Truffles – in some evoke enthusiasm, others can’t understand why people lose their heads for this ugly looking and strange smelling fungus. But one is sure – this is not food for everyone. In this season prices of the precious white variety fluctuated between 4-4,5 € per 1 g, except last two weeks of Fair when the cost was 3,5 €/1 g. Nevertheless, Alba International White Truffle Fair (Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba) proved to be a great success (I’ve read in local newspaper that the Tourist Information Center was visited by 24 424 people which was 6,22% more than last year at the same time).
The event took place in Alba from October 6th till November 18th and it was accompanied by several attractions like folklore shows (Palio degli asini, Baccanale del Taruffo and il Borgo si rievoca), exhibitions or film presentations. In October and at the beginning of November the weather was fantastic – warm sunny days (the tempereature reached even 20 °C) and the landscape offered spectacular views: baroque splendor of colors, old castles illuminated by the sun, interesting shapes created by regular grape bushes rows. It was a real treasure chest for painter, photographer and for everyone that is sensitive for a beauty of the world. And if you add richness of tastes and aromas offered on numerous markets, Piedmont cuisine meetings, then you got a true feast for all senses.
Truffles are often called gray diamonds. In my opinion it is shrewd comparison: you need to pay for them a lot of money and they are symbol of prestige and glamour. These precious underground mushrooms were admired by such famous people like Marilyn Monroe, Alfred Hitchcock, Marcello Mastroianni, Sophia Loren, Catherine Zeta Jones or Julia Roberts. Since 1949 the personalities of politics and culture are awarded the Best Truffle of the Year. In the past tribute was paid to Pope John Paul II, Ronald Reagan, or Luciano Pavarotti, for example. In 2012 an Italian actress Claudia Cardinale received this aromatic prize.
Of course the status symbol is significant in truffle business, but the main role it plays in the kitchen. Precious white fungus is the most expensive because it’s characteristic by extremely powerful and clear aroma that enriches even such poor dishes like pasta with butter. And for sure, for all truffle lovers the most important place to visit during the Fair was Mercato Mondiale del Tartufo Bianco (White Truffle of Alba Market): numerous stands offering a vast choice of Tuber magnatum Pico (the latin name of precious white variety from Alba), and this flavor… present in each and every centimeter of the market space. The central position of the market took judges – experts associated with OIAT organization (Organizzazione Internazionale Assaggiatori di Tartufo). They not only offered their advice but also examined and evaluated each piece before it was put up for sale.
For all those who wanted to learn more about truffles were available workshops and meetings with local restaurants chefs. I decided to take part in a course Analisi Sensoriale del Tartufo. It was run by one of OIAT judges in two languages: Italian and English (unfortunately the translation was quite poor). We have learnt some facts about biology of this plant like morphological characteristics, environmental conditions and also about the gathering process. A specially trained dog (not pig!) is crucial in truffle searching. It is combing each time 20-30 km of wood, plus its value is significant (about 10 000 €)… In Alba there is even a special school specialized in truffle dog training.
At the end of the course we got 6 pieces of truffles and a kind of questionnaire helping in evaluation process. Like in case of wine tasting, it starts from describing visual sensations (color intensity, globosity, size, etc), than it should be gripped with thumb and forefinger to check if it’s firm. The third stage is an olfactory one. It turns out truffle (as wine) can recall all range of aromas: mushroom, honey, garlic, hay, spices…
The Fair ended but in Alba and Langhe and Roero towns you can still try dishes with white or black variety of this underground mushroom (till the end of January). Moreover small shops with local specialties offer products with truffle flavor (honey, cheese or pasta sauce) for the whole year. The true is, there is always a good time to come to Piedmont and eat well.