White Truffles from Alba
Object of Desire:
The white truffle might smell like earth, tree roots and old cheese, but this gastronomical object of desire, from Italy's Piedmont region, is very famous for its aroma, taste and aphrodisiac qualities. For centuries people have travelled from near and far just to savor a little piece. It is a gastronomical jewel only to be experienced at its fullest intensity in Alba, Italy.
In the Piemontese dialect they are called trifola d'Alba (the white truffle of Alba), and known by its scientific name as Tuber Magnatum Pico. From September until December the white truffle is harvested from its earthy home in the hills of the Langhe south of Alba and from the Monferrato. The white truffle is a hypogean fungus, living entirely underground, ensconced among the roots trees, and those among the oaks are the most sought after by the trifulau (truffle hunter) and their dog. The keen noses that hunt for the white truffle are those of various breeds of hunting dogs that are specially trained to search among the trees.
And, it is always a mystery as to which tree might produce the best, as individual trees vary considerably. Other tree species such as the hazelnut, lime, poplar, willow also present possibilities for savory truffles to grow. The size, flavor and aroma of a truffle is contingent on various factors such as moisture, weather, species and age of the tree, soil type and acidity, proximity to the roots and tree trunk, and insect traffic. Nature has a way of making certain that the truffle ultimately created is a gift of surprise.
One has to travel to Alba itself, a town rich in Roman and Medieval history, to experience the mystique and festivities surrounding the harvest of the white truffle. Alba, in Cuneo province, was founded by the Romans in 89 B.C. and originally named Alba Pompeia and even came to be the birthplace of a Roman Emperor named Pertinax. Although the Romans founded the city of Alba, they however were not the ones who discovered the white truffle of Alba. Rather, it was first discovered by a Polish count named De Borch, but then later in 1788 it was first given its official scientific name by a Turin physician and naturalist named Vittorio Pico, hence the name: Tuber Magnatum Pico. In present day Alba some Roman artifacts still remain, although most of the architecture visible is clearly Medieval, hints of the Renaissance are obvious. Noteworthy is the Cathedral of Alba, with its impressive Renaissance archwork, standing in the midst of Alba's historical center with its majestic presence overlooking the festivities of the famous Alba truffle fair on the streets below.
The 76th National White Truffle Fair of Alba runs from the 30th September to 5th of November, 2006. In 1929 the first Truffle Fair in Alba took place and concurrently the economic value of this earthy gastronomical treasure was recognized, due to the effort of Giacomo Morra who also initiated the white truffle's export potential.
October is the height of the white truffle season, because it is the time of the highest prices and competition among both the finders and buyers. It is also the time of a special gala event for truffle lovers. On 12 November 2006, the 8th International Auction of the Alba White Truffle will take place at the Castle of Grinzane Cavour, and will get media coverage. In previous years, astronomical prices have been paid for prized truffles, as much as Euros 95,000 in 2005, and the money was donated to charity.
Old local traditions still surround the white truffle, one of which is to give a prized truffle to a famous person. This tradition was started by Giacomo Morra back in the 1950's. Recipients have been former U.S. presidents, movie stars and political figures and others. Names on the list include: Presidents Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Reagan, and also Winston Churchill, Michel Gorbachev and celebrities such as Marilyn Monroe, Alfred Hitchcock, Rita Hayworth, Sophia Loren, Luciano Pavarotti, Gerard Depardieu, and Alain Delon. The 2006 truffle recipient is still a secret.
It is best to come to Alba, or other towns in the Langhe and Monferrato, if you want to taste a truffle in its moment of full flavor and aromatic intensity. The best way to eat truffle is within three days of it being dug up. So, that means going to one of the local restaurants which offer white truffle on its menu of local specialties. Or, you can buy one and rush it home to enjoy. It is important to know the quality of the truffle and where it came from, and price is determined by the weight. White truffles are priced differently than the famous black truffle and other black truffle species. One thing that is important to remember when eating truffle, is that it is always best to eat it with simple foods like scrambled eggs, omelettes, pasta, rice, or meat dishes like Brasato, with truffle thinly, delicately sliced over it; a special truffle cutting knife is used for fine slicing. A typical local salad, is a mixture of the local specialties of truffle and asparagus, along with celery, lettuce, lemon juice, salt and pepper and mascarpone cream. Tartufi is also added to cheese, especially the mountain cheeses of Piedmont, for instance in Toma cheese, as well as in salami. Other local favorites to try are pork or chicken with truffle, or cooked cornmeal (polenta). The typical wines that one drinks with truffled foods are Barbera, Dolcetto, and Nebiolo, all native to the Langhe and Monferrato.
Some local restaurants in Alba: who feature truffle on their menus are the Ristorante Dulcis Vitis, located on via Rattazzi 7. Another restaurent is Daniel's Al Pesco Fiorito located at Corso Canale 28. Outside of Alba there are many great places to eat and in variety of price ranges. If you have a car and can drive around this is even better. To recommend are La Crota on Via Fontana 7 in Roddi (CN). Another fine place to eat is La Rosa Dei Vini at LocalitÃ Parafada 4 in the town of Serralunga D'Alba (CN). If you want to dine in the Castle of Monticello D'Alba, then visit the Ristorante Conti Roero on Piazza S. Ponzio. The best thing to do is just travel around and visit the Langhe, as it is filled with great restaurants.
