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If ever there were a glowing endorsement for the finding and eating of parasites, it is Signore Renato Agnello of Ricca in Italy's northern Piedmont region.
Agnello is foppishly handsome in his boot-tucked breeches and Piedmontese cap, and at 70 he remains as fit as a marathon runner. In fact, he is one. Each year he travels to Madrid, Paris, London and any other European capital within striking distance that hosts an annual dash, and proceeds to run 42.195 kilometres. Presumably to the amazement of onlookers.
Since childhood, his life has been dominated by truffles, the lumpy fungi that sprout wondrously from the roots of trees in the moistly forested hills of Piedmont. Agnello remembers how his father would disappear into the surrounding hills each Friday and hunt for truffles to sell at the village market. He would return with a bounty of five or six kilograms of this now highly prized commodity and pile them on the kitchen table ahead of the next day's trade. But often the truffles didn't sell because people were too poor to buy them during the war, so the Agnellos did what any sensible family would do with a table full of truffles - they ate them.
Agnello did not attribute his extraordinary vigour specifically to these parasites (or symbionts, to be precise, because both the tree and the mushroom share nutrients), but I do. Truffles define his life, permeate his existence, and perfume his very being.
The first thing I notice about Agnello when we meet early on All Saints Day is that he smells delicious - good enough to nibble. Not cheese-on-toast delicious but a heady vapour of deliciousness that reminds me variously of honey, earth, musk and meat. The aroma seems to emanate from his very being, like a pheromone, but in reality it is escaping from his beige utility vest. Its pockets are lined with nuggets of Piedmont's famed white truffle that he unearthed while rootling in the woods the previous night with his dogs, Diana and Gigi. Five hours later, the truffling trio has reassembled at the base of a vine-striped rise in the winemaking village of Barbaresco to meet me and interpreter Francesca Catalano. We are about to head into a forest of oak and poplar where this real-life trifolau and his wily hounds will show me the secrets of truffle hunting, the enigmatic pursuit that has defined peasant life in Piedmont for centuries.I haven't been so excited in ages.
"I have been a trifolau for 64 years," a beaming Agnello announces as he shakes my hand. "I was six years old when I first went with my father."
He still has a youthful exuberance about him as he leads us nimbly between leafy nebbiolo vines, hysterical in their autumn hues, and up into a nature reserve beside the Tanaro River. The 18th-century castle of Magliano Alfieri is just visible on the horizon, the air rings with birdsong and the forest floor is dappled with sunlight and a carpet of brilliantly coloured leaves. This feels like walking through an oil painting, but truffling once had much darker overtones. In the Middle Ages, it was thought these mysterious mushrooms were the food of witches and the devil, and laced with deadly poisons. But it was a brief fall from favour: everyone from the ancient Sumerians, Greeks and Romans to, more recently, popes, saints and kings have eulogised and hungered for this tuber.
I am wistfully absorbed in the beauty of the surroundings when Diana begins clawing at the soil beneath a wild hazelnut tree.
"Beica bene!" Agnello whispers hoarsely to her in the Piemontese dialect. ("Look well!")
Convinced by her excitement, he kneels and starts digging with his own hands, pauses to sniff a handful of earth, then moments later reaches into the earth to retrieve a goitre of white gold. It is tiny, about the size of the smallest fingernail, but given that this outing had been discouragingly described as a "simulated" truffle hunt (because it's created purely for visitors) I am delighted by the find. So is Diana, whose reward is a piece of sweetened dog biscuit shaped like a bone.
White truffles can be very ugly things, like bunions or goblin's warts. Especially here in the Langhe, the fertile hills to the right of the Tanaro, where the fungus struggles to find space to bloat in the compacted clay and so emerges knobbly and malformed. On the left bank of the river is the Roero, with its sandy soils and more uniform, rounded specimens.
"The two kinds of soil determine the consistency of the truffle, its spirit," explains Agnello. Those from the Langhe also have a more intense aroma, and are "more precious, more expensive" - this year upwards of $790 for 100 grams.
The trifolau's tool kit is deceptively simple. In addition to a vest or coat with many pockets, he needs a stick and a zappino, a mattock-like tool for breaking up the earth. Agnello uses the stick to direct his dogs and also to point out the various species of trees we pass. "Oak gives truffles a more intense perfume. White poplar. Lime. Wild hazelnut - very good for white and black truffles."
The woodlands here are home to wild boar, hares and deer, and also other truffle hunters. Agnello hears one above us and moves his dogs deeper into the trees away from the rival. Trifolaus have been known to poison each other's dogs out of envy - last year six animals were killed this way in just one week, Agnello tells me. What looks like a charming and harmless pursuit can be a rather risky business.
Agnello obviously adores his dogs. He has spent a lifetime training them for himself and others, with uncommon success. He started as a child - "Puppies listen better to younger people" - and explains that mongrels are best, preferably bitches because they are more docile and easier to train. Diana is 12 now and a priceless companion. Gigi, who turned one at Christmas, is still a little mischievous but is showing great promise after just four months' training. He would probably fetch nearly $3000, but neither dog is for sale.
In this charmed Italian corner, truffles sprout all year except April and May. White truffles are found between September and January, but at other times there are black winter truffles, pale bianchetti, and summer truffles. Agnello prospects from June until February but it is only during the white truffle season that he heads out every night. In the dark, there are fewer distractions for the dogs and it is easier to conceal his movements from rivals. "We have secret spots we don't want anyone else to know about," Agnello says. In the pre-dawn, too, the moist ground intensifies the truffle scent.
As the dogs shuffle through the leaves, noses to the ground, Agnello makes soft clucking noises of encouragement. Diana finds another nugget, bigger than the last, then Gigi rootles out an even bigger prize. In total, the dogs track down five calloused treasures, boosting Agnello's haul for the day by hundreds of dollars.
"I guess I do this for some money," admits Agnello, who worked as a printer for 35 years before retiring. "But even if one year there were no truffles, I would still go. This is my passion."