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Two Reasons to Visit Alba, Italy: White Truffles and Hazelnuts

Truffle Fest Beef Tartare

This article is the first of a 3-part series I’m writing on Alba’s White Truffle Festival and Celebrity Cruise executive chef, John Suley. You definitely want to tune in to the other posts

2014 was a great year in my wanderlusting around the globe. A few Caribbean islands and Mexico are always a good idea, and quite frankly, relatively simple to make happen if you live on the East coast of the US. But when an invitation to get lost in Europe, exploring the food, wine, social culture and anything between is extended, the Islands suddenly seem like a drive up to the Hamptons for a quick rendezvous and not a well-planned vacation to bask in the sun and white sandy beaches. And when the purpose of the invitation is to dig up the world’s most expensive food ingredient, literally and figuratively speaking, in your favourite country, you quickly brush up on your language skills and go all in. That’s exactly what I did just a few months ago when Celebrity Cruises, known for their lavish and top-notch on-board experience, invited me to tag along with their ships’ executive chef, John Suley. The task was to explore the hype behind the wildly coveted and lowly affordable white truffle in Alba, Italy, and cheer on chef John as he conjured up ways to incorporate it into his cruiser kitchen. I was in. All in.

CASTELLO SANTA VITTORIA

I was excited to meet the chef of this larger-than-life, uber sexy-looking ship, — though I can’t say I know what a cruise is like — a man I was sure had 30+ years experience and was sturn, whipping chefs in line in order to maintain the utmost perfect environment. Oh, was I wrong. The man running the culinary program is a young guy, no more than 40, and bears an inviting and highly unpretentious aesthetic. I was shocked to meet John, but incredibly excited about the tone he set as we settled into our intimate dinner at the restaurant within Castello di Santa Vittoria. The centuries old  castle turned boutique hotel, was nestled atop a bucolic hill, surrounded by nothing but vineyards along La Langhe, and cock-a-doodling roosters at 6 am. Oh, and a magnificent bell tower which I used as my alarm every morning for 6 days. It was beyond splendid.

The entrance was whimsical with colored ivy hugging the old brick columns. The brick driveway and entrance, which is very typical of Europe, makes it extremely difficult to walk in 5″ heels but it’s what complements the properties aesthetic. Surely, after a 10 minute meandering drive up to the hotel, the last thing you think of taking off your shoes. Especially because the lobby is a wonderful surprise. Juxtaposed is a chic modern lounge with low leather and velvet seating, cocktail tables, highboys, and of course, a wine wall where you select your favourite varietal to enjoy while playing chess or nibbling on truffle candy.  The lounge music playlist invited many all-nighters for the group of 4 I was traveling with. It’s the most quaint boutique I’ve stayed in a long while, having the most special appeal considering the view from my suite was nothing short of epic.

The French door windows opened up to a magnificent, almost surreal water painting view of  rolling vineyards looking down to Alba. Structurally short statured trees lining the path to the pool  protect your privacy from passerbyers. The Clocktower to my right had a 3D effect as I tried to focus on the valley below; only the beautiful floral archway leading to the entrance was enough of an obstruction to enjoy. I spent plenty of real time in the vineyards, anyway.  Imagine that scenery first thing every dewy morning.  You couldn’t ask for a better morning rise.

Our home away from home for the week was the perfect host for a short but intense week of truffling.

Santa Vittoria Hotel Room View

Santa Vittoria Hotel Side Entrance bw

Santa Vittoria Suite View Trees

 

VINEYARDS  & TRUFFLE FAIR

The Piemonte region of Italy boasts formidable hospitality to the rest of world with its luscious and beautifully manicured vineyards. Equally important is their white truffle industry. The region, specifically the cit of Alba, is known for producing the best white truffle in the world, and therefore attracting the fanciest diner and international growers once a year. The Fiera Internatzionale Tartufo Bianco D’Alba or Annual International Alba White Truffle Fair or Market, entering its 85th year, attracts gourmands from alll over the world for a 6 week long festival filled with wine tastings, exceptional truffle dinners, private cooking classes with local chefs and vintners, weekend markets and the “Whose Who” VIP, by invite-only auction. I’ll touch on the auction in a separate post, but know that it’s the thing to do if you go all the way out to Alba for truffles.

Alba-Truffle-Festival-Heading

Alba City Downhill View

 

Alba Hilltop View of Vineyards

Before we got to the thick of our experience with John and truffles, we spent a few hours at the famed Fontanafredda Winery (Serralunga, D’Alba) for a private Barolo wine tasting. The region is known best known for producing Barolo and Barbaresco vinos, two reds embodying woodsy and fruity notes. A quick walk through the cellar introduced us to the history of the nineteenth century Estate housing the vineyards and cellar, originally owned by King of Sardinia, Vittorrio Emanuele II. The ambient walkways were lined in oak casks and steel vats offering superb results in taste, body and maturity. Their whites are also known and enjoyed throughout the entire country and abroad.

Anyone visiting Alba in serach of the white truffle and its glory should make a stop at Fontanadfredda. It can easily serve as a great starting point to understanding wine pairing and why the Piemontese people take their food and wine so seriously.

