Just like diamonds, one of Italy's most precious foods is to be found underground, by digging into the soil. They are Truffles, the tasty subterranean fungus growing at the roots of trees like oaks, birches and hazels. The rarest white truffle in particular, can't be cultivated and only grows in a few areas of the world. Highly appreciated for the unique flavour it adds to the simplest dishes such as fried eggs, raw meat or plain pasta, as well as to more elaborated recipes. The prices of white truffles can reach sky-high levels, on regional Truffle Stock Markets, and some pieces are even auctioned at Sotheby’s. No wonder the illustrious French gourmet Brillat-Savarin called it "the diamond of the kitchen" in his book The Physiology of Taste.
In Italy, the biggest concentration of white truffles is found in Piedmont, in the world famous Langhe, Roero and Monferrato regions. Also known for its excellent wines and hazelnuts, and a highly appreciated food & wine destination throughout the year, the lovely town of Alba in autumn becomes the world capital of the white truffle, commonly named the “Alba Truffle”,
Only licensed “diggers” with the help of well-trained dogs, are allowed to look for the truffles, so as to preserve the delicate habitat where they grow. Even though the “hunting season” lasts from September to January, the peak of the truffle search is during the International Alba White Truffle Fair, from 8 to 27 October 2016. This oldest truffle fair in Italy, this year is the 86th edition, focuses on sustainability, land preservation and circular economy. It will also be the occasion to submitting the Alba White Truffle to the List of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
At the heart of the fair is the Truffle Market, which features truffle sensory analysis workshops and wine tasting, and where selected and guaranteed pieces are on sale. The programme, though, is pretty rich and goes well beyond the experts' interest and official dates, involving the whole town and visitors in a number of enjoyable activities. These include truffle hunt simulations, cooking demos, food markets, convivial tastings and dinners, art exhibitions and cultural meetings, and the Alba Truffle Bimbi pavilion dedicated to children. The highlights of the Fair are the historical re-enactments such as the Donkey palio, the Truffle Bacchanal and the Medieval Fair, when the tiny streets of the town are filled with a magic atmosphere of music, dance and actors in costumes.
Paolo Montanaro is the owner at Tartuflanghe, one of the leading truffle marketers in Alba, making and exporting a number of products besides fresh truffles, from preserved, dehydrated or spherified truffle to flavoured pasta, snacks and confectionery. Son of an experienced cook who started the company in 1968 , his restaurant used to be the local reference point for eating truffle-based recipes. Paolo is an inventive entrepreneur and a passionate lover of this underground gem. «In 1992, we were the first to organise truffle hunts for visitors. It was a true innovation, giving visitors the chance to see a trifulau (digger) at work with his dog, and it aroused a huge interest. Today we host around 4,000 people during the last three months of the year, involving them in daily hunts and telling them all that we know about truffle,” he told hiEurope.
Montanaro had a love-hate relationship with his parents’ business for a long time. «When I was a kid I enjoyed hunting with my uncle and I occasionally still do it today. But I also remember my parents always being at work. At the restaurant there was often a never-ending line of people, and they also went around to sell and deliver local truffle. So I started hating the truffle and the hunting season,” he recalls.
This feeling hasn’t changed. “Every year in December, after three months of buying and selling truffles, I tell myself I want to find another job. But when September comes around, I can't wait to see, touch, smell and, of course, eat the first ones. I know it's hard to understand if you don't belong to this field. The truffle has a very short life. It must be sold within 24 hours from excavation; and the trifulau are peculiar people. This is their second job, as they do it only for three months. During night shifts, you visit their homes at dinner time, or maybe wait for them with their families, eagerly watching the clock because you have to go visit the next person. Then you have to congratulate with them with their findings, avoiding their questions about other diggers' achievements. Secrecy is a much reputed quality here. The real problem is not to sell truffle, but to find it.”
Visiting Alba and its charming surroundings during the truffle season gives the chance to experience an authentic local hospitality and culture while being at the centre of one of Italy’s main food events. And of course, all this while tasting the delicious Alba truffle at its best. Only when it is fully ripe and freshly dug, it yields its unique flavour and scent. A few flakes of the freshly grated truffle – using the bespoke tool – can turn a fried egg or a basic butter risotto into a culinary masterpiece.
TIPS: Where to eat truffle at its best in Alba and nearby:
We asked Paolo Montanaro to share his favourite addresses with us.
In the central square of Alba, right under chef Enrico Crippa's famous 3 Michelin Star restaurant Piazza Duomo, it offers traditional local cuisine at its best in a casual atmosphere. www.lapiola-alba.it
Contemporary local cuisine at the restaurant of a beautiful wine resort set in the middle of vineyards, in La Morra village. www.palascerequio.it
In the village of Priocca, a solid address to taste flawless traditional cuisine at its highest level. www.ristoranteilcentro.com/
For information on the Alba Truffle Festival: www.fieradeltartufo.org/2016/en/