Weekend in Piemonte, searching for the perfect truffle

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September 18th 2015
Published: October 25th 2015
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Our annual holiday this year took us to Italy. We have visited most of the big cities in Italy and wanted to head off into the countryside this time and give a wide berth to large cities. We were looking for mountains and cooler weather after sweating our way through a hot summer. We flew into Milan and drove straight out in our rented car. As usual, we got an upgrade, a much better car than we ordered.

We stayed three nights in Turin. The hotel wasn’t great, but it was adequate. Didn’t really matter, we don’t spend much time in our hotel rooms. Turin itself is full of monuments of a grander time, not very attractive somehow, not a crowded city, not much traffic. We didn’t use the public transport, we walked everywhere. We engage in hit and miss tourism. We see what we see and don’t try to see everything, sometimes not much at all. But we do get a feeling for a place.

So we spent a day walking around Turin. We visited the Mole Antonelliana and took the elevator up to the top for a view of Turin’s rooftops. The building also houses the cinema museum. Originally intended to be a synagogue, the Jewish community had a falling out with the architect, who made it a lot taller than the plans, entailing greater costs and construction time so the city of Turin eventually took over the project and completed it.

We crossed the impressive Piazza San Carlo and visited the market, which although very big, wasn’t particularly interesting. There were very few tourists in Turin and not a lot of traffic either. Not a Chinese group in sight. We have noticed an explosion of tourists in the big cities over the last few years. Huge crowds make their way down the streets in a massive tidal wave of humanity. You are greeted by long lines at every museum and attraction. Turin wasn’t like that. So far so good.

In the afternoon we drove up to the Superga Basilica, on a hill overlooking Turin. It’s a nice place to spend a sunny afternoon. The Savoy kings are buried there and apart from the wonderful views there are walking paths in the forest. At the back of the basilica is a shrine to the Grande Torino football team, their plane crashed into the back wall in bad weather in 1949. On the way back we stopped in at Eatily. Really just a glorified supermarket -- a very exclusive and high-priced one.

We ate huge panini in the morning. Massive toasted sandwiches with melted cheese and cured meat. I couldn’t finish mine on the first day, it took me a few days to rise to the panini challenge but I did end up eating every delicious morsel of it and not another thing passed my lips till dinner at about 9 in the evening. The thing is, I don’t eat cheese and not much bread and here I was scoffing it down like there was no tomorrow. It seemed like a recipe for disaster but I felt great.

Oh, and another thing I don’t usually eat is meat and I ate that too. Tender veal served with a selection of different salts. Everything was delicious. Micha ate carne cruda, like beef tartare. Everybody was eating it, children too. Looked like a blob of raw meat to me, which is essentially what it is. Supposed to be very good. Passed on that one but not on wine. Not much of a drinker but there was one particular Alba white …

Next day we headed out to the Piemonte countryside on our quest to find the perfect truffle. Actually just to find a truffle, preferably one black and one white. Our son had asked that we bring him some. We drove down from Turin on a secondary road, through beautiful scenery, blue skies, green fields. Felt like we were alone on the road. Alone that is until we got to Saluzza where the Saturday morning market was in full swing. We parked the car and joined the throngs. Seemed like a very nice village, although we couldn’t really see it because of all the market stalls. After randomly wondering around the market and back streets we decided to return to the car and continue on to our next destination. Suddenly we realized that we had no idea where we had parked the car. Somewhere at the beginning, not in the old part, near a river, maybe? At the same time, the market was being packed up, any clues to our original path were rapidly disappearing. Just as we were getting into a bit of a panic, we stumbled into the shoe market. There was the Arab woman packing up the last of her shoes. Yes! That’s where we came in. I smiled at the woman like I had found a long lost friend, had to restrain myself from hugging her. She, of course, had no idea, and we didn’t even want to buy shoes, just a couple of strange tourists.

We got to the beautiful village of Bra that was also packed with people and stalls. This time not a market, they were having a food festival. I visited the beautiful church and walked a bit around the flower filled side streets but there was no getting away from all the people and smoke from cooking food. We found a nice little restaurant and had a buffet lunch in a pretty courtyard. The buffet consisted of local products and local dishes. There was no refill, so I thought I would take a bit of everything. I thought wrong. The waiter decided when I had enough and told me so. I saw some people that only took two or three things and had a mostly empty plate. Perhaps I am a glutton.

We left Bra. We still had not seen any sign of truffles. The whole area is full of very picturesque villages, rolling hills covered in vines, many vineyards for wine sampling, Michelin starred restaurants, castles and villages crowning every hill. But it was the weekend and all the Italians were out in force, eating, drinking, visiting markets and festivals. The roads were crowded and there were police redirecting and rerouting and we spent a longer time driving than we planned. We got to Alba just as it was getting dark.

In Alba there were tables set out with different sized black truffles. No white truffles yet. There hadn’t been any rain. We selected a nice size truffle for 50 euro and were offered a plate of fried eggs with truffle shavings. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I don’t know the first thing about truffles and even less about eating them. To me, it tasted like shavings of wood.

The truffle is at its best during the first week after it is extracted from the earth. It releases its smell until there is no smell left. We transported it back to our hotel and put it in the fridge. Our car had a very strong, pungent smell of truffle that stayed with us for the rest of the trip – not entirely unpleasant, a bit of a shock first thing in the morning. We bought a container, filled it with risotto and buried the truffle inside the rice. The smell was still noticeable.

We planned to return to Alba on Sunday and spend the night in the area but there was a big festival in Asti and we didn’t fancy another day crawling down country lanes with all the day trippers. It is definitely a place to return to. There is such a lot to see in the area and it is all so lovely, a place to linger and enjoy at a slow pace, sample some of those wines, maybe enjoy a Michelin star restaurant, go on a truffle hunt with a farmer and his dog at dawn, hike through the chestnut groves. But not this time and not on the weekend, that’s for sure.

I said that I am a hit and miss tourist. This is true but there were a few things that I missed -- actually quite a few -- that makes me think that I will return to Turin in the future. For example, I missed the Egyptian Museum. What a mistake! I just read a fabulous description of it and I can't believe that I was so stupid / ignorant / shallow (take your pick) to not make it a priority. I also didn't make it to the Susa Valley and we didn't have time for the Sacra di San Michele which is about one hour from Turin. In planning our holiday, we decided to only visit one relatively small area of Italy but there was so much to see and we missed so much that I now think that we should have spent the entire week in the area. We went on to the lovely Aosta Valley after that and also didn't have enough time there. The moral of this story: Take longer holidays.

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