Thursday, November 16, 2006

Turin Day 2 – A stroll through the Truffle Market at Alba

Truffles !!

In this instance we’re not talking about chocolates. We’re talking about those gnarly lumps (of what looks like dried-up dog turd) dug up from the ground & which fetch quite extraordinary prices.

Truffles are in the same league as Balsamic Vinegar & Beluga Caviar. They are incredibly expensive, you may only get to try them once in your life but they are an experience that never leaves you.

Now...I have said that I find truffles over-rated & I stand by that statement but there is something about the whole culture built up around the truffles that fascinates me & draws me back every time.

Truffles come in two varieties: black & white. They can be found in two regions of Italy: Umbria & Piedmont during the Autumn months (Sept – Nov). The Italians use dogs to find them as pigs tend to eat the finds.

The white truffles are the rarer of the two & hence, the most expensive. This year, white truffles sold for between 2,500 – 3,000 Euros a kilo. Black truffles where selling for between 700 – 800 Euros a kilo.

How do you cook with truffles I hear you ask ??

You don't cook the white add them to a meal at the last minute (ie: shaved over the top of a risotto or over fried eggs). Black Truffles are far more hardy & can be cooked in things like omlettes.

Every year, they hold a Truffle Market on the weekends from late Sept to early Nov.

So...on this Saturday, I found myself in Alba, looking for the Truffle Market. You don’t need a map to find the market. You can smell it a mile away…white truffles have quite a pungent, earthy, garlicky smell that you never forget.

You pay your ticket to enter the market (5 Euro gets you a degaustation ticket with complimentary glass & free tasting at the Enoteca) & away you go.

You come into a corridor leading up, where producers from around the region encourage you to taste salamis, cheeses (some infused with truffles, others not), breads & wines. I managed to find the Moscato stand where I got to sample several of the local Moscato blends in the space of 10 min (Moscato is my favourite wine & I got addicted to the stuff while studying here).

At the end of the corridor, is the Enoteca where you can have your ONE complimentary glass of wine. How could I not go past a glass of Barolo (the most famous wines from this region) ?? It was a 2001 & definitely needed some more cellaring !!

Continuing past the Enoteca, you are lead past more producers selling Piemontese cakes, sweets (including nougat), pasta (infused with truffles), preserved fresh porcini mushrooms, truffle pastes, more cheeses & salamis, etc….

We are now at the business end of the market, where the truffle gathers are displaying (& selling) their finds for the season. They will encourage you to come & smell the truffles, will explain a bit about how to cook with them, how to store them (some might even let you hold one).

It is here that you will see deep discussions going on, truffles being weighed, calculators working overtime calculating costs & the exchange of wads of 100 Euro notes for the most expensive lump of dried dog turd (it really does look like that !!) you have ever seen.

The markets had their own little restaurant. I decided to go for the tortellini served in a sage-infused butter sauce while the three old French ladies beside me decided on the fried egg with white truffle shavings complete with a glass of Barolo (for the cost of 25 Euros a plate !!). They seemed to be enjoying it.

So what did I end up buying ?? Some truffle-infused olive oil, some truffle-infused polenta & some piemontese noughart with hazelnuts. It took a lot of self-control not to go crazy in the Enoteca with the credit card !!


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