I arrived in the Langhe region to visit the annual Alba White Truffle Festival. Located in a part of Italy’s Piedmont region, the Langhe is home to some of the most prized cooking ingredients on earth. White truffles, Carrú beef, and a variety of cheeses, such as, the Robiola Rocchetta, testun de fen, and Castelmagno cheeses are products of this region.
Some travelers that I met had accidentally stumbled upon the festival, whereas others had planned their visit months in advance. “We got married with the truffle festival in mind,” said Nadine Gordenev, who was with her husband Brian on their honeymoon. Piedmont produces many of Italy’s most popular egg pastas, including agnolotti, tajarin, and panzerotti; and its wines, with names like dolcetto, Barbaresco, Barolo, and barbera, are world-famous. For me, Alba and the towns that surround it—Barolo, Barbaresco, Bra—are culinary heaven.
I arrived in Alba during some of the heaviest rains in recent memory, and the Po River was threatening to flood its banks. The colors of the leaves in the vineyards were so brilliant that they looked like molten lava, but the pelting rain soon tore them to the ground. The truffle hunt—during which trained dogs paw the countryside looking for white truffles, some of which grow as much as a meter deep—had been canceled due to the rain , and because I didn’t feel like getting washed away in the river, I went straight to the Alba Truffle Festival. You can read about another of my truffle hunting adventures here.
Two weeks prior to visiting Alba, I’d attended and written about the Zigante Truffle Festival in Istria, Croatia. Istria and Alba are the only two places on earth recognized for producing high quality white truffles. The white truffle perplexes scientists because it cannot be cultivated, and it only grows September-November. That white truffles stay fresh just seven to ten days makes them even more elusive, and when they appear on restaurant menus in the United States they are exceptionally expensive.
Wandering among the rows of truffle hunters, each seated behind glass cases full of white truffles, I was in search of good deals. Are white truffles more affordable if you buy them locally? I met with Stafano Cometti, who opened the Centro Nazionale Studi Tartufo (the National Center for the Study of Truffles), a school—the first of its kind—dedicated to studying white truffles. He taught me that different truffles have different flavors, and that the flavors are determined by soil type as well as the type of tree under which the truffle grows. The larger and fresher the truffle, the more flavorful the truffle. At the fair, I found truffles that cost as little as 10€, but I noticed that they looked a little dried up, which is a sign of a lack of freshness. Fortunately, all of the truffles at the Alba Truffle Festival are examined by members of the Centro Nazionale Studi Tartufo, and you can even get the experts to examine a truffle that you’ve bought. The prices of white truffles ranged from 10€ to almost 2,000€, and the next time I visit Alba during truffle season, I plan to rent an apartment and cook gigantic truffle feasts.
Besides white truffles, products showcasing white truffle essence were sold, which stay fresh longer than fresh white truffles. White truffle essence is not actually derived from white truffles, but it tastes similar and its flavors remain intact for months. There was fresh, truffle-stuffed agnolotti pasta, truffle sausage (raw samples of which were out of this world), white truffle cheeses, and white truffle honey. Wineries also set up stands, and you could buy a wine glass for eight euros and get unlimited tastes of all the wines. Entrance to the Alba Truffle Festival is two euros.
To get a taste of the Langhe’s traditional dishes, we attended the Saturday for Foodies event. I highly recommend it: For 15€, you get to learn about the local cuisine over a light lunch with wine. The first dish was the famous carne crudo, which features the area’s high quality beef. Literally translated as “raw meat,” carne crudo is a simple dish of carefully chopped or ground beef that is lightly seasoned. I was served three types of carne crudo: one with salt, pepper, olive oil, and garlic; one with salt, pepper, olive oil, and Parmesan shavings; and one with salt and hazelnut oil. Each crudo’s beef had been cut differently; the courser crudo showed the meat’s inherent texture whereas the more finely ground crudo revealed the beef’s sweetness. The crudo paired perfectly with the 2009 Rivetto Dolcetto D’Alba “Ercolino.”
I tried Alba’s fresh white truffles at two restaurants. Most restaurants offer either truffle tasting menus or the option to purchase truffle by the gram and add it to any dish. Most restaurants charge around five euros a gram. At La Piola restaurant, our waiter, Andrea Canaparo, suggested a minimum of three grams of fresh white truffle for a plate of pasta. If you want to taste truffle but don’t want to break the bank, I recommend ordering fried eggs—a ubiquitous menu item thanks to its ability to showcase truffle flavor—with two grams of fresh white truffle. The entire dish should cost around 16€.