Shopping for truffles can be exciting and also a mystery. There are numerous stands were truffles are also sold, along with assorted funghi, salami and cheeses from the region. One will immediately note that not only the white truffle is being sold here. Various species of truffles exist each having its own defining characteristics in terms of size, color and fragrance. The famous, treasured black truffle (Tuber Melanosporum Vittadini) from France, the truffe du Perigordo, is also found in the area, as well as other species such as the summer black truffle (Tuber Aestivum Vittadini) and other black colored species such as the winter black truffle (Tuber Brumale Vittadini). Having that said, a variety of pseudo-black colored truffles are found in Italy, for instance in the Marche, Tuscany and Umbria. However, the Alba white truffle, is the object of desire here in Italy.
Alba Truffle Festival:
The Alba Truffle Festival lures thousands of people to it festivities. It was amazing to see the large crowds of people strolling through the streets and watching with interest the various Medieval games displayed, while sipping wine and nibbling on local food specialties. An environment of "Food galore" that is the only way to describe the scene in the streets and piazzas. The smell of barbecues, chocolate and cheese filled the air. Many types of foods were waiting to be tasted like hazelnuts from local growers, and roasted pork (Porchetta) served with cornmeal porridge (polenta) was so delicious. The salamis made with Barolo wine or black truffles were delicious. Then one also had to taste the farinata, a pizza made from corn meal, and one of my Piedmont favorites.
Delicious sweets were abundant at the festival and I sample several. The first was a rich almond and chocolate cake, served with chocolate sauce poured over it. The cake was accompanied by a glass of Moscato d'Alba wine from the Langhe region. The Langhe is famous for the wine produced from the Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebiolo grapes. This wine is a dessert treat in itself. The wine had a more fruity taste to it than the Moscato D'Asti. It was delicious with the cake. And, I was lucky to have a chance to taste it, as this wine will be difficult to find again due to the locals consuming most of it. Then I tasted some other Piemontese specialties such as apricot cake made from local producers, Gianduja chocolate, and, finally, Il Torrone Piemontese, a sweet confection made from hazelnuts, honey, sugar, egg whites, and cream. Much more is offered and one has to try all of them before going home!
When in Alba, one must also pay a visit to the famous shop of Tartufi Morra- the grandfather of 20th Century white truffle commerce. The Tartufi Morra shop is located at Piazza E. Pertinace no.3, in the very center of Alba. It has a prominent presence in the town. The store is in the historic Casa Torre building dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries. The front door was very appropriately decorated with large photographs of the typical Piedmontese trifulau and their truffle hunting dogs. Upon entering the store one will immediately be overcome by a strange, fragrant smell. The store was filled with all sorts of food products containing bits of truffle: pasta, rice and condiments and more. Good books to read about truffles are available for purchase. One excellent book to read is Carlo Cracco's White Truffle Utopia, published in 2002 by Editoriale Fernando Folini, in Casalnoceto, Alba province; the book is available in both Italian and English languages. Since there is so much to learn about truffles, it is to one's advantage to just continue exploring the festivities all over the town. The atmosphere was warm, friendly and inviting, with many opportunities to learn about the local culture while sampling local food specialties and wines. The local people, the merchants, who participate in the festival, are very proud to display their products and to answer questions about the local traditions and history.
A colorful exhibition of Alba's truffle festival history, which includes all the original festival posters, most designed by prominent Italian artists- since the1920's, is located in the Palazzo Mostre e Congressi at Piazza Medford 3 in Alba. A large collection of photographs depicting the festival's history was also presented. And, both children and curious adults could take part in designing a truffle festival poster, which then gets projected up onto the large screen for all to see. One cannot help but get into the artistic mood after walking through the beautiful historical poster exhibit. The poster exhibit displays the different styles used by the various artists in bygone years to express how they perceived the local celebration of the indigenous white truffle species so deeply rooted in Piedmont's cultural history.
And, the local communities throughout the Langhe and Monferrato do keep their cultural history and practices alive by presenting to the public each year numerous events. Since the truffle harvesting season runs from September until December, that means one can travel throughout the season to enjoy the festivities and gastronomy. The Alba truffle market is open until 8:00 p.m. on the weekends. And, there are also smaller truffle fairs in the Langhe and Monferrato areas. One thing to note is that the Langhe region is only in Cuneo province. Whereas, the Monferrato area is located in both Asti and Alessandria provinces. There is the 8th Annual Truffle Fair in the town of Montiglio Monferrato (Asti province), which runs from the 1st - 8th of October. Bergamasco (Alessandria province) also had a truffle fair on 8 October, with another coming up on the third weekend in November. Another festival to visit is Ovada's (Alessandria province) truffle market running from October through December. Finally, there is the 52nd Moncalvo Monferrato Truffle Fair (Asti province) from 22-29 October 2006. All of these claim to offer white truffles, and this may be so, but one must always be cautious as to the quality when buying, and it is not like you can taste a sample of the truffle before buying either.
For travelling to Alba, Italy drive as follows. From Milan take the A- 4, then take the A-26 to Alessandria. Then take the A-21 to Asti. Take exit (uscita) Asti Est. Then drive towards Alba on the SS-231 that runs between Asti and Alba. Another way to drive from Milan to Alba, is to take the A-7 from Milan to Genova, and then take the A-21 to Torino. Then exit at Asti Est. Then drive toward Alba on the SS231. Enroute one will see the long green hills of the Langhe topped with villages, old castles and ruins. As one nears Alba there will be plenty of signs with directions to the town. People in the area are very friendly, so if you are lost, don't worry just ask: "dov' e' la fiera del tartufo?"
Happy truffle hunting.and, may you find your object of desire!
Copyright c 2006 Karin S. Fester - Scala 22 October 2006
Karin S. Fester - Scala
Moncalvo (AT), Italy
See also Truffles