Today is my second full day in Alba / Cascina Barac. I have decided to not really make any plans for my time here and to just see what unfolds.
At breakfast, one of my hosts Katia asked me if I wanted to go truffle hunting. A quick cup of tea, change into my boots and jeans and we were off. There were six in our party: A couple from Florida, Giancarlo who was a guide/translator, Renaldo the hunter/tartuffola and myself. And Luigi the dog; the star of the show. On the drive from Cascina Barac to the area where we were going hunting for truffles (which coincidentally is right beside the Gaja Winery), Giancarlo was very good at chatting about and explaining not only about the truffles, but about wine production in the region, the rise and fall of the market, which seasons have been better than others, and the increase in agrotourism in the area. Having worked a number of years in higher end restaurants, I was able to tell him a lot about how we here in North America receive the end products of their labours, and how much we are willing to pay at times to receive them. When I told him how much the tartuffa d'alba actually sells for in a restaurant in Vancouver, he quickly translated to Renaldo, who was driving. I thought Renaldo was going to drive off the road. Renaldo said something back to Giancarlo in Piedmontese, which I took to mean something along the lines of "I need a bigger cut of the money, no?" Obviously, there is a big price discrepancy between what the truffle hunter works hard to find and sells, and what we as end consumers pay at the restaurant.
It turns out our guides were no slouches at this industry. I found out there is a Truffle School that dogs must attend to learn how to sniff out and find the truffles. And not all dogs have a nose for it. But Luigi is one of the best. I'm not sure which incarnation of "Luigi" we had with us. You see, Renaldo has been hunting truffles for many years, and over the years, each male dog has been named Luigi and each female dog has been named Diana. In fact, in 1999, he and his dog Diana found one of the largest truffles in the world near Buje, Croatia. The truffle weighed 1.31 kilograms (2 lb 14 oz) and has been entered the Guinness Book of Records.
Luigi also knows the difference in smell between a black truffle and a white truffle, even while it is still in the ground. If it is a black truffle, he is allowed to dig it up and bring it to Renaldo. If it is a white truffle, he must stand and point and wag his tale. This is for two reasons. White truffles are more valuable than the black ones, and they are also more fragile and damage quite easily. We watched Luigi find truffles the size of a pea under six inched of soil. Luigi has been known to discover truffles around stone walls, under bracket and under 2 feet of hard packed soil.
We spent about 3 hours hunting for truffles. The ones in my hands (right) were the biggest we found today, and I'm holding about $350.00 worth of truffles. Many were small, or were a bit old. Renaldo says, "No matter, for the soup!" I guess if you are working that hard to find these gems, you don't want to let any go to waste.
The fresh air and walking meant it was time for a short snooze before heading out for the afternoon.
Around 4pm, I said to myself, "Hey Self, I want to go see that church up there; it looks interesting." So I made the 25 minute uphill hike to Treiso. I had the road to myself, with only one motorcycle that passed me. My company were the grape vines, the hazelnut trees and an occasional winged flurry as small birds took flight when I walked by.
Reaching the top, the church does not look impressive from the outside. Built in 1755, the Maria Virgine Assunta is a red clay brick church with a couple figures in stone on the front and a tower at the back. The door was open, so I went inside. I was the only one there. I had this whole silent, empty space to myself. It was magic. And then I looked up.
This church is by no means the Sistine Chapel. And I know that there will be amazing examples of painted frescos and ceilings in Genova and Rome and everywhere in between. But to see this much detail devoted to a little church that serves a community of only 9.5 square km.....it was very inspiring.
I found a couple nice restaurants surrounding the church. One is from the Le Soste collection of restaurants called La Ciau del Tornavento , which is a Michelin Star awarded Asian-Italian fusion restaurant. It was impressive to find that calibre of eatery in a small town high up in the hills. Craving something more regional and rustic, I wandered into Trattoria Risorgimento. They were just opening for service. It is a family run restaurant; the father, Ilario is the host with a dry sense of humour and a wonderful selection of wines, and his daughter leads the kitchen with other daughters filling in service staff roles. I had a fantastic meal; starting with tarajin tagliati (a regional pasta created especially with white truffles / tartuffa) with butter and white truffles. One bite of the pasta and my sole focus became this dish in front of me. Delicate pasta, butter and white truffle. Outstanding. Usually in Vancouver when you order shaved Alba truffle on your meal, it is by the gram and usually around $25.00 to $32.00 per gram added to the price of your entree. Looking at the photo to the left, for 20€ for pasta including truffle, you can see this chef was quite generous with the truffle shaving. Next I has braised pork cheek with polenta, followed by a sort of raisin and jam cake made from local grapes. I also found a bottle of 2005 Sori Montaribaldi Barbaresco which, you know...at €28.00 I just couldn't pass up. Total for three course meal with wine was €75.00
Ilario was kind enough to drive me back down the hill to Cascina Barac, and I took the remainder of my bottle of wine, a glass from my room and sat out on the veranda swing and enjoyed the silence of the rest of the evening (and my bottle of wine)
Looking forward to what tomorrow will bring.