The Perfect Storm of Italian Cuisine: The International Alba White Truffle Festival

Dec. 28th, 2021

When it comes to wine and food the Italians never fail to impress. It is in the blood, built on culinary traditions passed through time and memorial. But is also due to their bountiful produce, and their talented and innovative chefs. Beyond that, Italy is the wine lover’s nirvana. There is one time of the year that provides the gastronomic perfect storm of all the above when the most exalted culinary delicacy is celebrated in an array of epicurean extravaganzas. That magical ingredient is the white truffle and the foodie festival that celebrates it is the International Alba White Truffle Fair.

The white truffle. For the culinary world, this fungus is the equivalent of a flawless diamond, rare, exquisite, and worthy of its exorbitant price. It is by definition an odd ingredient with a distinct and pungent odor made even more scarce by its limited harvest season and shelf life. It is extremely hard to find, even more difficult to cultivate, and only grows in a few places around the world. Only the most well-trained hunters can find them in the Piedmont region of Italy as well as in France and Croatia. But what it does to food is nothing short of miraculous.

The International Alba White Truffle Fair is a festival that takes place in the Piedmontese city of Alba. The festival offers a range of events and experiences connected with the white truffle as well as the outstanding produce, wine and, culinary talent of the Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato region.

Langhe-Roero and Monferrato

Just a few hours north of Milan lies the Piedmont region. The Langhe-Roero and Monferrato  area is beguiling to say the least with rolling hills dotted with old stone houses, enchanted woodlands, and of course, vineyards as far as the eye can see. Langhe is a region made up of countless medieval villages with names such as Barolo, Barbaresco, Bra with the scenic Po River that weaves its way through the landscape. 

It was because of the stunning landscapes and tradition of producing wine that UNESCO designated the Vineyard Landscape of Piedmont: Langhe-Roero and Monferrato as a World Heritage Site. As the temperatures begin to drop in autumn, the landscapes grow even more spectacular as the leaves change to a range of colors from red to yellow, and brown. This is also the time of the grape harvest, so the vineyards and wineries are buzzing with activity to complete the harvest at the optimal time. 

The city of Alba itself is a destination worthy of a visit any time of the year. The city’s old town area offers cobblestone walking streets filled with boutiques, gothic churches and museums, and of course bistros and cafes. Alba is a town built on the celebration of food where taking the time to appreciate the meal with friends and family is an integral part of the lifestyle. As a backlash to McDonald’s and the fast-food industry’s attempts to mass-produce and market poor quality food, the Slow Food Movement began in Alba. Thankfully, this movement thrives throughout the region and has begun to take hold across the world.  

Other than the time of year when the white truffle takes center stage, this region is most known for its exquisite offering of velvety rich red wines. This region is built upon its Nebbiolo grape used to make their Barolo wines which rank among the top red wines of the world. But this region is the foodie’s Holy Grail for many reasons beyond truffles and wine. This region is also known for the production of Carrú beef, hazelnuts, and a variety of gourmet egg pasta, including agnolotti, tajarin, and panzerotti as well as their exceptional cheeses from artisanal producers.

Gianfranco Curti of Tartufi Ponzio

Around town, there are many gourmet shops dedicated to truffles such as the Tartufi Ponzio located in the old town a few yards from the festival. The shop has brokered truffles for over 80 years and is now run by the charismatic shop owner, Gianfranco Curti. They sell many truffle products from truffle chocolate and candy, oil, as well as artisanal products from the region. A few years ago, Gianfranco brokered a record size white truffle for the year weighing 896 grams which he sold to a Russian citizen for an undisclosed amount over $100,000. As the shelf life is less than a week, the prized catch was then packaged and sent to Russia on a private jet chartered just to collect it.   

Tuber Magnatum Pico | The Alba White Truffle

To know the truffle is to love the truffle, but not all truffles are made the same. Around most of the world, the black truffle is most common and used in all manner of cooking. It is also much less delicate and much more versatile. But the white truffle is something much more special. It doesn’t tolerate heat so it cannot be used in baking or other types of cooking techniques. For most dishes, it is required to be shaved, typically in front of the diner, with thin layers that float from the truffle slicer on top of simple dishes so the taste and fragrance of the white truffle remain the star of the dish.

