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Hunting the white truffle in Alba:
The International Alba White Truffle Fair is one of the main events showcasing Italian luxury gastronomy of the Langhe-Roero region. Listed as a UNESCO cultural landscape since 2014, the region is known not just for the rare white truffle but for fields of hazelnut trees and for vineyards cultivating some of Italy’s best-known grape varieties such as Nebbiolo, Moscato Bianco, and Barbera.
Running from October to November each year, the whole area around Alba gears up for the influx of visitors wanting to enjoy the gastronomic season and visit the Alba White Truffle Fair.
Alba is 60km from Torino Airport in Northern Italy (about an hours drive South) and Torino itself is less than 2 hours by plane from Gatwick Airport. Heading away from the airport, the land changes from flat to rolling hills and small villages, with vineyards like patchwork on the side of the slopes. In the heart of the Barolo region (designated as a Denominazione di origine controllata or DOC in 1966), there are small vineyards all around Monforte d’Alba where we were heading to stay
A charming hilltop village, Monforte d’Alba has a large outdoor seated amphitheatre at the top of the hill in its centre, sitting between a large church and a separate standalone bell tower. Summer concerts must make evenings here so romantic.
The Boutique Hotel La Ribezza, in Monforte d’Alba, was to be my home for this short visit. A stunning hotel overlooking the historic village and valley below. An excellent place to stay if you are visiting the Alba White Truffle Festival.
Boutique Hotel La Ribezza has both romantic and stylish charm, mixing a historic building and location with the contemporary styling and modern rooms. Even my ‘basic’ Comfort room offered a massive bedroom area, with a balcony, and a large bath and shower area that you could get lost in.
Hotel La Ribezza also has a sauna and a pool, with comfortable recliners around it, offering the chance to just unwind and relax with uninterrupted views of the historic town and vineyards. Clearly, one night is just not enough. This is my idea of true luxury.
After a good nights sleep, it was time to start the day and learn more about the Alba White Truffles and the region.
Alba White Truffles hold the record for the biggest truffle in the world at 4.6lbs and also the most prized at more than $300,000, making them the most expensive food in the world. But first, you have to find them…
White truffles grow naturally in the wild and cannot be cultivated, so you need to hunt for them. Many countries that produce black truffles use pigs to sniff them out, but in Alba, for white truffles, they use trained dogs, as the pigs like the truffles so much they eat them! The dogs identify the truffles growing underground by scent and are then rewarded by the owner with treats. It’s a happy relationship.
In the heart of the Langhe-Roero Piedmont, underneath the shadow of the historic castle Castello di Grinzane Cavour, I met Carlo Olivero, an experienced truffle hunter, with his dog. He explained how he trained the dog by burying truffles and guiding the dog to them until it could work it out for themselves. By constantly rewarding his faithful partner with treats from his coat pocket, the result was a dog who looked playful and jolly, but clearly knew what he needed to do to get his rewards.
Small dogs are preferred, but there is no specific breed that is used. Training starts at around five months old, and a dog can be considered fully trained at 2 years.
White truffles like moist, muddy earth and the area around the Castello di Grinzane Cavour is ideal for them. With lots of streams running through flat fields of hazelnut trees, this is a prime hunting ground for truffles! Carlo had hidden two truffles to show us how the dog was steered, and how they were found, how the dog rewarded and then the delicate process of unearthing the truffle was done. A special tool is used to excavate the soft earth around the truffle without damaging it, and once out, the earth is very carefully put back. Carlo explained how it was important to put the earth back as you found it, so that another truffle may grow there next year, and also to preserve the quality of the landscape, returning it to how it was before.
Meanwhile, the little dog was frantically running around a tree root by a stream. Carlo sensed that he had found another truffle, so rewarding the dog first, he started a long process to dig out the truffle from within the roots of the tree. Ten minutes later, a large truffle was in Carlo’s hand, and a big smile on his face; “That’s a 500 euro truffle, not bad for just a practice outing!” He then asks us not to say where he found it. The secret to a successful truffle hunt he says is to go back to where you found them the year before, and not to let any other hunter know. He now has another spot to add to his list.
The shelf-life of a fresh white truffle is about 7 days and chefs and restaurateurs who buy the freshly found Alba White Truffle at market will already have their menus planned to maximise its use.
The flavor of this truffle is described as a combination of garlic, cabbage and musk, and the white Alba truffle is best eaten raw as opposed to cooked, the opposite to the black truffle.
Highly prized for flavour and aroma, this truffle is best used shaved over freshly cooked pasta dishes or as an aromatic and tasty accompaniment to quality steak or lobster dishes.
The Alba White Truffle World Market is held in the historic centre of Alba every Saturday and Sunday in October and November, inside a huge tented area, surrounded by stalls and restaurants offering the best truffles from the surrounding Langhe, Roero and Monferrato woods.
In the centre of the market, there is a morning auction for truffles, which then changes to an education and learning centre for visitors later in the day. Show cooking events by top local chefs matched with a sensory experience twinning truffles and wines help to entertain and educate the visitors as to the value and adaptability of the white truffle.
There is also an Alba Truffle Kids area; a pavilion dedicated to children and families to showcase the history and show some fun cooking to generations just starting out.
The whole market is full of the truffle aroma, but many stalls also exhibit local cheeses and wines, being proud of their heritage and gastronomic abilities. For the visitor, there is a lot to sample and taste for free, although there are formal tasting trails you can take for only a few Euros.
Outside the pavilion, the town of Alba is full of things to do and places to eat. Alba is where Ferrero Rocher is located, and the surrounding landscape is abundant with hazelnut trees, giving this town fame outside of truffles. Wandering through the large outdoor market, stalls are selling a vast range of hazelnut products along with other regional items.
After a day full of the magic and aromas of the Alba White Truffle, it was time to head back the for my last night. A week here would still not be enough time to explore such a wonderful area full of UNESCO sites from castles to wineries. I will be back for longer next year.
The Alba White Truffle Festival 2019 runs from 5th October to 24th November. For more information check the official website.
La Ribezza Boutique Hotel is the perfect place to stay if you want a luxurious base to enjoy the Alba White Truffle Festival. The hotel is situated in the nearby village of Monforte d’Alba at Via Bava Beccaris, 3, 12065 Monforte d’Alba CN, Italy.
For more information about La Ribezza Boutique Hotel
UNESCO listed Castello di Grinzane Cavour hosts the annual Alba White Truffle Auction. There’s also a regional museum and a wine shop offering tastings of local wine. Guided tours of the Castle are available – check the website for more details.
Castello di Grinzane Cavour, Via Castello, 5, 12060 Grinzane Cavour CN, Italy
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