Wander around the handsome Piedmont town of Alba in early autumn and you might see locals’ eyes turned nervously skywards. Some will be praying it doesn’t rain – a disaster for the grapes that make Barolo and Barbaresco. Others might be hoping it does: white truffles, for which Alba is famous, need plenty of moisture in the soil to grow plump and fragrant.
In spring, however, such worries are many months away and all should be serene. It is one of Italy’s finest spots for wine and cuisine, the food managing to be both hearty, as befits the spectacular Alpine backdrop, and refined – partly a legacy of its former French rulers.
The idiosyncratic food at Enrico Crippa’s superb Piazza Duomo leans more towards the latter, as you might expect from a three-Michelin-starred restaurant ranked 27 on San Pellegrino’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. It has a small, brightly lit, rose-pink dining room overlooking a pretty square in the middle of town, and its star has risen steadily since it opened a decade ago.
Crippa’s cooking recalls Mount Fuji as much as Mont Blanc: for instance, his exuberant “flowerpot” salad (pictured) is a tangle of herbs, leaves and blossoms – many from his own garden – with puffed amaranth, citrus dressing and umami-rich dashi stock. And an inspired dish of raw scallops, sea urchin and cime di rapa is dotted with a purée of sour, salty umeboshi (Japanese pickled plums).
Umami-obsessed Crippa may be, but this northern Italian chef does not ignore Parmigiano Reggiano: a beetroot tartare with flowers, tiny salad leaves and local hazelnuts is trickled with Parmesan cream; thin discs of miso-fermented daikon are dressed with Parmesan, rocket and olive oil. There is a clever bagna càuda too: cardoon in a milk and anchovy foam, strewn with more hazelnuts. Crippa’s painterly eye ensures everything looks beautiful, while his masterly touch with flavour and texture ensures this is more than skin deep.
The heartier style of la cucina piemontese is at its finest in Albaretto della Torre, a hilltop town south of Alba. Stumble into Filippo, a homely osteria, and you might see – as I did – rabbits roasting over the fireplace. And after a plate of cotechino, lentils and Parmesan cream – and a generous helping of polenta with ovuli (amanita caesarea mushrooms) – the gloriously tender rabbit was served simply with fried potatoes.
I drank a splendid Riesling Arbarei 2014 and an equally fine Langhe Nebbiolo Bernardina 2013 from Ceretto, the winemaking family that also owns Piazza Duomo. Truffles or grapes? Rain or no rain? The Cerettos wisely have a foot in both camps.