Our much anticipated day trip to Alba, Italy for the 88th International White Truffle Fair was everything I had hoped it would be!
It felt like visiting a local fair in the southern United States- there were educational lectures, book signings, chefs showing off their favorite recipes, booths with food samples, hunters dressed up in their work clothes (in this case, the truffle hunters), dogs to pet and enjoy, and of course, the proud and all-knowing judges!
Unfamiliar smells wafted throughout, as we walked from booth to booth, sampling products infused with truffle- from truffle oil to truffle butter, truffle pasta and truffle potato chips- after which we tried the famous regional wines from small wineries with booths (barolo and barbaresco among them), and of course, the smell of whole truffles available for sale (sadly, no free samples of those!).
The festival lasts from early October through the end of November and people come from all over the world to sample and buy the truffles. If truffles and good wine are your thing, then check it out some time. www.fieradeltartufo.org
Fun facts taken from the brochure we received at the festival:
- The truffle is a mushroom that lives its entire life underground. Because it cannot use air to disperse its spores, it has developed a strong smell at the peak moment to attract insects and animals that dig up and eat the truffle and then cause the spores to spread out.
- The look and texture of a truffle can vary widely- from rubbery to thin and paper-like, and from pale to dark.
- Truffle hunters need an animal with a keen sense of smell to find the truffles (it helps to know what plant roots the spores cling to underground as well). Hunters used to use pigs, but the pigs are, well, piggish, and they would destroy and devour the truffle before the hunter could pull them away, leading to the more common use these days of a trained dog with a very strong sense of smell.
- Truffle hunters must hold a special license and pay a fee. There’s a special hoe the hunter uses after the dog identifies the location of the truffle. The hunting of the Alba White Truffle is permitted from September 21 to January 31.
- Truffles are described in Roman writings as early as 79 AD. It was initially believed that the truffles were formed from a combination of lightning, heat and water. Many poets were inspired by the truffle. Juvenal wrote that the truffle was formed by a lightning bolt thrown by Jupiter near an oak tree (the oak tree was considered sacred).
- In the 18th century, the Piedmont area white truffle was considered one of the most delicious and prized products in all of the European courts.
- Tips for enjoying the truffle- you only use a small amount (about 10 grams) on a dish, eating it raw, shaved with a special truffle cutter, on dishes that tend to be neutral, which is essential for enhancing the intense and overwhelming scent. That’s why I have seen it in restaurants paired with poached or fried eggs, raw chopped meat, pasta and fondue.
- A fresh truffle only lasts a week after it has been removed from the ground.
The quality of a truffle can be assessed through sight, touch and smell. When you buy a truffle at the fair, it comes with a certificate of authenticity grading the truffle’s quality, and a form of money back guarantee. There are truffle judges at the fair and you can have them inspect your truffle to confirm its worth based on all the sensory components they use. That was fun to watch!
- Last year our school friends said that someone had found one of the largest and best truffles ever! It was on sale for $100,000! It was like the Hope Diamond of truffles!
We had a marvelous times looking at the truffles under glass (like one would view expensive jewelry), watching the truffle hunters explain and offer a sniff of their truffles, and of course enjoying the truffle dogs around the tent. We also thoroughly enjoyed meeting the family members offering wine tastings of their special wines. Being the nerd that I am, I think next year we will try to get there earlier to attend some of the lectures about truffles, and perhaps I will even sign up to participate in a truffle hunt! It’s about 150 euros for 4 people, I think. Like fishing, I suppose, they can’t guarantee that we’ll find one, and unlike fishing, I don’t think you can take the truffle home with you (unless you pay a pretty penny). The prices of the truffles I saw ranged from 150 to 500 euros. We didn’t buy one, but I think it would be fun to get a 300 eur0 one and split it among 10 people. You’d have to buy the truffle slicer too, but what fun would it be to actually take one of these home and try it! I suspect after a week of all things truffle, you’d get sick of it. But how cool would that be?
The day was loads of fun and we will definitely be returning next year!