Comment: Irish Times articles on Italian food in the north   Leave a comment

The following article appeared in the Irish Times 24 Dec 2010: the original can be found here in this excellent piece by Ken Doherty. SY

It is sometimes said that a good year for wine is a bad year for truffles. Something to do with a sufficient amount of rain satisfying the grape but sadly not enough to yield a crop of truffles. As we strolled around the pretty cobbled streets of Alba in northwest Italy – the go-to town for the truffle-nut – it looked like a bumper year for the musty fungal.

The town was overcome with truffle triumphalism. Every other shop window was festooned with the real thing or jokey simulacrums to excite the tourists. Having only tasted black truffles, and this being the truffle season, it was the pungency of its white relation that we were after. It started with a plan. The family, two adults and a baby, would, on a tour of the fertile north of Italy, make their way to the food and wine rich trinity of Gavi, Asti and Alba. Setting off from our base at a wonderful agriturismo (countryside BB), we would gobble as much of the region’s culinary specialities as we could.

As the bus rumbled its way up the narrow roads towards the village of Gavi in Piemonte, we sensed a treat in store. Gavi doesn’t just rely on its spectacular setting to woo you in. Its sumptuous vistas are a close second to its main draw. People make the pilgrimage to this tiny hamlet to experience its famous sweet and acidic white wines. We came for both.

Most of its wineries are just outside the town and, since we were car-free and baby-tied, we explored its medieval centre on foot. Its compact and charmingly dilapidated streets and buildings were quiet by late afternoon. On its main drag we stumbled into Antico Caffe Del Moro, pasticceria-bar-canteen-ice cream parlour and breast feeding refuge all rolled into one. We quickly fell prey to the proprietor’s big-hearted welcome and were given an introductory lesson to the intricacies of viniculture in Gavi.

After a quick feed from her mammy, all this nattering had a soporific effect on the baby. We were afforded a few tastings of what the Gavi vintage (from the Cortese grape) and its regional wines had to offer. This braced us for one of the many decent walks around the town.

Asti was different. It bristles with a more rugged atmosphere, especially during the twice weekly outdoor market days. Traders set up stall every Wednesday and Saturday in Campo del Palio but disappear by late afternoon. When we arrived at noon it was in full flow.

Amid all the cheaply-made threads and kitchen paraphernalia there is a wonderful food market that spoke of the season we were in. Stalls heaving with knobbly mushrooms, voluptuous squash and sultry plums made our bellies rumble.

The banter between stall holders and customers was imbued with typical Italian feeling – wildly gestating hands performing in the narrowest personal space possible. And for those who like to overturn historical myths and inaccuracies, the square is spiked with significance. Every September it hosts a bareback horse race similar to the famous Palio in Siena, Tuscany. But wait. In Asti, they claim their race is at least 300 years older!

Alba has the confident air of a regional capital. Situated in the rolling hills of the Langhe, it’s hemmed in by the vineyards that produce the famous Barolo, Barbera and Barbaresco wines. From the bus stop it’s only a short walk to the old town. We noticed that if your appetite wasn’t sated by wine and truffles, you could always undergo some retail therapy in its many expensive designer boutiques.

It was getting late and we were the ones who might need clinical gastronomic therapy if we didn’t see some truffle action soon. We skipped into Vincafe on Via Vittorio Emanuele and were not disappointed. The place was buzzing.

We started with some silky lardo (pure cured pork fat) that sweetly lined our stomachs for what was to come. I swear I could hear the drums roll as our truffle dishes made their way from the kitchen. Both dishes, baked eggs ( cocotte con tartufo bianco ) and pasta ( tagliarini con tartufo ) were decorated with wisps of white truffle. The price did make the eyes water but what the hell, I now understand why a lot of chefs choose it as a death row last meal.

Gavi, Asti and Alba are repositories of all that is good about Italy. Fantastic food, unforgettable scenery and a genuinely warm welcome. So make your way to this part of the peninsula, hardly undiscovered, but a region steeped in such significant culinary lore it can only be a gift that keeps on giving.

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Posted January 19, 2011 by zachmon in Uncategorized

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