La Piola restaurant is located in Alba’s main piazza, Piazza Risorgimento. I tried my first Albese white truffle over Tajarin pasta with salt and butter. Tajarin is a very eggy pasta cut into fine strips; it’s the perfect vehicle for fresh white truffle. The dish’s aroma was buttery and slightly mushroomy, and the heat brought out the flavor of the truffle. The dish paired excellently with the 2008 Ceretto Barbaresco Asij: the acidity and tannins were soft enough to let the truffle shine, and I tasted red fruit, cedar, and baking spices.
I had my second truffle experience at Il Vigneto restaurant, which is located in a farmhouse outside of Roddi (a 15-minute drive from Alba). Perched on a hill, the restaurant comes with astonishing views of the rolling, grapevine-covered hills (Roddi is just one town over from Barolo after all). The restaurant’s décor was youthful but refined, like a farmhouse meets a lounge in Milan. Here, white truffle was also served over Tajarin with salt and butter, but the flavor of the white truffle was strikingly different. Found on the Il Vigneto grounds, the white truffle was much more garlicy and at times I thought I tasted unsweetened chocolate with cinnamon, but that sounds too fantastic to be possible. Perhaps it was the trippy, ambient music playing in the dining room. The dish was finished with olive oil, which spread the truffle aroma even more. After eating at Il Vigneto I realized how different each truffle can be: this is something white truffle essence cannot replicate.
In my next article I head to the southern Italian region of Puglia. Parts of Puglia are just 69 miles from Albania, and ferries run direction to Dubrovnik, Croatia, from the Pugliese cities of Bari and Brindisi. This will complete my circumnavigation of the Adriatic Sea and all of its flavors.
Alba Hotel Recommendation
Hotel Langhe – $$$
This modern hotel is located one mile from Alba’s center, making for a peaceful stay. As if the babbling brook that runs behind the hotel weren’t enough, the owners go out of their way to make sure their guests feel at home. The rooms are artfully decorated; some have balconies. The included breakfast is hearty, the 15-minute walk to the town center is pleasant.
View More photos
Strada Profonda, 21
Restaurant Recommendations in and Near Alba
La Piola – $$$
Bustling and professional, La Piola provides an excellent selection of traditional dishes. Antipasti begin at six euros, primo at twelve, wine by the bottle at fourteen, and fresh white truffle is sold for five euros a gram. This is a good place to taste white truffle and get to know the local cuisine; the preparation of the dishes is well executed.
Piazza Risorgimento, 4
Vincafe – $-$$
Thanks to Vincafe, it’s possible to find a good, cheap meal in Alba. Upon entering, you’ll see an unpretentious café, but continue upstairs to find a modern dining room. Dishes tend to run a few euros less than typical, and there’s no coperto (cover charge). The pastas are very good, and the list of wines by the glass is enormous.
Via Vittorio Emanuele, 12
Osteria Dell’Arco – $$$
You’ll have to walk through a courtyard off of Piazza Savona to find this restaurant, which serves inspired local dishes in Slow Food style. Osteria Dell’Arco seems to interpret Slow Food cuisine as food that is simple, seasonal, and creative. Expect to be surprised by familiar flavors. The wine list is extensive and there are many good, inexpensive bottles.
Piazza Savona, 5
Il Vigneto – $$$
Il Vigneto provides a very special experience. Located in the middle of the countryside, the restaurant manages to combine the iconic Italian farmhouse with urban chic. Vaulted brick ceilings meet recessed lighting and designer furniture. All of it combines to create an atmosphere like no other, which is especially ideal if you’re ordering a once-in-a-lifetime meal of truffles. The plates are beautifully arranged. The homemade Tajarin that I had was perfectly cooked. Don’t miss the “Gianduia” Chocolate Mousse, which comes with a playful line of pop-rocks on the side.
Localita Ravinali, 19/20
Agriturismo Dindina – $$$$
This is the type of place where you absolutely need to make a reservation: the chef only buys enough food to cover the numbers in the books. Expect authentic Lombardy cuisine cooked as your Lombard mother would cook it. Be warned, many of the dishes will include the traditional fish sauces, such as tonnato sauce and bagna cauda. There are no menus, but there will be at least two options for each course. A complete, four-course meal costs 30 euros before wine.
Via Umberto I
Asso di Quadri Pizzeria – $
Believe it or not, I had one of the best pizzas ever at this little pizzeria in Neviglie (about a 15-minute drive from Alba). If you like pizza like they make it in Naples, check out Asso di Quadri.
Via Mango, 7
Written by Mattie Bamman for EuropeUpClose.com