I decided to meet Manuele outside Taste Vin for two reasons. First of all, Taste Vin is my wife’s (and mine) favourite restaurant in Asti. Cinzia and … run the place and I have known them for many years. They have great wines, craft beers and consistently amazing food. Service is also great and its pretty affordable. The second reason we met there is that Manuele is a good friend of the owners. They all come from Montechiaro, a village near Asti.
Montechiaro d’Asti is another good area for white truffles near Asti and it also hosts an annual White Truffle Fair worth visiting. Manuele is only 28 years old (the youngest truffle hunter I know!!) but he comes from a family of truffle hunters and is really passionate. His grandfather was something of a local celebrity in Montechiaro and so was his late father. He is a bit nervous at first and he apologises in advance saying that he is not very good at explaining things. After a few glasses of Barbera d’Asti however he becomes very articulate and seems to know his stuff pretty well. Manuele has another job. He is a lathe operator in a factory, so during the white truffle season he goes truffle hunting only for a few hours at night, between 10 pm and 1 or 2 am during the week. At weekends he can stay out all night.
The area covered by Manuele and his hound dog is the land owned by the local cooperative called Valle di Seria and Valle di Farmeria. The cooperative was founded by his grandfather and other friends with the aim of preserving the area and make it accessible only to people who actually owned the land. This was set up to prevent “outsiders” from going truffle hunting on their land and preserve the local economy. The land is handed over from father to son and can rarely be sold to other people. Manuele believes that the land controlled by the cooperative produces the best white truffles in Piedmont, even better than the ones in Alba and he explains that it all boils down to the type of soil and to the particular microclimate of the area. The best soil needs to be sandy and in winter it needs to get really cold. The cold is useful because it kills the larvae, which attack the truffle, allowing thus its full and undisturbed ripening. Manuele explains that he is still learning but his knowledge seems to be immense to me.
He explains that there are differences between truffles found on the hills and the ones found in the woodland. The ones that he finds in the woodlands are rounder as the soil is sandier and when the fungus grows it therefore finds less resistance. White truffles found on the hills where the soil is more clayish can be flattened and oblong. The appearance of the truffle also varies depending on the tree they are found under as does the smell, even though sometimes some differences are so subtle that only his grandfather can tell. He is optimistic about the season starting at the end of September even though his dog is young and not as experienced as Lapo, his previous dog who passed away in January. As the evening progresses as does the amount of Barbera we are drinking, Manuele reveals another one of his passions. He also plays“tamburello” (or tambass in Piedmontese) for the Montechiaro A-league. Tamburello is a traditional sport played in Italy since the 16th century. It is very popular in villages where it is generally played in a stadium called a sferisterio or in the main piazza. Players use round tambourines to serve a heavy rubber ball. What is more Piedmotese than white truffles, Barbera and tamburello.
And what about Manuele’s favourite dish with white truffles? He told me it is Camembert sliced in half with shaves of white truffle in the middle, left on the radiator or on a warm surface for 10 minutes to soften. All washed down with a good glass (or two) of Barbera d’Asti.