“I love eggs. When it’s the season of truffles, scrambled eggs with truffles, and I’m happy. I’m smiling like that.” – Chef Éric Ripert, Le Bernardin, New York.
The word “truffle” brings up images of perfume, poetry, mystery, the star of top-level cuisine and a symbol of timeless charm. Truffles have been known since antiquity, not just for their inherent culinary acclaim, but also as an aphrodisiac. Madame Pompadour was a great fan who believed in those qualities. There are legends of the Torinesi gifting the white truffle to the nearby French since 700 AD. Recently, scientists have discovered that truffles contain a volatile alcohol with a strong musk flavor, a chemical brother of testosterone. No doubt this is something the ancients knew all along.
The annual Alba White Truffle Festival is a huge celebration of cultural and gastronomic events focusing on the white gold of the Langhe in all its nuances. This is the largest international truffle show in the world – not too shabby for little old Alba.
The festival attracts around 100,000 visitors from all over the world who come to buy, sell, smell and sample the tasty tuber. The entire city becomes festive.
The market, which is the festival’s biggest draw, is set up on the Via Maestra between the Piazza Savona, a symbol of the 1800’s, and the old Piazza Risorgimento with its 15th-century cathedral. We made the decision to experience this scene over two years ago (after visiting Alba for the first time) and timed our trip accordingly.
The market runs weekly in October and November on Saturday and Sunday. The tuber magnatum pico is found by dedicated truffle hunters – called trifolao -throughout the countryside, searching for it with their trusted dogs. The fungus only grows wild with no cultivation techniques having been developed so far.
Each day of the festival, the trifolao bring fresh truffles to sell to locals and visitors alike. The festival insures quality control as each truffle is checked prior to the daily opening.
Customers can also have their purchases reviewed during opening hours at the Customer Information Desk.
Walking into the giant tent and being engulfed by the ethereal fragrance of truffles was worth the price of admission on its own.
Throughout the run of the festival, personalities from show business, national and international top chefs, designers, writers, artists, all show up, united by a passion for the truffle and for the culture of good food and good taste.
Fresh and never cooked, truffles are best when perfectly shaved (at the table) to a few tenths of a millimeter and served over fresh egg pasta like tajarin, omelets or fried eggs or fonduta (Italian fondue).
They elevate simple butter sauces to exquisite heights. Almost (but not quite) as good is truffle oil and truffle butter.
At the market, in addition to white and black truffles, we delighted in tasting regional specialties like porcini mushrooms, hazelnuts, cheeses, salumi, wines, and much more.
I had (naively) planned to buy a few (small) truffles to bring home and share with family and friends at some kind of a magnificent dinner. Unfortunately, I found that they can only be kept for around a week (sealed in a glass container and refrigerated) but really need to be consumed as soon as possible. There was also the issue of cost.
Each year, a highlight of the festival is the truffle auction, now in its eighteenth year, with proceeds going to charitable causes. This year it took place (before we arrived) in Grinzane Cavour Castle with live satellite links to Hong Kong and Dubai. 2017 was not an exceptional year for truffle lovers. Dry weather and changing climate patterns hit production and sent prices soaring. The winning bidder (from Hong Kong) for the biggest truffle at this year’s auction paid €75,000 for a well-rounded truffle that weighed in at 850 grams – that equates to roughly $89,250 for a 30-ounce truffle. Smaller ones were available in the market for about $200 per ounce. No, I would not be buying any truffles this year – sigh…..
That did not mean that we could not taste this year’s truffle offering. Almost every restaurant that we visited had truffles on the menu in one form or another and we tried them all, or at least as many as we could find. It is hard to describe the perfume of truffles but once you experience it, the scent memory is something that stays with you forever. Like the lingering kitchen smells of my grandmother’s cherry pie or my uncle’s fried chicken – one little whiff and a torrent of good memories engulf me. The same is now true of the white truffle of Alba.