Hunting Truffles and Finding Friends

She was supposed to know more about the backroads around Monforte d'Alba than I do. It was the sole purpose of inviting her on our trip. But the prissy British woman tagging along in the small illuminated square on the dashboard is just as lost as the rest of us. "Make a legal u-turn when possible," she directs us haughtily, an obvious and somewhat condescending piece of advice since we have no other option. Held hostage by her incompetence, Jonathan, our driver and my husband, our passengers and I sigh collectively from the relative luxury of our ride, a three-row Mercedes Vito van. All except Steph, who has taken refuge, from both motion sickness and wrong turns, in the safe harbor oblivion of her Apple earbuds.

We found ourselves at a dead end, sandwiched between a small railway station and a one-story row of rose-colored buildings reminiscent of a too-cheery suburban shopping mall. A man lounged outside one of the doors that lined its flank, his camo pants a stark contrast to the fiery red of his Fiat Uno, calmly having a smoke, watching the show.

Rolling down my window, I stutter in my nearly useless Italian, "Do you know how to get to Via Monchiero Alto?"  In the languid way of Italians, he pulls his free hand from the warmth of his pocket and circles it abstractly above his head, glowing butt hanging from his lips, motioning toward the road rising past the fence beyond the train station. "There," he said, "It's just there."  Ahhh. There. So close, but yet so far.

By the time we had taken our disembodied Kate Winslet's only good advice and banged a U-ie, our friend has extinguished his smoke, grabbed his keys, and is waiting in the middle of the road. Returning to my window, he asks, "Are you going truffle-hunting? Are you going to Tra Arte e Querce? Come. I'll take you there." I smile in relief, he smiles in understanding, heading for his car. We are off.

Kate, you may be beautiful, have kissed Leonardo DiCaprio, won an Oscar and are aging far more gracefully than I ever will, but at this moment an Italian hybrid of Rambo and the Marlboro Man is my hero. We follow, as I dig through my bag for a 5 Euro note, a small gesture of thanks to Camo-Man for his help. Less than three minutes later, we arrive at our destination. I make my offer; he graciously declines with another engaging smile and a shake of his head.

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His thoughtfulness is a harbinger of only good things to come. Straight out of central casting, Ezio, our truffle hunting guide, steps from his family's b+b into the sunshine. Nattily clad in sage colored wide-wale corduroy pants, grey wool flannel sweater and brown leather boots, and covered in a well-worn and liberally stained deep green field jacket, he raises his eyebrows in a wordless salute to his paesano as he smiles at us in welcome. Obviously, being personally escorted by a local is not a rare occurrence in these parts.

Sizing us up, he queries in Italian, "Are you ready to go truffle hunting?" Then, fixated on our feet, he mumbles, "Are you wearing sturdy shoes?" We all look down. "I guess you don't need a translator," he opines.

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He turns and walks away. We've obviously gotten the green light. He ambles toward his truck, flipping open the tail gate at the rear. Reaching into the darkness, he grabs an armload of bastoni, hand-hewn walking sticks, each two meters long, ends smooth with use at the grip, as a small white mutt jumps down and waits at his feet.

Passing the sticks around, he introduces Jolie, our intrepid truffle-scenting hound. We learn that Jolie is one of six dogs used daily here on the private property that Ezio's wife, Cielia's family has owned for generations. Ezio has been hunting truffles since he was a boy. He is calm, confident. We are in good hands.

With Ezio and Jolie at the lead, we begin our descent from the hilltop into the valley below. The paths are slick with dew, the colorful beauty of glossy newly fallen leaves obscuring the danger they pose on the steep slope. We're glad at once for the bastoni, and the crisp smell of Fall in the woods. Ezio describes the property, pointing out oak, white poplar, hazelnut and beech trees, under which both black and the coveted white truffles grow.

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I'm distracted by the bounty of wild lettuces and herbs we're nonchalantly trodding upon. I see chicory, sage, dandelion, arugula and mint, glistening with beaded moisture in the morning sunlight. In a Pavlovian moment, I am craving a salad. Laughing, Ezio points to an area that's been mowed clean, telling us that wild boar and badgers feast on these greens nightly. I envy them.

In short order, with some encouragement from Ezio, Jolie is nosing around a poplar, then digging doggedly (sorry, I couldn't help it). As she nears her prize, snout drawn deep into the earth with laser precision due to the truffle's unique perfume, Ezio quietly but firmly reminds her whose truffle she's actually digging for. With a firmly distracting but affectionate admonishment to "leave it," Jolie steps to the side with resignation, accepting a dog treat excavated from the depths of Ezio's pocket. Ezio, meanwhile, pokes and prods with fingertips and a hand-held pick axe until the treasure is recovered intact.

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Still on his knees, Ezio carefully places a moderately large white truffle onto a plaid handkerchief, and extends it toward us. One whiff of the lumpy, greyish-brown prize is enough to tell what all the fuss is about. It's swoon-worthy, cloyingly rich and redolent with the scent of the earth. Jolie, to our delight, repeats her success half a dozen more times, and after 90 minutes, Ezio's pockets are empty of dog treats and full of black and white truffles.

After a short climb upward, we enjoy espresso in the courtyard of Ezio's b+b, satisfied, but equally anxious to move on to Alba, where we'll visit Tartufi Morra, a shop that specializes in all things truffles.

After compulsory photo-taking, Ezio invites us to return for an overnight stay, adding with a wry smile and a wink, "we offer truffles every morning at breakfast with your eggs."  We'll be back.

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