Adventures in Alba
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In north-east Italy, about 2 hours away from Milan, sits Alba, home to the decadent white truffle. These lumpy, knob-like mushrooms are platinum compared to black truffles, their summertime counterparts. The white truffle has a taste and flavour so delicate that pairings with foods must be done carefully: Think pasta in a light butter and cream sauce, slow-cooked eggs, or delicate risotto. Sharper flavours will overwhelm the buttery, honey-like truffle. Unlike other ultra-luxe foods like caviar and foie gras the truffle is a treat for vegetarians. White truffle season lasts from early October to the end of November but any trip to Alba is entirely about food and wine. It is best to abandon any calorie-related guilt before you visit.
The rolling hills of Piedmont offer a landscape different from the more famous region of Tuscany. Come truffle season, the landscape glows in autumnal colours of fiery orange and yellow. The views are stunning and one can hike through the hills and even along the vineyards.
Alba offers a variety of accommodation, from hotels and vacation rentals to hostels. For the true luxury experience in the city, though, head to Il Boscareto Resort & Spa. A short drive away from the town of Alba, the hotel offers a world-class spa, restaurants, and an extremely helpful concierge. With a focus on wellness, this property enables you to have a massage overlooking the hills and valleys of the Langhe. If you don’t mind a drive, neighbouring Santo Stefano Belbo boasts of Relais San Maurizio, a hotel in a former 17th century monastery, complete with a spa situated within salt caves, gorgeous views and a Michelin-starred restaurant. The hotel is a sanctuary, yet it’s not far from Alba.
Apart from truffles, the region is also famous for its wine-making . The Langhe, as the area is known, spans the region to the south and east of the Tanaro river in Piedmont and is a Unesco World Heritage Site; Alba is the capital. There are lush green valleys, lined with vines rich and ripe with Nebbiolo (which go into making the Barolo wines from the region) and Barbaresco grapes. The gorgeous bouquets of the wines here are mildly tannic and strike a balance on the palate.
The centre of the town in Alba is built around the Romanesque Cathedral of St Lawrence that dates back to the medieval period. It features a fair dedicated to truffles and is open during the season. Here you can buy local cheeses, fresh pasta like the angel hair-like tajarin, hand-made Agnolotti dal Plin stuffed with truffle and cheese, truffle honey, local cheese like robiola and tomme, and a wide selection of meats. Lined with artisanal and home-made gelato stores, hazelnut stands and cafés, the entire town is a gastronomical delight, with a slight scent of truffle wafting through the air.
When it comes to restaurants, you will be hard-pressed to find sub-standard food in Alba. The most famous of these, Piazza Duomo, is everything it’s said to be. Chef Enrico Crippa, the soul behind the restaurant, has won three Michelin stars and his restaurant sits pretty at No. 15 on the San Pellegrino World’s Best Restaurants List this year. The main dining room is pink, with hand-painted frescos by Neapolitan artist Francesco Clemente. All his ingredients are locally sourced, including for the standout 21-31-41-51 salad which features at least 21 ingredients and, at most, 51. After a meal, diners can request a meeting with the chef and witness the behind-the-scenes techniques.
The more casual La Piola has the same owner. The soft pillows of bite-sized ravioli, filled with melty cheese, crushed hazelnuts and generously finished off with shavings of white truffles, are what dreams are made of. The pumpkin flan, also finished off with truffles, works for the carbohydrate-avoiding lot, as do the perfectly cooked Eggs en Cocotte.
Gusto Madre makes four different kinds of pizza crusts. Here the toppings you choose determine the crust you can have—but, whatever you do, don’t skip the classic margherita. The restaurant also boasts of an artisanal beer menu and a generous wine menu true to the region, at attractive prices.
As you leave the rolling Piedmont hills behind, you’ll be hard-pressed to depart with the same palate you came with: The Langhe leaves you with an appreciation for more mature yet simple flavours, more delicate ones, and different from the tomato-based Italian cooking you might find familiar.