In the Langhe in November, when early-morning mists hang in the valleys and the grapes for barolo and barbaresco have been safely gathered, thoughts turn to the other great bounty of the local soil: white truffles. Dogs scour the countryside in search of these precious fungi: with prices at the start of the season sometimes reaching €5,000 per kg, it is – quite literally – a treasure hunt.
The easiest way to find a truffle in Alba, the capital of the Langhe, is to visit the annual truffle market, housed in a huge marquee in the Cortile della Maddalena and open every weekend during the season. Dozens of dealers and trifolao (truffle hunters) set up their stalls, displaying their white diamonds and haggling with customers. The ethereal scent of white truffle, with its notes of straw, honey and garlic, hangs in the air.
Beware the myriad “truffle” pastes, oils, cheeses, pasta and honeys on sale – they invariably use artificial flavourings – but do have a glass or two of local wine, then head to La Piola in the nearby Piazza Risorgimento for lunch, including, of course, some real truffle.
La Piola (Piedmontese dialect for osteria, “eating house”) is a friendly, atmospheric, easy-going place with terrific seasonal food: the menu is simply chalked daily on a board. Overseen by chef Enrico Crippa (his superb, triple-starred Piazza del Duomo is upstairs) and the Ceretto family, who make some of the Langhe’s finest wines, it is the perfect spot to discover the beguiling food and wine of the region. The head chef here is Dennis Panzeri, whose mastery of technique, applied rigorously to local ingredients, is flawless.
I started, as one should, with a few antipasti: vitello tonnato, the sweetness of the pink-cooked wafers of veal offset by a stiff, piquant anchovy mayonnaise; a delicate quenelle of salt cod, served with parsley sauce; an exemplary Russian salad; and carne cruda – chopped raw beef with shreds of Parmesan. Then it was time for more serious stuff.
At this time of year, the powerful aroma of Tuber magnatum pico, to give the truffle its official name, wafts from nearby tables; unlike its black cousin, white truffle loses its flavour when cooked, so is best shaved directly onto the food. It responds especially well to eggs, the yolk’s fat molecules acting like a loudhailer for the scent: at La Piola, the handcut tajarin – thin, springy noodles, a lustrous, egg-rich orange – are fabulous, lightly bathed in cheese sauce, then submerged in a blizzard of white truffle.
Then potato gnocchi, sauced superbly with rabbit livers, chestnuts, marsala and preis, a local cheese made from goat and sheep milk. And brasato di Fassona al barolo – a chunk of Fassona beef, a famous local breed, cooked slowly in barolo (the even more famous local wine), with silk-smooth mash to soak up the juices. Ceretto’s lovely wines – a crisp, floral Arneis and a satin-textured barolo, full of forest fruit – complemented lunch perfectly. La Piola is a diamond among diamonds.