a look--and a deep sniff--too. Truffles go for as much as $800 a kilo, but even those who can't afford them can delight in the aroma.

Before leaving for dinner that night at Ristorante La Luna, Boasso rummaged through his hoard and chose a lovely compact truffle the size of a small lemon. He wrapped it casually in a handkerchief and stuffed it in the pocket of his pin-striped suit jacket.

He entrusted the truffle to the care of the maitre d', and whenever he wanted some truffle, he would flutter his hands over a dish. Then the waiter would appear with "our" truffle and float gossamer shavings over our plates. This particular truffle was so potent, so fresh, that its scent filled the entire room. People began to stare, and a man at the next table groaned, "There is no economy."

Trifolai sell their finds at the Saturday truffle market in Alba. It's easy to find. Just walk down via Maestra toward the 15th-Century duomo , past outdoor stalls selling warm socks and sweaters, jeans and lacy underwear. When the scent of truffles edges round a girdle flapping in the wind, turn right into a medieval arcade where a good hundred trifolai stand assembled. A solitary scale waits on a bare table. Where are the truffles? The constant rustling as truffles are wrapped and unwrapped, sniffed, fingered, sniffed again, means there is a goodly sized fortune in diamante bianco here. Restaurateurs, chefs, wholesalers, merchants and the truffle-addicted circulate through the room searching for the perfect truffle at the perfect price. Carry a bag and it won't be long before someone will ask hopefully-- "tartufi? "

At La Contea, a restaurant housed in a 16th-Century palazzo , Claudia and Tonino Verro shave tartufi over delectable little plin ("pinches"). These are the hand-pleated agnolotti of the region, stuffed with greens and chopped veal roast. Not to miss: their delicate savory custard, based on a medieval recipe and called tartra , a brilliant foil for opulent white truffles. They make a wonderful fonduta , too, molten Fontina and egg yolks poured over pasta frolla and crowned with truffles.

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