Wine Cellar CollageWhile wine is almost requisite to complementing an exquisite meal, the white truffle is the star of any visit.

Having a better understanding of the wines helped navigate the massive and borderline overwhelming market and fair. Between Oct. 6 and November 11, thousands of fodies gather on Saturdays and Sundays at the market and lose their minds like only a true gourmand can hide. The perfumed atmosphere is so wonderfullly intoxicating, but you have to know what you’re getting into, otherwise, it can be distracting.

Hundreds of vendors and farmers are there to be vetted. Who has the best in fresh truffles and product made with truffles, both black and white? Whose smells prettier? They make good arguments and close a sale.

To appreciate the market, you have to know a little about the gem.

White Truffle Fest Entrance Interior Collage

TRUFFLE BASICS

Truffles are a tuber fungus growing underneath the earth’s surface at the base of innoculated oak trees. It can take up to 8 years for a tree to produce any yield. France is the home of the black Perigord truffle while Italy is mother to the white. Alba specifically is the nurture of the prized white, mostly because of its intense aroma and flavor. Because of their refined and unpredictable growth process, truffles are expensive, sometimes reaching upwards $2,000 per pound. On the low end, they can run you about $500 per pound. The white truffle we were celebrating harvests between September and November when the temperatue is just about perfect. 

Since truffles only last 7-10 days, it’s essential to keep them well-stored in tight lid containers with a damp cloth.

From what I saw inside the truffle hall, more than $2 million worth of truffles were being traded and procured. From truffle linguini to truffle butter and baguettes, truffles were the shining star.

White Truffles at Fest

After visiting with a handful of vendors selling their hard-grown wild mushrooms, I settled on a few for myself, which sadly ended up going to waste… that’s for another story on my month-long Euro-trip. I grabbed some pasta which I’ve yet to cook, and some truffle honey which is begging to be drizzled on hot, toasty with cheese and drooled over most everyhting else.

White Truffle Fest Collage

The market was also the first time I got to see John in full chef mode. Well, kind of. Like that kid in a new candy store, I caught John meandering the wide passages, making his way to the various purveyors, sniffing, asking questions and taking it all in. I fully understood his eyes-wide-open reaction after learning the weight of  a whopping truffle having been unearthed just the day before. A $1200 price tag for a handful of mushrooms is unimaginable to many. But to an innovative chef whose passion is driven by creating memorable food, the idea of walking away with his own handful was exciting. His eyes told it all. He was ready to go in for the win.

After he briefly analyzed my two gems, I took them the judge who carefully inspected them, qualifying them a 4/5. I’m not new to working with truffles, but the abundance of variety was intriguing. And learning to look for various characteristics to establish quality, was fascinating. After three solid hours of perusing, we took a quick lunch break at the pop up wine bar at and had the 2nd of many gluttonous moments ordering anything and everything. We mostly limited our musings to simple dishes like fried eggs, lamb tartar and pasta. During this time of the year, shaved truffles are the only thing you need to complete the dish.

Sniffing Truffle at MarketAnd that approach is the one thing I noticed during our fancy dining fetes: enjoying the truffle is serious business. It’s not for the faint hearted. Unlike in France and here in the States, truffles are delicately shaved on all dishes. It’s not a case of mincing (like I’ve done here and here) or infusing it in a risotto, probably the most common food you’ll taste in Alba. It’s all about the simple touch of rounding out a dish with a potent aroma and silky thin slices.

 

CITY LIFE AND HAZELNUTS 

The city becomes a truffle lovers’ paradise during the harvest season. The streets are full and jovial. Live bands offer the soundtrack to the plazas where anxious visitors cross paths to exchange niceties and show off their purchases. Apart from the insane amount of white truffle everything, hazelnuts make in impressive statement not only in the market but in the city as well. The smoke from corner toasters permeate the streets and leave a delicious haze. You can almost taste it. These beloved  hazelnuts are in just about every dessert imaginable. I tasted my way through the masses, enjoying a crazy good hazelnut cake, which I also lost along the European route, and some turron (nougat) the most revered thing I put out during Christmas — a hard piece of amazingness saturated based in sugar goodness and hazelnuts or pistachios or whatever you want it to have.

Truffle Festival Band

Hazelnuts are a way of way of life in Piemonte. News to me was seeing Nutella’s corporate factory. We all know the chocolate spread is Italian, but my appreciation grew when told most of the region is employed by the Ferrero family. It’s a money-making machine and great economy-booster.

Hazelnuts are everywhere. In everything. And that makes living in Alba a remarkable experience.

White Truffle Festival Hazelnut St CollageAlthough the market visit was enough for a day’s excursion, truffle hunting and a swanky black tie gala with the industry’s best, would better prepare us for a truffle auction. I thought I had seen the best in the hunt, but the auction… that was a scene right out of an Ocean’s 11 flick. John was there to make a statement and walk away with a decadent handful or two of the exquisite diamond in the kitchen.

Oh, but you have to come to see how it all happened. You’ll want to see Jolly, our truffle hunting dog. Really.

Learn more here about Celebrity Cruise and their culinary program, headed by John Suley.

Eat well, love unapologetically, pray with true intention, and take care of yourself.

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