Patricia Cleveland-Peck

THE Italian region of Langhe & Roero in Piedmont is the productive heartland of some of the most enjoyable things in life: truffles, wine and hazelnuts. Indeed on the way from Turin airport I noticed a good number of groves planted with hazelnut trees. Apparently they produce thin-shelled flavoursome nuts, crops of which became a thing of legend when a chocolate shortage caused by the Napoleonic Wars forced a local confectioner to use hazelnuts to stretch his chocolate supply. Nocciolata better known as Nutella, had arrived and was later joined by Ferrero Rocher

As we began to climb up to the hills it soon became apparent that nut production was far outstripped by that of wine. The hillsides, laced with even green ribbons of vines, reminded me of rice paddy fields I’d seen in Vietnam. This is the district from which where the grapes for some of the finest red wines of Italy, the Barolo, Barbaresco, Nebbio and Dolcetto are grown.

On arrival at our destination, Hotel La Ribezza in Monforterte d’Alba I experienced a rather unusual check-in. At reception each guest is offered four scented lotions to sniff and from which to make a selection; toiletries of your choice will then be sent to your room. A nice gesture which I gather is not uncommon in Italian hotels – but one which slightly loses its charm when a big group is queuing behind you.

This hilltop hotel, newly and successfully converted from a private house was, however, very satisfactory with good rooms, exemplary service and, as I was lucky enough to have a balcony, beautiful views of the vineyards over which I particularly enjoyed watching the light change as the as the sun set.

It was soon time however to set off for the famous World Market of the International White Truffle Fair. Getting there involved strolling though attractive pedestrianised streets flanked by busy shops and cafes. Within the venue however it was clear the truffle was king – the unmistakeable musky scent pervaded the air. As well as whole specimens there was truffle-infused pasta, truffle-flavoured crisps and truffle oils together with other artisanal products including cheeses, breads, the famous local hazelnuts and of course wines on sale. There was also a busy bar at which mainly locals were enjoying an early evening glass of wine.

The main business however was the truffle. Truffle hunters bring their spoils to be authenticated by the quality commissioners who check every one so that they can be sold legitimately. Each truffle over 10gm is supplied with a bag and identification code so that the consumer can change the truffle within 48 hours if not suitable for consumption.

Seeing the buying and selling in action I began to get the first whiff of the secrecy and mystery which surrounds this mysterious fungus. The Alba white truffle, Tuber magnatum, is of an irregular roundish shape. It grows underground in symbiosis with the mycelium root of specific trees and shrubs; including oaks, chestnut, wild hazel and hornbeam. Some 120 volatile molecules result in its unique scent and flavour.

It is highly prized by chefs, Billat-Savarain called it the ‘diamond of the kitchen.’ White truffles are not cooked but shaved onto dishes and as they can command a price of around $6000 per kilo, the shavings are invariably thin. Large truffles go to auction and are sold for huge sums, mainly to Asia.

Possibly the key to the truffle’s almost mythical status arises from the fact that it cannot be cultivated, (although attempts are being made) each one has in fact to be individually discovered and dug out from random woodland places. That this search can result either in nothing at all or thousands of euros’ worth can lend a truffle hunt the atmosphere of a magical quest.

The following misty morning I experienced something of this game of chance myself when we accompanied truffle hunter Carlo Olivero and his dog Steel. I say ‘something of’ because we had been warned that this was a ‘simulated hunt’ in as much as Carlo had buried some truffles himself although Steel did not know where. Apparently on organised truffle hunting expeditions tourists are too disappointed if nothing at all is found.

We set off through a grove of hazel trees, leafless at this season. Steel, a small, very friendly, rusty-coloured mongrel with a short white tail scampered about. Carlo explained that he was a working dog not a pet but very loved – and in fact valued, for a good truffle dog can cost about £3500 – and it has even been known in extreme cases for rival hunters to poison a hunter’s dog.

Not surprisingly it didn’t take long for Steel to locate a truffle and start scrabbling for it – at which point Carlo pulled him away firmly and gave him a treat. Carlo then took his zappino or small pick and gently excavated the truffle. Steel found several more of these ‘hidden’ fungi when the hunt took an unexpected turn. Steel ran up to the side of the hazel plantation where some old trees grew beside a ditch and began to dig. It was obvious that Carlo wasn’t expecting a ‘real’ find and it took him a long time to extricate a biggish truffle from the tree root. The smile on his face made it clear that he this was a surprise – and a bonus of some £350 for him (and I hope, extra treats for Steel.)

Can you imagine a village of 750 inhabitants with 42 wine shops but no supermarket, butcher or clothes shops? Such is Barolo. So great is the importance of the locally produced Barolo and Barbaresco wines, ‘two of the world’s pinnacles,’ that wine merchants and cantinas take precedence over the more mundane necessities of life – although there is a pharmacy, presumably for headache pills.

In the Bar Barolo Friends a modern, airy establishment, we had a chance to taste these wines as well as such local specialities as veal tonello and the little ‘pinched’ pasta known as agnolotti del plin.

Thus fortified we set off to explore one of the cantinas, Sordo, where we were shown around by the very knowledgeable 20-year-old granddaughter of the founder. Apparently he had tried to introduce her to wine at the age of two but she hadn’t liked it. By the age of 14, she began to taste, learn and appreciate. After a tour of the cellars where we saw the big and the small barrels and learned something of the process, we went to sit at long tables and began the serious business of tasting.

My short visit culminated with gala dinner at Piazza Duomo, in Alba, a Michelin three-star restaurant. The chef Enrico Crippa has his own vegetable garden and makes use of the freshest and most local produce.

He also spent time in Japan which was reflected in the freshness and styling of the dishes we sampled, reminding me of one of the most exquisite meals I have ever experienced, a Japanese kaseki meal in a Ryokan in Kyoto. Every dish at the Piazza Duomo was a minor work of art and a taste sensation. A perfect end in fact to a most enjoyable introduction to Piedmont.

Patricia Travelled courtesy of Ente Turismo Langhe Monferrato Roero

www.langheroero.it/ Truffle Hunting www.tuber.it/ The International Truffle Fair www.fieradeltartufo.org

This year the Fair runs from October 5 – November 24, opening in the Piazza Cagnasso with the amusing Donkey Paglio, a tradition dating from 1275, and colourful Historic Parade involving 1000 people in Medieval Costume.

Jet2 flies directly from Edinburgh to Turin.