Alba, in Piedmont, is Italy’s white truffle mecca and main market. My trip to Europe this year had one main intention – The White Truffle Fair in Alba. Each weekend of the month-and-a-half long fair in October and November every year draws thousands of visitors by the bus loads into this charming town; everyone with the common objective of indulging in white truffles and the region’s cuisine and wines.
The Piedmont region is famed for gourmet produce such as truffle and barolo salami, porcini mushrooms, agnolotti, tajarin, polenta, risotto, hazelnuts, gianduja and the renowned Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera and Moscato d’Asti wines. It is also home to Slow Food and boasts many of the world’s best Slow Food restaurants.
This year’s Fair (the 82nd) runs from 6th October to 18th November. Each weekend is packed with diverse events from the Donkey Palio, the Truffle Bacchanal and the White Truffle World Auction to book readings, wine festivals, art exhibitions and organised walks into the hills of Barolo vineyards. During this period, the town swells with travellers from other parts of Italy and all over the world eager to regale in the festivities of the Fair and for a whiff and taste of the elusive truffle.
Without a doubt, the beating heart of the Fair is the Truffle Market. Paying homage to the White Truffle of Alba, it is where the public gets up close and personal to reliable local traders and hunters and the quality truffles that they sell.
Entry into the Market cost 2 euros, and there is a supplement of 15 euros (if I remember correctly) to enjoy three tastings of wine. My inner goddess beams!
Inside the Market, the atmosphere is heady and activity bustles. Buyers and sellers engage in the centre of the marketplace while others peruse the stalls of the AlbaQualità food and wine show featuring regional delicacies. The delectable aroma of the white truffle fills the air. No one is complaining.
While the town of Alba has several truffle shops (which are excellent), this annual market is the largest gathering of white truffle traders and white truffles world-wide. Every truffle on sale at the Market has passed stringent checks by the Quality Commission who remains closeby, on a prominent platform, to help provide expert advice to consumers. Prospective buyers are assured of superior truffle quality at the Market.
There is a large number of truffles of various quality, sizes and prices for sale. Even the fussiest truffle buyer is bound to find a piece to fall in love with.
The truffles at the Market are priced between EUR 500 to 600 per 100 grammes. To give you some perspective, the little ones in the front row, in the picture above, cost around dozens of euros; the middle row in the 100-ish; and the back row will set you back in excess of 200 euros, each. Uh-huh.
Though by no means cheap, the truffles at the Market are fantastic value for money, given their superior freshness and quality. This is about as close to source as one can get, unless you are hunting your own!
Interested buyers are welcome to sniff and examine the truffle that catches their eye. A good one should feel firm and solid and smell fresh from the earth and pungent in a heavenly fashion. And if you are feeling incompetent, expert help is not far away.
The truffle’s fragrance degrades very rapidly and it is recommended that it best be consumed within a week of harvest. Many buyers bring them home as gifts or to enjoy over dinner parties. Those preferring instant gratification savour them straightaway over a bowl of agnolotti at the Market.
At the peripheral of the marketplace are stalls of the AlbaQualità food and wine fair showcasing the fine wines of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato regions in Piedmont and artisanal produce such as cheeses, egg pastas, cured meats, wild mushrooms and truffle derivatives. This is an excellent opportunity to do some gourmet shopping under one roof. I am still kicking myself for not buying more of those porcini mushrooms!
And if all that shopping is getting you hungry, the Market also hosts food service and wine stations – a great opportunity to sample some local cuisine and the outstanding wines.
The Truffle Fair is more than just about the famous tuber of course; the entire town erupts into festivities and fringe activities during the Fair. An important event is the the Truffle Bacchanal and the Medieval Fair on the third weekend of October.
On the magical night of the Truffle Bacchanal, the town square comes alive in splendid medieval guise, re-living a carnival of days gone by. Traditional fairground games such as Hoopla, Loop-the-Bottle, Fish-the-Grapes, Spin-the-Wheel and Donkey Bounce test the skill and agility of players. Booths serving cheeses, polenta stew, grilled meats, truffle pasta and wine keep the famished satiated and in a jolly mood.
Be sure to try the polenta. There’s something quite seductively primeval about stirring with a paddle, a cast iron vat filled with creamy polenta. Tradition works – I loved it!
Another fringe event I thoroughly enjoyed is the “Year in the Vineyard” photo exhibition by Enzo Massa set in the gorgeous Church of San Domenico.
The fruit of several years of diligent study by the photographer, this collection of works portrays the extraordinary settings of the hillsides of the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato – the cycle of the seasons, the work, the faces behind and the religious devotion to perfection.
While the white truffle is the theme of my trip this time, it certainly isn’t the only reason a visit to this part of the world is justified. Piedmontese cooking is known to be one of the most refined cuisines in Italy. Deeply rooted in the use of the freshest local produce in season, the cuisine preserves the honest and wonderful flavours of ancient Italian traditions balanced with influence by the elaboration and richness of French cuisine across the border.
Here are some restaurants we enjoyed and a couple I cannot forgive myself for missing out on:
- Ristorante Rabaja, Barbaresco – a rustic family-run Piedmontese restaurant with amazing traditional dishes and an excellent wine collection. Located in the famous wine-growing town of Barbaresco, a 15 minutes’ drive from Alba. Must try their roasted porcini mushrooms with egg yolk. They say their yolk is especially yellow because their chickens are fed plenty of carrot. Whatever it is, I think they have it worked out – this was superb!
- Ristorante La Libera, Alba – a fantastic restaurant in a contemporary setting in the heart of Alba. I gushed over their ravioli here. And I shall say it again – favourite dish of the trip.
- Ristorante Sotto La Mole, Turin – a very good Slow Food restaurant in Turin, capital of ancient Italy, a little more than an hour’s drive from Alba. It’s the perfect dinner stop after a visit to the brilliant Cinema Museum. My tajarin was very well executed.
- Ristorante Bovio – perched on the hilltop in the town of La Morra overlooking the rolling vineyards responsible for some of the best Barolos in the world, a 15 minutes’ drive from Alba. We passed on dinner here due to a very substantial (and delicious) breakfast and lunch. We later met a well-travelled Canadian couple who raved about the restaurant as the-one-not-to-be-missed. I have been haunted by remorse ever since.
- Ristorante Profumo di Vino – in the little town of Treiso, a 15 minutes’ drive from Alba. This restaurant came highly recommended by a credible source. Unfortunately, we did not manage to get in. Book early.
Here’s where we stayed:
- Villa La Favorita, Alba – located just outside the town of Alba, this gorgeous bed-and-breakfast is helmed by the dynamic Roberta and her very competent team. We thoroughly enjoyed our stay here. Roberta is most gracious and hospitable. And Giovanna’s breakfast! Oh my. Homemade cakes and jams made from fruit in the estate’s trees, the ham, the cheese, the bread, the fruit…
- Villa Incanto, Treiso – a family-run agriturismo high up in Treiso, a quiet town about 15 minutes’ uphill drive from Alba. This estate has a gorgeous view of the rolling countryside of the Langhe. Our room is generously sized and comfortable. We adored watching the glorious Piedmontese sunset over a bottle of Moscato, the yummy coconut yoghurt served at breakfast, and Lulu, the very playful and persistent pup who loves to play fetch-stone.
Viva l’Italia, ciao…for now.Written and photographed by jack.d