As we bombed down the autostrada in the fog (the nebbia – which gives its name to the region’s most significant grape – Nebbiolo), the hills around Alba once again struck me as like Tuscany painted by a slightly lacklustre artist. We were en route to the world’s white truffle capital for the last of the season’s fairs and then lunch at Eno-Club, the Osteria that inspired the recent series of regionally-themed wine evenings we have been hosting at Polpo. In fact just a few days prior had been our Truffle and Piemonte wines Eno-Club special – now I was returning once more to the source of both.
Turin and the surrounding towns to its south are ideal for a gastronomic daytrip (and who really has time for a weekend break these days?). The flight from London, like the drive into the hills is an hour twenty – and then you are in foodie paradise: The home of the Slow Food Movement (Bra); Salone del Gusto and the Fiera Tartufo in October (Turin and Alba respectively); Italy’s most historic wines (Barolo and Barbaresco); and a rarely paralleled selection of great local restaurants serving the cuisine for which London’s Locanda Locatelli is renowned but at half the price. In fact you have to make a strenuous effort to eat badly here.
In my list of passions, white truffles come a close third after wine and opera, but their appeal is harder to explain (even than Wagner). Certainly the teenage girls getting on the train at Redhill as I was returning from Gatwick that evening, laden with tubers, were universal in their declamation of the musty sweet-vegetal reek that infused the carriage. ‘It stinks of fucking rotten sprouts’ was the disgusted cry that accompanied the accusatory glares in my direction. I ignored them brazenly, like the unrepentant farter in a lift, but it did make me consider just why truffle devotees will spend thousands on their habit each year. For only gold, saffron and fair trade cocaine costs more by the gram.
The aroma of a white truffle appeals to the primal, primordial self, before and beyond the anodyne stimuli our anesthetised senses have been dulled in to appreciating: Simply put, if you prefer the X Factor and showering before sex to drinking old Red Burgundy and (at least) mild S&M, white truffles probably aren’t for you. A truffle is also a gastronomic luxury for duffers – anyone who can throw fresh pasta into boiling water or poach an egg can enjoy a white truffle at its best. Like a flawless diamond or Giselle – it doesn’t need adornments – simply shave onto fresh egg pasta, veal stock risotto (Carnaroli NOT Arborio rice), Beef Carpaccio, Lobster or labia and inhale deeply. But for me a baked egg with shaved white truffles is the apotheosis of gastronomic yin and yang: The feminine egg, soft and nurturing holds the powerfully masculine pheromonic reek of truffles perfectly.
Some History & Tips
Before dogs, pigs were used to hunt as the scent of a truffle closely resembles the musky reek of a wild boar, but trying to pry a horny sow off her prize could damage these delicate tubers hence the latter day move to canines. However in the enlightened days of the Borgia Popes, pubescent Piemontese virgin girls were used to hunt truffles – their raging hormones making them naturally sensitive to the truffle’s aromas (such a revelation would probably have further disgusted my train companions – and caused them to throw their empty Bacardi Breezer bottles at the malodorous pervert before calling the guard). I have suggested however, with a similar eye to olfactory biology that perhaps pregnant women should be used, given the observably heightened sense of smell that accompanies the condition and the same hormonal upheaval. Certainly interest from particularly suspect overseas ‘gentleman’s networking groups’ would be assured.
A 20-25g nugget is good for two and will leave some shavings left for your breakfast eggs (keep the remains after dinner in the eggbox so they adopt some of the aroma overnight). When it comes to caring for your tuber – think of it as a delicate infant – extruding fetid aromas, gas and moisture and needing to be regularly wiped clean and dried. Always wrap in absorbent kitchen towel and change daily to avoid rot. Keep in airtight containers in the warmest part of the fridge.
Debate continues as to how long you can keep a truffle but bear in mind they lose a percentage of their weight and aromatic power every day after being unearthed. I tend to consume all but the biggest within three or four days – but then I’m greedy and answer likewise when asked by clients how long a good bottle of wine will last once opened? (25 minutes, if thirsty.)
The budget airlines fly to Turin and BA services are regular and cheap plus a day’s carhire including there-and-back petrol costs is about €100. Alternatively, private jets can fly into aeroporto Cuneo in Valdigi which drops you 40km from Alba. With white truffles in the UK costing between £3.50 and £5 per gram retail (the latter price band from ‘luxury’ retailers and spurious websites) and the truffaio charging €2 – €2.50 this season, sourcing directly from Giuseppe (see photo) makes sound economic sense. Throw in a cracking truffle-enriched lunch plus gratinated tripe and bagna cauda (classic Piemontese anchovy fondue) at Eno-club for €40 a head and about the only reason not to go is that you finally bagged a table at Polpo and chef Tom Oldroyd has put the Cotechino sausage back on the menu.
Tom Harrow runs WineChap, the UK’s premier wine consultancy, wine club, wine events and wine list review company. They also like truffles. And wine.