Monday, October 28, 2013

Piedmont: Unearthing the Truffle

To start reading about how this trip was conceptualized and how it all beganclick here.

Tartufo. Even the name has a precious ring to it, doesn't it? It is perhaps the most expensive ingredient in the world and having previously worked with truffles, I felt it important to visit the region that boasts of having the world's best kind.

The town of Alba is particularly renowned for its white truffles, which are rarer and dearer in price than their black counterparts. It is also just a few kilometres away from Barolo and Barbaresco, which are among the top wine producing regions in Italy-- definitely enough reason to pay a visit.

White truffles

Truffles have a pungent fragrance akin to fresh earth soon after the first rainfall; the aroma of a good quality fresh truffle will permeate through a room instantly. While it is dry, crumbly, and almost tasteless when eaten on its own, thin shavings of truffle when added to a salad or atop pasta provide a certain umami-like flavor that mirrors it's aroma.
Black truffles look like a cross between a potato, a head of cauliflower, and a blackberry on the exterior, and an intricate beautifully formed matrix of black and white inside. White truffles on the other hand have the same inner mesh in white but on the exterior appear like a beige-colored rock.

The reasons why truffles are so expensive are plenty. They are nearly impossible to cultivate with success. They are also hard to find in the wild where their supplies are on a steady decline due to over-harvesting and climate change. The fact that they exude a very addictive and powerful aroma somehow seems to justify the price.

Black truffles

Originally, pigs were used to dig up the treasure (they were reportedly beaten on the head to prevent them from eating it) but Romagna water dogs are now more commonly used. Most truffle hunting tours are usually staged because trufflers are extremely secretive about their 'zones' which are almost as priceless as their skillfully trained dogs.

Being not too keen on the idea of fake-hunting truffles, I decided to spend my money on tasting some instead. I headed to Osteria dell' Arco, just one of the many restaurants in Alba that showcase truffles on their menu. 

The appetizer of earthy black truffles shaved over a rich dish of baked onion with cream of Raschera cheese though delicious was just a teaser. Because the chef was so generous with his shavings of white truffle over the beef tartar that I could hardly see the meat underneath. The aroma was incredible and taste was decent too but that dish put me back 46 euros! 

Black truffles shaved over baked onion with cream of Raschera cheese

Generous shavings of white truffles over beef tartar

Scene from the local market in Alba

I admit that good truffles when used correctly often lends a complex degree of deliciousness to a dish but they are nevertheless far from worth spending a couple of hundred dollars on a nugget the size of a golf ball. Would it be appreciated so much if it were as easily available as, say, button mushrooms?

Having solidified my stance on truffles, I ventured to explore the twin wine regions of Piedmont- Barolo and Barbaresco.  Sarah who I had befriended at CIA in New York years ago connected me with her pal Davide in Alba.

Davide had left his hometown to work in wineries all across the world including the United States, France and Australia. Though he liked San Francisco so much that he wanted to stay back, destiny had other plans for him and when he couldn't find a steady job in a winery, he returned back to Alba. 

An experienced enologist and a certified sommelier, Davide is currently working on building his business as a wine merchant and consultant. Davide has lots of family and friends who are in the wine business, so it was natural that he took me to some excellent wineries including Monterno Fantino in Barolo and Albino Rocca in Barbaresco.

Vineyards of Barbaresco

Wine tasting with a view in Barolo

My final stop in Italy was the city of Turin, capital of the Piedmont region and the most important Italian city near the French border. Having traveled around this country for a whole month, it was now time to move on to France. 

It was only fitting that I spend my last few hours prancing around Eataly, the largest store dedicated to the Slow Food movement in all of Italy. It poses as a modern institution that passes on the age-old grandma's cooking philosophy to the new millennium. I couldn't help but notice the parallax to the current gastronomic culture of Italy, where traditional recipes are increasingly reinvented and refreshed but still respected.

View of Turin from above

Eataly, slow food institution

Italy had exceeded my expectations considerably and although my time was dotted with a few disappointing meals, the food was generally spectacular. My dining experiences at Acquolina Hosteria in Rome, Osteria Francescana in Modena and Osteria Satyricon particularly stood out.

While taking in the panoramic views of Capri, riding through Chianti wine country on a Vespa and the bacchari-hopping in Venice were wonderful experiences I will never forget, the best parts of the journey involved my interactions with the local people.

Whether it was my gracious host Luisa in Rome, the friendly food guide Romina in Florence, Isa and her student flatmates in Bologna, Giorgio and gang in Verona or Davide in Alba, they each played a crucial role in making my time in Italy one of the greatest experiences of my life.

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