Mike Britton, zealous assistant manager of Ottolenghi, Belgravia, wrote this wonderfully colourful account of his recent visit to Alba, the capital of white truffle. Thank you, Mike
A truffle snuffle
As my train from Genoa chugged slowly into the beautiful hills and valleys of the Piemonte region in North West Italy, I cast my thoughts forward to the weekend, where I would be attending the famous Alba truffle festival.
My very good friends, Neil and Richie, have owned a house in this area for a year now and not only do I get wonderful company (including the lovely Helen) when I come here, I get tremendous food.
Piemonte is famous for the king of the fungi world, the rare Alba white truffle (aka Magnatum Pico).
In all honesty, I knew very little about this strange blobby fungus, aside from the fact it is either black or white and was snuffled by pigs. I had sampled both but only as oil. So with great excitement and buoyed with Italian enthusiasm I embarked on a little mission of discovery!
We set off for Alba on the Saturday morning. Neil had read of a famous truffle breakfast, ‘il ouvo con tartufo’. This was baked eggs with shaved white truffle. After several attempts we found a restaurant that could produce this for us, even though they had never heard of it!
Out came the baked eggs and the waitress delicately shaved raw white truffle over the top. A special ultra fine shaver is used. I would describe the flavour as delicate, yet quite overpowering; garlicky, oniony and much more. Combined with a light Venetian Prosecco we had made a successful start to the day.
Next up was the ‘piece de resistance’, the truffle market. To sell your wares here, one must have your products inspected for quality, size and taste and be awarded a special license.
Upon entry we were given a glass and two vouchers for a free glass of red and white wine of our choosing. The day just got better!
The smell is the first thing that hits you. It’s quite overwhelming. Apparently, the truffle gives off an aroma that contains chemicals that are similar to the sex pheromones of a male pig. This is why female pigs were traditionally used to snuffle them out. Unfortunately they were so attracted to them they often tried to eat them! Specially trained dogs (Tabui) are now used and the ‘white diamonds of the kitchen’ are spared. With prices knocking 3000 Euros a kilo I can quite understand the need for change!
Each seller or Trifulao tries to entice you to their stand by offering a sniff of their finest truffle. Not being a female pig, I resisted, leaving me hundreds of Euros heavier.
The second part of the market was given over to promoting other delicious items the region is famous for. First stop, naturally, the wine stands. My lack of Italian language skills seemed not to matter here. I just held out my free tasting glass, put on a big smile and enjoyed its new contents. A quick ‘Molto Bene’ at the end and swiftly on to the next stand. The local vineyards specialise in Dolcetto, Barbera, Nebbiolo and the renowned Barolo grape varieties.
By now with red cheeks and a slight swagger, the wine had encouraged me to buy things. I had acquired Torrone (local hazelnut nougat), some gooey double cream gorgonzola (again a regional speciality) and several bottles of Barbera to accompany our truffle pasta supper. The passion of the vendors is seriously infectious.
Outside the truffle market, in the streets of Alba, were hundreds of stalls loaded with locally farmed products. The abundance of fruit and vegetables, all slightly misshapen and vibrant in colour, screamed ‘put me on your dinner plate’. All the producers were from the local Langhe region and are proud of their traditional, organic and eco-friendly farming methods. The slow food movement (Which has its origins in Bra, a town just a few miles from Alba), is most certainly at work here. You could walk down any street in a Piemontese town and not see a branded high street food store.
So as we observed a flag-waving medieval marching band and a parade of vintage cars from a beautiful piazza in the centre of Alba, Neil, Richard, Helen and I reflected on the zeal of the Albese and their passion for all things food. We raised a glass full of bubbling Prosecco and thought how lucky we were to be somewhere so special. Salute!