As we’ve said probably too many times by now, the challenge of travel for us is to figure out what to do between meals.
On the morning of our second day in Langhe, a Sunday, we asked out host Consuelo for her recommendations for how to pass the time. The day promised to be cool and cloudy. She suggested a driving route along winding back roads through the High Monferrato to the town of Acqui Terme.
This part of the Monferrato district was the birth place of Aleramo, the founder of the historic dynasty of the Lords of the Monferrato. The story goes that Aleramo came from a family of German nobles who were in pilgrimage to the holy land; upon knighthood he demonstrated capacities of goodness and valour and thus entered the good graces of the emperor Otto. In return for his services Aleramo was promised all the lands that he could cross on horseback in three days. Cleverly, the knight shod his horse using brick and thus giving the territory its name Monferrato (Munfrà in old Piedmontese) which derives from “mun” brick and “frà” meaning shod. (source)
Acqui Terme is not a large town, perhaps 20,000 inhabitants. We drove to the historic center just before lunchtime. The combination of its being Sunday, early October, and still Covid times meant that there weren’t many people about. We easily found a small parking lot, but couldn’t find any clear signage about whether we needed to pay for parking or not. Fortunately, there was a small pasticceria (a cake and pastry shop) open nearby. We don’t speak any Italian. Google does, however. I looked up, “Is the parking free today?” getting, “Oggi il parcheggio è gratuito?” I stuck my head into the pasticceria, caught the eye of the woman at the counter, channeled my best cinema Italian pronunciation, and let loose. For a second, she looked shocked. She regained her composure and said, “Si.”
We strolled along a wide pedestrian street. All the shops were closed on Sunday morning. A few people were out, but not many. After only about two blocks, we walked under an archway at the base of a tower to find the main square. The focal point of the square is an octagonal pavilion. From its base flows a fountain of steaming water. Since antiquity, Acqui Terme has been all about its natural hot springs.
Acqui Terme has Roman origins dating back to the II century B.C. Pliny lauded the thermal baths as the best in empire, and which today are still a very important element of the local economy. The high street leads directly to the “Piazza del Bollente” (“the square of the boiling water”) a natural spring from which the sulphur-rich water emerges at 75°C with a stream of 700 litres per minute. The spring is now housed in a 19th-century Hellenic style eight-sided kiosk, designed by the architect Giovanni Cerrutti. The buildings surrounding the square used to form the Jewish ghetto complete with synagogue. (source)
We watched one person after another arrive at the base fountain, pull out a jug or two, and fill them with the hot mineral water. There was even a slight sulfur smell.
Across from the fountain pavilion, a pair of severe colonnades sheltered a few restaurants. One of them had white table-cloth-covered tables arranged behind the colonnade, and there were already quite a few customers. A good sign! Despite the table cloths and cloth napkins, most people were eating pizza. Perfect! Our first pizzas of our trip in Italy.
After lunch we wandered a bit through the quiet winding streets of the historic center.
We emerged into a square dominated by a serious and refined church facade: the Acqui Cathedral. Construction started in 989, and it was consecrated in 1067 to Santa Maria Assunta – the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The portico dates from the 17th century.
A few more meandering streets and we turn the corner. All routes seem to lead back to the Piazza del Bollente.
After our quiet visit to Acqui Terme, we returned to our B&B by picturesque roads through the hilly countryside.
A bit of relaxation and then it was time, once again, to eat!
As you regular readers already know, something we were expressly looking forward to in Piemonte was the season’s white truffles. We discovered them four years ago during our first trip to the region. But this year, people kept telling us that the summer had been exceptionally dry, which means that few truffles grew among the roots of the local oak trees. Slowly, we accepted that this year we wouldn’t get to enjoy one of our favorite foods. After the twists and turns of the covid world, we unfortunately know how to be flexible and accept scuttled expectations. But! Our host at the guest house, Consuelo, had booked us in a restaurant whose owner is particularly well connected in the world of truffles. As we were heading out to the restaurant, Consuelo calmly announced that the chef was offering a truffle-based menu tonight. She said, “Of course, I had to find truffles for you!”
Just as Consuelo said, the chef proposed four courses of foods that traditionally allow the truffle aromas and textures to shine through: veal tartare, fried egg, simple pasta with just butter, and melted local cheese. The smell of truffles is strong and distinctive, but it is also very delicate. Competing smells easily drown it out. It’s fascinating that such a distinctive aroma can also be so timid, like some kind of beautiful jungle animal that hides at the merest sound.
We’ve adopted a method for enjoying the aroma – probably not fun for you to watch but satisfying for us: We take a slice of truffle on our fork and bring it and it alone up to our nose. A few moments basking in the smell, and then into the mouth. Followed by a bite of the food base of the moment, the tartare or pasta or whatever. Savor, and repeat.
The standard method for offering truffle slices to the restaurant customer is to weigh the truffle bulb before and after the meal. For each dish, the server shaves the truffle onto the substrate until you say to stop. It is up to you to balance your sensory and monetary experiences. The menu shows the price per gram. We noticed that this year’s price was about 30% higher than what we remember from our last trip to Piemonte, a reflection of the scarcity this season. So, be clear about your budget before you get seduced by these strange ugly and divine fungi!
Ristorante Stazione, S Stefano Belbo