In Italy food is bigger than everything. Bigger than popstars, celebrities, sport, politics and even religion. When it comes to the other big ‘Fs’, fashion and football you pick one and obsess over it, rarely both. But if you walk down the streets of any city, town or village in Italy and eavesdrop on a conversation, I am willing to bet any money that nine out of ten conversations will concern food.
And so perhaps it should come as no surprise that the biggest festivals in Italy are centred around food.
In autumn the place to be is Alba. Every October and November this Piedmont city (home to the Ferrero family of Nutella fame) plays host to the International White Truffle Fair, attracting thousands of visitors from Italy and overseas.
Last weekend I visited Alba to find out about these rarest and most luxurious of Italian ingredients. If there’s one place that really appreciates a celebration of food and flavour this is it. Throughout the weekend the town’s narrow cobbled streets were packed with visitors enjoying aperitivo, perusing the many stalls or wandering in the warm autumnal weather. Medieval performances took place in the piazzas, which, although slightly odd, added to the party atmosphere.
Alba during the Truffle Festival
Entering the centrepiece of the fair, the truffle market, was an intense experience. Stalls upon stalls of "trifulau's" (truffle hunters) were proudly displaying their treasures and the air was full of the scent of hundreds of truffles, creating an olfactory overload. On closer inspection the white truffles ("tartufi bianchi") resemble unimpressive brown knobbly lumps. The price tags however, were much more impressive. This year a kilo of white truffle costs up to €2500, cheaper than usual apparently, due a bumper harvest caused by the recent warm wet weather. In 2012 they cost an eye-watering €5000 a kilo.
So why do white truffles cost so much?
"It's all to do with their rarity" local truffle hunter Walter Trinchero informs me. "White truffles cannot be cultivated, the only way to get them is to forage in the woods".
"Truffle hunting used to be done with pigs" Walter tells me, "but dogs are easier to control, and less likely to eat the truffles once they are found" (a vision of Walter wrestling for a truffle from the jaws of a pig springs to mind). "A good truffle hunting dog requires six months of training, perhaps even more, and are highly prized, a good dog costs perhaps €7000.
Walter refuses to tell me exactly where he goes hunting for his truffles, as this is a closely guarded secret, and key to his survival. Competition between the truffle hunters is fierce and there are rumours that truffle-hunting dogs have been kidnapped or poisoned by rivals.
Another reason for the white truffle's substantial price tag is their unique smell and flavour. They are widely considered to have more a sophisticated aroma and taste in comparison to their black counterparts and so are best served shaved raw on fried egg, or a simple risotto.
Truffles are difficult to transport and do not last for very long, so are best eaten close to source. If you are lucky enough to visit a Piedmontese family during truffle season you could be offered white truffle grated on all your dishes. I have once been served truffle on top of gelato, a step too far in my opinion.
Castello di Grinzane Cavour, Piedmont, Source Langhe.net
The region of Piedmont is a gastronome's heaven. Apart from truffles and hazelnuts the region is home to world-renowned red wines including Barolo, Barbaresco and Nebbiolo. The cuisine here is hearty and traditional, with boiled meat, vitello tonnato, eggy pastas and rich pannacotta on the menu. In recent years the region has also been innovating with Bra's now world famous Slow Food movement, plus the brilliant Enrico Crippa's Japanese-Italian creations at the three-Michelin starred Piazza Duomo in Alba.
Restaurants in and around Alba
Piazza Duomo: Enrico Crippa is pushing the boundaries at Piazza Duomo combining Italian and Japanese flavours and styles. His experiments have earned great praise and this Alba restaurant Piazza Duomo three Michelin stars.
Piazza Risorgimento 4, 12051 Alba, Italy. Tel: +39 0173 366 16, www.piazzaduomoalba.it
Castello di Grinzane Cavour: Not far from Alba this Michelin-starred restaurant serving Piedmontese cuisine is set in a beautiful castle that was home to the Count of Cavour. A local’s favourite, with stunning views and innovative dishes.
Via Castello, 5, Grinzane Cavour, 12060, Italy. Tel: +39 0173 262159, www.castellogrinzane.com
Ca del Re: If you want to experience a long lazy lunch the local way then Ca del Re is a must. Set in the tiny village of Verduno with a beautiful tree covered courtyard this agriturismo serves classic Piedmontese cuisine.
Via Umberto 14, Verduno, 12060 Alba, Italy. Tel: +39 0172 470281, www.agriturismocadelre.it/