Of all the wonderful seasonal food one can savor in Italy in autumn, perhaps the most sought after (and certainly the most luxurious) is that homely yet princely tuber, the truffle. Found across central and northern Italy, its penetrating, earthy (its flavor suggests loamy woods and wild mushrooms and crisp autumn days and burning leaves all rolled into one) aroma graces a number of fall dishes from Le Marche to Piedmont, regions where tartufai kitted out with a bisaccia (a traditional leather truffle bag) comb the woods come September hoping to uncover nature’s buried treasure.
(Photo by Carlo Franchi)
In fact, despite their ubiquitous presence on fall menus, truffles are not the easiest ingredient to come by. They require a precise microclimate– medium-high altitudes with calcareous soil, stony and rich in clay, and sunny yet damp spots near oaks, hornbeams, hazelnuts and holm oaks—and a good nose…a canine nose, to be precise. These elusive funghi usually grow covered by leaf litter or under the forest floor and eyes aren’t enough to roust them out. Instead, dogs are trained as pups to sniff out truffles (pigs were once used, but had the bad habit of eating what they found) and then work in tandem with professional and amateur truffle hunters to forage their warty woodland “gold” buried beneath the damp humus.
(Photo by Carlo Franchi)
Even if you find yourself lacking a trained truffle dog, you can still enjoy cooking with and eating fresh fall truffles in Italy. There are a number of excellent local fairs in the truffle-producing central and northern regions; one of the best known is the fabulous Alba White Truffle Festival (Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba), which takes place each year on weekends from mid-October to mid-November in the pretty Piedmontese town of Alba.
(Photo by Andrew Crump via Flickr Commons)
Currently in its 83rd year, the Festival is a month-long celebration of Alba’s most well-known and beloved local delicacy, the trifola white truffle (so precious that it is often called the white diamond), alongside the region’s excellent wines and cuisine. Visitors can wander the picturesque streets and piazze on their way to the Palatartufo pavilion in the town center, crowded with vendors selling everything from whole white truffles to truffle-laced cheeses and olive oil and permeated with the heady aroma of their succulent wares, where they can choose a sampling of certified Tuber Magnatum Pico (even the botanical name sounds noble) to enjoy once home.
(Photo by mattgrant99 via Flickr Commons)
From there, the AlbaQualità pavilion continues the gastronomic journey through Piedmont, with its stands featuring local cheeses, charcuterie, chocolate, and pastries, and superb wines from the Langhe and Roero.
(Photo by Carrie Zimmer via Flickr Commons)
Meanwhile, in nearby Castello di Grinzane Cavour, true connoisseurs participate in the exclusive annual international white truffle auction (Asta Mondiale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba). Here famed chefs and gourmets vie for the highest quality white truffles of the season, often bidding tens of thousands of Euros in the hopes of serving their patrons a precious shaving of Alba’s most prestigious food during the year to come.
(Photo by Concierge in Umbria via Flickr)
For those who prefer to indulge in their truffle passion in the tuber’s “hometown”, Alba’s numerous and excellent restaurants—from simple trattorias to the Michelin-starred Piazza Duomo–also participate in the annual festival, showcasing trifole in special menus and dishes during the month. Otherwise, for truffle aficionados who want a more hands-on experience, in the festival’s Palazzo del Gusto, workshops and demonstrations on the preparation of a number of different dishes and menus are offered under the guidance of specialized chefs and sommeliers.
(Photo by saragoldsmith via Flickr Commons)
So, whether you go to buy, eat, or cook, a visit to Alba will be enough to satisfy your truffle craving…until, of course, next year!