Alba Truffle Fair - photo A DraycottIsola dei Pescatori, Lake Maggiore - photo A Draycott

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This article about our Piedmont Vineyards & Lakes tour appeared in the prestigious Ensemble Travel Group's March 2010 issue of Ensemble Vacations Magazine.

Truffle hunting and discovering the pleasures of the ltalian table on a walking romp through Piedmont

by Anita Draycott

"It’s hard to believe that the nugget resembling a knobbly potato that a dog has just dug out of the ground is worth a fortune. But then I take a whiff. How can I describe the heady aroma? ls it earth, musk, garlic, honey, hay? Whatever it is, it’s intoxicating. We've discovered the elusive 'white gold' of Alba. And the hunt has just begun.

I had booked myself on a gourmet romp of the Piedmont area of northern ltaly with Italian Connection. And today I can tick off truffle hunting from my list of things to do before I die.

Seductive and mysterious, truffles were thought to be an aphrodisiac by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Their exorbitant price (up to $6,000 per kilogram) is due to their unpredictable growth habits and the fact that no one has been able to cultivate these fungi, which grow in a symbiotic relationship with the roots of oak, hazelnut and poplar trees. Normally a truffle hunter, known as a trifulau, works alone, never divulging the whereabouts of his truffle troves. In fact, canines have been poisoned and kidnapped for ransom in this dog-eat-dog quest for diamonds in the rough. But thanks to our guides, Peter Blackman and Daniela Bigatti, trifulau Ermanno Scaglione has agreed to lead us through the forest at Castelgherlone, a wine estate outside Alba.

Truffle hunting - photo A Draycott

Just as the funghi and tree roots have a special relationship, so do Ermanno and his adorable mutt, Mara.

Aspetta,” calls Ermanno after Mara unearths another truffle. She obediently waits until he exchanges the nugget, about the size of a golf ball, for a piece of kibble.

Ermanno explains that it took about three monthe to train Mara. By putting some bits of truffle in her food she acquired a taste for them and now associates that taste and smell with food. Ermanno than taught Mara to fetch balls scented with truffles. Eventually, he buried the balls deeper and farther away.

Originally pigs were employed to hunt truffles but they were too hard to train and often gobbled up the prize before the trifulau could lay his hands on it.

It takes about three months for winter white truffles to mature, at which point their spores release that addictive aroma from beneath the earth. Often the truffle hunter and his dog have their best luck early in the autumn evenings, when the cold air keeps the scent close to the ground.

After about two hours of tromping through the woods, Ermanno’s pockets are full. We head up to his friend Luca Tosello’s winery for some sips of Barbera, Dolcetto and Nebbiolo vintages, a picnic of cheeses liberally sprinkled with truffle shavings and salami also infused with the pricey funghi.

Ermanno shaves the truffles - photo A Draycott

The coveted tartufo bianco from the Langhe region, considered the finest in the world, inspired Alba’s annual fall truffle fair, now in its 79th year. Later in the afternoon we followed the throng along Via Vittorio Emanuele making its way to the Palatartufo, the fair’s market, where you can buy whole white and black truffles, robust wines from the region, mountain cheeses and all manner of gourmet items infused with truffles, from olive oil to sea salt to ravioli. Admission is two euros: 10 euros if you want a glass with which to sample the many wines.

You can literally follow your nose to the Palatartufo as the unmistakable truffle aroma wafts from the entrance and mingles with the smell of chocolate from the nearby Ferrero Rocher factory.

Alba’s White Truffle Fair, from October to mid-November, includes cooking competitions, outdoor markets and charity auctions. I’m told that the donkey palio is hilarious, unlike its serious horse race counterpart in Siena.

The grand finale to our truffle binge was dinner at a country inn where it’s possible to B.Y.O.T. Indeed, Peter who had purchased about €300 worth of white gold from Ermanno, turned the bounty over to the chef. The raw truffles were presented on a bed of uncooked Arborio rice in the middle of the table. We passed them around and, using special truffle slicers fitted with stainless steel blades, shaved liberal portions over a local sausage with creamy sauce, porcini risotto and scrambled eggs. Yes, it was a once-in-a-lifetime indulgence.

Thankfully, each day included a 6- to 15-kilometre walk to counterbalance our intake of remarkable food and wine. Leaving Alba, we tromped through vineyards and up to the town of Barbaresco for a wine tasting and lunch. Most of us napped in the van while our guides drove us to Lake Orta and its medieval cobblestone village, Orta San Giulio, where we had plenty of free time to explore the town or take a boat over to lsola San Giulio, known as the lsland of Silence and dominated by a baroque basilica. That night we were treated to real home cooking. Chef Lilli used to run an excellent restaurant in Orta that our guides frequented. However, because she'd closed her restaurant and was in the process of seeking a new location, Lilli invited our group to her mother's house for porcini risotto, beef braised in Barolo wine and silky panna cotta.

Going on an authentic truffle hunt and dinner at a friend's home are just a couple of examples of what makes ltalian Connection tours unique. Founder Anita laconangelo seeks off-the-beaten-track trails and experiences. High above Lake Orta, for example, we followed a series of mule paths to an idyllic spot by a stream where Peter had laid out a picnic of local cheeses, cured meats, olives, fresh bread and a chestnut cake.

On the last day we hiked up the Monte Mottarone and took a breather at the top to photograph the spectacular views of Monte Rosa, the tallest peak in the Swiss Alps, and lakes Maggiore and Orta shimmering below. From there we rode the funicular down to the shores of Stresa on Lake Maggiore. Early in the 1900s Stresa became a stop on the Grand Tour for wealthy Brits and Europeans. Not to be missed is a boat ride over to the aptly named lsola Bella (Beautiful lsland) where a palace complete with fantastic baroque gardens filled with statuary terraces of perfumed tropical plants and strutting albino peacocks was built for Count Borromeo. Here, nothing succeeds like excess.

Isola Bella, Lake Maggiore - phoyo by A Draycott

We began our final evening with cocktails at the Grand Hotel des lles Borromees, which must be just as palatial now as it was when Ernest Hemingway used it as his setting for a romantic tryst in A Farewell to Arms.

For dinner Peter and Daniela found a quaint trattoria up in the hills that was once a tram station. Over plenty of robust Piedmont wine and a multi-course feast, our group exchanged addresses, toasted our superb guides and discussed various strategies on how to cram all of our souvenir bottles of wine, grappa and truffle oil and packages of dried porcini mushrooms, pasta and Arborio rice into our luggage. I think of them as training aids for my next romp through Italy. After all, Anita recommends that the best way to prepare for one of her authentic adventures is to "get out and walk, eat pasta and drink wine." Those are marching orders I can follow with great gusto.

Go to the Piedmont Vineyards & Lakes walking tour page.

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