En route from Switzerland back home to Carcassonne, we stopped for two nights in Neive, Piedmont, Italy. We discovered this region last year. Last October, we spent a day in the region of Barolo, Barbaresco, and Albi to learn about and enjoy the wines of this region. We didn’t realize then that October is the season of the white truffles of Piedmont. (Here’s last year’s blog post.) The wines and truffles were so delicious that we couldn’t resist dropping in for another visit. It is on the way home, after all.
We set ourselves three missions: Buy some more wine from the region, visit the Alba Truffle Fair, and enjoy two dinners graced by the intoxicating aroma of the white truffles.
Last year, at the final dinner of our time in the Piedmont, the owner of the restaurant recommended a Nebbiolo wine. We were so taken by it that we sought out the winemaker, Spinetta, whose base of operations was just a few kilometers away. We didn’t then have time for a tour, just time to buy a few bottles of the wine we had enjoyed so much, which was Spinetta’s Langhe Nebbiolo 2015. On special occasions since, or just for dinners with nice roasted meat, we have rationed out this wine. Our mission this year was to take some more time to taste more wines from Spinetta.
The morning of our wine tasting, we were joined by a couple from Boston, who were accompanied by a local wine and food guide. They too were obviously enamored of the wines of this region. Since this year we had the time, our young host, Diego, showed us the facilities and explained some of the rules of the appellations Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera — all of which, like Champagne, relate to very specific locations of the the vineyards.
We happened to be at the winery as workers were pouring cases of just-picked grapes onto conveyors leading to the first vats and machinery of the wine-making process.
We enjoyed the various wines that our host presented. He selected a few recent-vintage reds, which were pleasant if not as characterful as the Langhe Nebbiolo from last year. He let us taste two older vintage Nebbiolo wines, which were very lovely. And then we discovered their prices — 180€ and 300€ per bottle. We smiled, and said, maybe some other time. At the end of the tasting, we said that we had two missions: to find some specials-occasion wines that would take home with us, as well as some weekday wines (translation: relatively inexpensive). We explained last year’s discovery of the Langhe Nebbiolo. Diego said that, unfortunately, they had sold all the available bottles already. He explained that the winery introduces the new vintages earlier in the year, so that by October, some of the more popular wines have all been purchased. We joked (?) that we would just have to come back in January. He suddenly looked pensive. He said, but if you don’t mind a magnum (twice the volume of a standard bottle), he did have some magnums of the Langhe Nebbiolo 2016. We looked at each other, immediately knowing that we had the same thought, and said, magnums will be just fine! Per volume of wine, they are a bit less expensive than standard bottles. And they would be perfect for dinner parties of fellow wine lovers. We promise we two alone won’t drink a magnum of wine in a sitting. We are enthusiastic, but not yet quite that lush.
In October, Alba hosts a white truffle and regional wine festival. A combination that we couldn’t miss.
Alba is a small city 60 km south of Turin. Its historic center boasts churches and towers from the 12th to 15th centuries.
From a plaque: During the Middle Ages the most important Alba family houses, often with towers, faced the Via Vittorio Emanuele II, the ancient via Magistra, which was quite conincident with the cards Maximus of the Roman age. They were essentially built as defense buildings but since 12th Century they became symbols of prestige and richness.
The main pedestrian shopping street bisects the center, passing the site of the festival, and culminating in the main historic square of the city. On the Saturday of our visit, it seemed that everyone in town was out, strolling along the shopping streets.
We passed some kind of medieval ball game in a makeshift court in front of the cathedral.
But the main destination was a big exhibition tent in the center of town.
We found a big truffle- and wine-loving party.
Vendors from around the region had set up booths. They sold any kind of truffle-infused product you can think of: oils, vinegars, pasta, sausages, pâtés, sauces, marinades, and even soaps. At the far end of the tent was a long wine bar. Our entry ticket included two glasses of wine. We tried four different nebbiolo- and barbera-based wines.
The heart of the festival was a ring of vendor tables at the center of the tent. In one glass case after another lay arrays of fresh whole white truffles. The aroma filled the air. We just stood there, inhaling, savoring. Truffles need to be enjoyed immediately because they start losing their aroma right away. We were three days away from getting back home. We just had to stroll, sniff, and enjoy, but couldn’t buy. Maybe next year…
Now for enjoying the truffles in another setting: in restaurants at dinner. We had a win and a miss.
The first night, we ate dinner at the fine-dining restaurant attached to the inn where we were staying. We had eaten there last year. The meal had been good, the truffles intoxicating, but the meal was relatively expensive. But, this year, we had been driving all day, so chose ease over value. The dining room was still attractive and the staff light-hearted and pleasant. We selected a starter of simple pasta with only butter, over which thin slices of truffle would be shaved at the table. With much fanfare, our server enthusiastically shaved and extolled. Full of anticipation, we each took a bit of pasta and a piece of truffle, held it at our nose, and inhaled. Um, nothing. No aroma. Mike’s nose is more sensitive than mine, so I thought perhaps after the long day, I just wasn’t tuned enough. But he scowled as well: Nothing here either.
We had chosen a main course of veal, simply prepared, to receive some more truffles. But now we knew we didn’t want to buy any more of these truffles if there was no truffle aroma. We explained to the waiter. Unfortunately, he didn’t really know how to respond. He tried to make claims that truffles are a natural product so we can’t know what each one will be like. We couldn’t tell if he was offended, or just not sure what to do. But he certainly didn’t offer a different truffle, nor test what we had received. If you think about it, he was in a tough situation. He doesn’t know if a customer can smell anything at all.
We wondered if, this year, our noses weren’t as sensitive, or if, last year, the truffles were more pungent. Nonetheless, on our second night, we went back to the small simple restaurant where, last year, we had enjoyed truffles and the Spinetta Langhe Nebbiolo. When we arrived, the owner welcomed us and said that he remembered us from last year. The main course would be some simply grilled wonderful local beef, but the starter would be veal tartare, with fresh truffle shavings. Once our host had finished shaving, said Buon Appetito, and left our table, we took a breath, hoped for the best, and pulled the first bit to our noses.
Ah, there it was! The hedonistic wonderful elusive aroma. Our noses were in fact OK.
When our host returned after the first course, we told him of our disappointing dinner the night before. He sighed and said, yes, a dead truffle is just a potato! Exactly right. To make up for last night’s potato, we split another starter of simple pasta. We reveled one last time in the the scent of the white truffle of the Piedmont.
We also learned a lesson: Always sniff thoroughly any offered truffle before buying it!
We drove from Neive to Nice on local roads, rather than on the anonymous autoroute.
It was a quiet Sunday. The route took us through the Col de Tende, which has an elevation of 1,870 meters / 6,135 feet. While there were hints of approaching autumn in Switzerland and Piedmont, the colors of the season blazed as we ascended.
When we arrived at the tunnel at the pass, we needed to park for about a half an hour on the approach road. This tunnel was built in 1882; it is among the oldest long road tunnels in the region. To this day, the tunnel has only one lane, total. So we needed to wait for the Italy-bound traffic to pass through before it was our turn to continue to France. The wait gave us the time and incentive to relish the clear fall day in the mountains.