Piedmont’s capital, Torino, is better-known as an “industry” town than as a place to visit for great food, wine, art, and architecture. Torino, along with nearby Milan, was the epicenter of Italy’s industrial revolution in the 1950’s, home in-particular to the country’s largest auto-maker, Fiat. But thanks in-large part to the prosperity created by its industry, Torino is an elegantly clean city that may be one of the more underrated food towns in northern Italy. Pastry and coffee here exist as particular specialties, and the city is known for its grand, often very ornate coffee bars. Torino is also home to the biennial Salone del Gusto, a specialty-foods smorgasbord organized by Italy’s Slow Food Organization.
But for the hard-core wine-and-food fanatic, Torino is simply a place to get started before one heads to the vine-draped hills of Alba.
In the region of Piemonte, there are at least twenty great towns drenched with the culture of food and wine that are specific to each of the hills or valleys that they are situated. But, the one that, to me—says the most about the spectacular, and yet simple “vera cucina piemontese—” is the small hamlet of Alba.
Asti has the more-beautiful market and Barolo has the name, but it is in Alba where the white truffle achieves its maximum exposure. This is clear most obviously on Saturdays during prime truffle season throughout October, November and December in the Mercato del Tartufo, where truffles are sold over a long, square table to tourists from Germany and Switzerland, as well as the odd gastro tourist from anywhere else. I have always preferred the regular daily truffle business, often reminiscent of the daily weed exchanges in Washington Square park, where old guys in hats stand around the piazza around 9 or 10 in the morning, except Saturday or Sunday, and chat with the local restaurant guys or merchants from the neighboring towns, occasionally pulling a brown bag out of their pocket to show a prospective client the stash and then haggling over the price. It is a true market economy with the price fluctuating from day to day depending on the size of the take and the perceived demand.
Truffles have never been successfully cultivated and are born of the climactic conditions of the spring and summer before their season in from October thru January. The quality (size) of the harvest is dependant on many things, the most important of which is the presence of enough moisture in the soil, derived from a nicely moist late spring and summer, combined with a not-too-windy or desiccating September, which could dry-out the soil too quickly for the noble, swollen root to expand. With great conditions, it is still an uncertain science and truffles are never cheap.
The truffles are served having been shaved raw, sliced paper thin with a mandolino, over every type of dish, most often onto the simplest of pastas, eggs, polenta or delicate braised meats. With this, the truffle maximizes the intense fragrant and yet, evanescent perfume of the king of tubers. A plate of local tajarin and butter with truffles can easily cost around one hundred smackers. So buyer, beware when they offer truffles at the table without discussing the price tag! Local restaurateurs assume that everyone knows the price of the rare, soil-born diamonds.
The town of Asti sits just fifty-five kilometers east of Torino in the middle of the northwesterly region of Piemonte. People have lived in the Asti area since before Roman times, and sections of the ancient city walls remain. Construction in the late-20th century uncovered a section of Roman wall in the center of the city. Along the ancient Via Francigena, medieval parish churches and abbeys are beautifully preserved.
Asti is home to the Palio di Asti, the oldest bareback horse race in Italy—even older than that in Siena. The town also hosts the Festival of Festivals a week before the Palio each September. During the festival, the towns in the province of Asti converge in the Campo del Palio and offer their best-known food-stuffs to one another.