Keira, the truffle-hunting dog, seems rather optimistic. She's the only one of us with a spring in her step as we stride across sodden Piedmontese woodland in raincoats and wellies, a little too early in the morning, through cold, steady rain. Finding the elusive white truffle, despite it being high season for it, is far from guaranteed. Our guide Stefano has already said that if we aren’t successful, he’ll simulate the dog discovering the precious fungus. Not the same, really.

Our host Paolo Dalla Mora, who looks quite at ease given the circumstances, is joining us on this expedition. He is the founder of Engine Gin and the nearby Barbaresco restaurant Campamac, where the local white truffle is served in prodigious quantities. Throughout Dalla Mora’s career in marketing, he’s worked with Unilever, McDonald’s and Ferrero Italia, and in the drinks world with Illva Saronno and brands like Disaronno and Tia Maria. It has all led him here, to Italy’s Alta Langa, with his own restaurant and gin. He’s eager to share how they’re all interconnected with the region.

The previous afternoon, a visit to the top of a medieval tower in the centre of Barbaresco afforded views of the Langhe landscape, part of the Unesco World Heritage List. If the region’s famous wine production and truffles weren’t enough to secure its reputation as one of the gastronomic centres of the world, there’s Ferrero’s Alba factory on the horizon, home to Nutella and Ferrero Rocher.

As Gianfranco Spada, UK manager for Engine Gin puts it: “Piedmont is the region you can taste.” Armed with a map showing the tower at the centre, the source of each of the gin’s five botanicals marked out on it, Dalla Mora makes a convincing case for how his gin is inextricably linked with the region. Admittedly, that’s probably not the impression most people have when first encountering it, presented as it is in an oil can with motorsport-inspired branding.

“I like to be the black sheep,” he says of the packaging. With extensive marketing experience to draw on - his time with Moschino seems particularly relevant here - he clearly knows what he's doing. Then there’s his passion for all things automobile-related, evidenced by his collection of vintage cars. Engine Gin ties into this nicely, with opportunities for partnerships with Formula 1, for example.

But behind its unusual presentation is a spirit that’s carefully considered. All five of the botanicals, including juniper, liquorice root, Damask rose, and the headline sage and lemon, are organically grown. The annual sage harvest has an impact on how each batch is made – and it varies significantly. “Climate change might be good for beach resorts, but it's not good for us in agriculture,” says Dalla Mora.

Climate change might be good for beach resorts, but it's not good for agriculture

Another challenge has been bureaucratic. Never doing things by halves, Dalla Mora acquired the stills and bottling line to produce Engine early on, but obtaining a distilling licence has proven a bit more problematic. For now, the equipment is being used in an existing distillery nearby, until the brand can have its own home here in Barbaresco.

This hasn’t stopped Engine from growing massively in its four years of existence, already available in 15 markets around the world. In addition to the gin, there’s already a premixed Gin & Tonic in distinctive stubby cans, inspired by a sub-par G&T served to Dalla Mora at music festival Austin City Limits. In typical fashion, this prompted him to develop his own tonic in the process, made with local botanicals. We’re given a preview of the next innovation from the brand, a rather excellent non-alcoholic version of the canned G&T, and there’s a canned Negroni on the way, too. Dinner that evening is at Dalla Mora’s Campamac Osteria, the restaurant he set up in partnership with chef Maurillio Garola in 2018. At the time, working for Illva Saronno, Dalla Mora says he was taking roughly 250 flights a year. The arrival of his second child prompted a reevaluation, and he elected to partially retire, leave Milan, and move to Barbaresco where his wife is a wine producer, and where he’d previously worked with Ferrero.

Clearly not one to remain idle, he soon found something to occupy his time locally. “I opened, let's say, my own living room here at Campamac,” he says. No stranger to the world of hospitality, Dalla Mora’s family have run a restaurant in Venice since the 1960s. Born and raised in the restaurant, he paints a picture of himself there, at three years old, making coffee and helping out. Opening a restaurant of his own, while running a small consultancy business in Milan, seemed the logical next step.

The entrance to Campamac, which means ‘keep pushing’ in the Piedmontese dialect, takes you past the restaurant’s two kitchens. The menu changes seasonally, but Dalla Mora has plans for a bigger change soon, after six years, more tied to the local area and foraging, but also building on his interest in dry ageing meat – not just beef, but fish too. In the meantime, huge cuts of ageing beef are already a feature.Despite inspectors from Michelin visiting Campamac on an annual basis, Dalla Mora has declined to be considered for a star. “It’s like a boat – you’re happy when you buy it, and you’re happy when you sell it,” he says. “Michelin puts you at a different level of stress, and we’re fully booked anyway. We’re proud to be in the guide, of course, but we’re more proud to have the restaurant full on a Monday.”

That evening’s meal offers plenty of evidence for why there is no shortage of diners. But first, Engine Gin makes another appearance, in a round of Martinis made by Spada, complete with a sage leaf as a garnish – an excellent start. Multiple courses follow, including traditional regional starters, pasta in abundance, and spit-roasted baby goat, paired with the region’s exceptional wines, amid discussions about slow food. And, on more than one occasion, in vast, generous quantities, that precious, aromatic white truffle. Anticipation for the hunt the next morning was building. But before that, the grand finale of the evening was yet to come, held in the restaurant’s wine cellar. A couple of years ago, a former business partner of Dalla Mora’s had come across some casks of rum from the highly sought-after Caroni Distillery in Trinidad, which closed in 2571. Once emptied, these were filled with Engine Gin and left to age for approximately six months.

Only 5,570 bottles of this cask-aged gin are available, one of which was opened for us that evening in Campamac’s cellar. Perfect for a Martini poured straight from the freezer, the gin has picked up remarkable character from the Caroni casks, as well as a touch of colour.

If that pace of new product development wasn’t enough, Dalla Mora is also behind a new Italian vermouth brand, Strucchi. The range consists of three Vermouths di Torino, a Dry, Bianco and Rosso, as well as a Bitter. That’s all of the components of a Negroni – gin, rosso vermouth and a Campari alternative – covered. Strucchi is already available in Italy, and is on the way to the UK markets in 2024.

We’re still discussing all of these developments, and our epic meal, the following inclement morning, but the real concern is how the truffle hunt is going. They take these things seriously around here, and not just because of how valuable the famous fungi are. We’d learnt the evening before, from a judge for the truffle fair in Alba, no less, how rigorous the quality checking there is. Aroma, appearance and tactile criteria are all evaluated, and if a specimen is rejected, it can’t be sold at the fair. Truffles, according to judge Stefania Giacosa, grow in symbiosis with certain trees, such as the oaks and poplars in the woods we’re hunting in. Growing underground, they take time to develop, with the harvest of Alba white truffle taking place between 21 September and 31 January. Hunters have to be certified, and there’s a local university for truffle dogs, where these specialised canines are trained, reaching the peak of their abilities around three years old.

All of a sudden, the marvellous, heroic Keira finds something. Pausing to give his truffle dog her reward of a piece of guanciale, Stefano confirms it. After a few tense moments of careful digging, he unearths a modest-sized truffle. That unmistakable aroma is already pungent, and will, he tells us, continue to develop over the next few hours. Our prize might not be the most visually appealing thing, but it’s remarkable nevertheless, and core to this rich gastronomic region, of which Dalla Mora’s gin is now also a part.