To understand this most finicky of ingredients is to unravel its mystery. Truffles are essentially underground mushrooms or tubers. The white truffle only grows at the root system of oak, beech, and poplar trees. The truffle also grows in hazelnut trees which are prolific throughout the Piedmont region. White truffles cannot be stored and once out of the ground have about a seven-to-ten-day shelf life.  They are, of course, evaluated based on weight but beyond that on color, the pungency of their fragrance, shape, size, and other distinguishing factors.   Because of its rarity, the Tartufo Bianco is also one of the most expensive ingredients fetching between $6,000 -$10,000 a pound and for the epicurean, are worth every penny.

The truffle season runs from Sept 21st to the end of January. Beyond that they are not in season and are illegal to harvest. Around the Piedmont region, truffle hunters or trifolao and their well-trained canines set off to their favorite forest in search of this white gold. The dogs or “tabui” are trained from small puppies and see the hunt as a game and a way to obtain the love of their master.  Truffles lie a few inches beneath the surface soil and are best detected after rain. The dog picks up the scent and begins to dig until his master takes over and uncovers the treasure.  

For those looking to learn more about the truffle industry and to better understand what to look for in an ideal truffle, classes are offered during the festival where the curious can learn more. Participants learn to assess the smell, color as well as internal flesh that varies in color from white to pink and brown.

Fiera Internazionale Tartufo Bianco d’Alba | The International Alba White Truffle Fair 

As it should be, an ingredient such as this deserves to be celebrated and that’s just what happened over 100 years ago when the Truffle Fair began. It began as a competition to recognize truffles and truffle hunters and then expanded to include the other products of the region.

The central point of the truffle fair is located in the center of Alba’s old city where the truffle market, educational classes about truffles, and cooking demonstrations with celebrity chefs take place. Throughout the festival and around the region are experiential tours and exclusive dining events developed to satiate the palate of the local and visiting gourmand.

Just as the wine industry has its experts, connoisseurs, and those who control the standards of the best wines, so does the truffle industry. The “Mercato Mondiale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba” (the Alba White Truffle Market)  is a working market where truffle hunters bring their prized catch and sell thousands of freshly-picked truffles to brokers or directly to consumers. There, the distinguished pungent musky odor waifs through the air as market-goers search for the right truffle for perhaps a dinner at home with friends. The merchants are an interesting type while some are quite eccentric while others look more like the lady next door. There’s a little haggling but most of the prices are set. With an examination, smelling for pungency, and setting on the final price the deal is done and money exchanged. All of the truffles sold at the fair are checked and guaranteed by an authorized body of experts.

Although the truffle market is the focal point, all around the square guests buzz about going to tents and stalls that sell a wide offering of products from the region such as olive oil al Tartufo, porcini mushrooms, and hazelnuts as well as cheese, pasta, and of course, the region’s main export, wine. 

And the fair isn’t just for observing. Wine glasses are provided, and patrons go from stall to stall to sample the locally produced wines and to speak with the wine producers. Most of these are family-owned wineries passed down through the generations. More on the wines and wineries of Piedmont in an upcoming feature.

Smelling, sipping, and sampling will surely build the appetite and there are plenty of food vendors selling traditional meals with truffles supplements. Beef tartare, scrambled eggs, buttered tajarin, tagliolini, and risotto are topped with shavings of truffle for a substantial additional fee. 

There are a number of accessible and affordable events that take place during the festival but there are also some very chichi and exclusive events as well. One such gastronomic event celebrates the truffle and combines haute cuisine with culture.  Appropriately titled the Unusual Dinner, the evening was hosted by the Krug Maison de Champagne and featured their acclaimed chef and ambassador, Giuseppe Iannotti. 

Chef Giuseppe Iannotti

The evening took place at the Teatro Sociale Giorgio Busca which is a stunning and historically rich theater in the heart of Alba. The evening began with a tour of the 19th century theater followed by a pre-dinner Krug champagne toast and presentation. The star of the dinner was of course the truffle with dishes by the celebrity Michelin-starred Chef Giuseppe Iannotti who has served the likes of Bill Clinton, the Queen of England, and Barack Obama.

The festival takes place mainly on weekends, so you’ll want to stay at least ten days or more in the region. More on what to do as well as where to stay in an upcoming article.

There’s something special about the Piedmont region that you’ll find nowhere else in the world. On the ancient road from Paris to Rome, it is the blend of cultures where wine and food culture is at their zenith. The Alba White Truffle Festival is a great time of year to explore all that the gourmand’s heaven has to offer while indulging in this rare and pungent delicacy to witness all that it does for food and the epicureans who love it.  

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