Truffle Season in Italy

Rafael Dalmau heads to Alba in Italy for the famed white truffle season and finds magic and mystery surrounds this rare buried treasure.

Photos: Rafael Dalmau

The picturesque town of Alba in Italy’s northwestern Piedmont region plays host to foodies from around the world each year, who flock to the UNESCO World Heritage site for the rich, earthy flavour and aroma of the world’s most expensive and sought-after fungus – tartufi bianchi, or white truffles.

Truffle Hunting
Autumn in the Piedmont region is a sight to behold; rolling green-yellow hills, vine trees getting ready to sleep for the winter, and blue skies slowly turning grey. But the fall season in the Langhe, Roero and Monferrato region brings more than just a change in the weather, it signifies the much-anticipated arrival of the magnificent white truffle. This fungus holds an almost magical status in this part of the world. Only the mystical and all-knowing Trifolai (truffle hunters) are permitted to hunt for this earthy treasure – outsiders need not apply! Truffle hunting takes place at night, when the Trifolai and their skilled sniffer dogs can avoid potentially meddlesome onlookers. If you’re lucky enough to score an invitation to a traditional hunt, don’t miss the chance to spend a night in the forest, listening to folklore and tales of yore.

When to Go
The length and yield of the white truffle depends, like most harvests, on the weather. But the heart of the season generally starts in early October and runs until late November. Each year, the city of Alba hosts the La Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo di Alba, the International Alba White Truffle Fair. Every day, Trifolao make their way to the city to trade their bounty in the world truffle market. 2019 marks the 89th edition of this festive seasonal event. Alba is also the heart of Italy’s premier wine region, the Langhe, so it’s doubly attractive for food and wine lovers. The fair has grown in size and commercial popularity over the last few years, along with the region’s reputation as a gastrotourists dream destination. In 2017, UNESCO recognised Alba as a Creative City of Gastronomy and the Piedmont region boasts more Michelin Star restaurants than in any other region in Italy. It’s also home to Barolo and Barbaresco wines, Nutella, and Ferrero chocolates.

Fun At The Fair
The whole town celebrates the arrival of the autumn season. The Palio degli Asini (a donkey race and parade) is held annually at this time of the year, along with a variety of sports, culinary, arts, and wine-related activities. Kids are always welcome and are a key feature in the Palio parades; a wonderful way to pass medieval traditions to the younger generation. The streets buzz with excitement and are permeated with the sweet smell of roasted chestnuts. Be prepared when entering the fair’s hall, your senses are likely to be overloaded! There are cooking exhibitions, wine tastings, and a large variety of local producers hawking olive oils, an immense variety of cheeses, different flavours of honey, pastas, amazing mushrooms, and desserts.

The Main Attraction
In the centre of the hall, Trifolai and other distributors exhibit and sell the coveted truffle. Here, you can truly appreciate their different shapes and sizes, and it’s always exciting to see the yearly truffle champion. Prices fluctuate daily, based on supply and demand. 2018 was an abundant crop and prices fell substantially from prior years. The black truffle is more common and well known, but the intensity and flavour of the white truffle is superior to its summer cousin. Typically, black truffles are mixed into dishes to enhance flavour. The white truffle, however, is consumed as a delicate condiment. While many restaurants create complex and exquisite dishes with white truffles, it’s best served with simple ingredients that don’t overshadow its complex flavour. Take your cue from the locals and enjoy shaved white truffle “uova occhi di bue” (over two fried eggs, sunny side up), “tajarin” (over egg pasta noodles with a pat of butter), “tartare di carne” (over veal tartare, mixed only with olive oil, salt, and pepper), and “fonduta” (over cheese fondue).

ALBA TRAVEL TIPS:

Spend 2-3 days in the city of Alba. The English-speaking local tourist office can provide you with a complete list of the hotels, attractions and restaurants in town and can help you to make reservations.
While at the fair, buy a truffle (or a couple!), Then go to the food stand and order one of the basic dishes, such as fried eggs, pasta, cheese fondue, or the veal tartare, and the attendant will happily shave your truffle over the dish for you. For the full experience, take your food tray to the wine desk, where a sommelier will suggest a magnificent bottle to enjoy with your truffle!
Looking to travel onward from Alba? Rent a car or take the train to surrounding towns such as Turin, Asti, Costiglione or San Damiano. If you have wheels there are a multitude of towns inside a 2-hour drive, such as the Ligurian Port of Savona, Parma, the food capital of the Emilia-Romagna region, and Asti, home of the famous Vino spumante. The town of Barolo, (yes, that Barolo!) is a short drive from Alba, where a visit to the Barolo Wine Museum, Museo del vino a Barolo, is a must. It’s located in the same castle where the Barolo wine was born.

The International Alba White Truffle Fair is back from 6 October to 25 November fieradeltartufo.org/en/