On the Truffle Trail in Northern Italy

The prized fungi aren’t the only gastronomic gems to sniff out in the vine-covered hills of Piedmont’s Langhe region, where elegant red wines and full-flavored Italian cuisine await.

Vineyards outside the village of Serralunga d’Alba. (Photo: Stefano Valeri/iStock)

“Ye Lizzy ye! Ye Lizzy ye!”

The only sound in the woods was Natale Romagnolo calling to his chestnut-haired dog, Lizzy. She was running through the fallen leaves, sniffing at the bases of the oak and hazel trees where she’s dug up truffles before. Romagnolo, a fifth-generation trifulau (truffle hunter), walked with a cane in one hand and a pick-like zappino hooked to the back of his belt, never letting Lizzy from his sight as she followed her nose, furiously searching for the earthy, garlicky notes of the food world’s most precious fungi.

Suddenly, the dog stopped and started pawing at the rich, dark soil. Our host, who is in his early 70s but still runs truffle tours from his house in the hills of northwestern Italy’s Langhe region, hurried over, pulled her back, and chiseled through the dirt with his zappino until a pale-yellow form began to peek through. Ever so carefully he excavated the golf ball–size fungus and held it in his palm for us to behold. It was an Alba white truffle — tartufo bianco d’Alba — a notoriously expensive delicacy with an aroma so intoxicating that it was once deemed by the Catholic Church to be a food of the devil. Under a cloudless October sky, we tramped back to Romagnolo’s terrace to consume it — with no thoughts of repentance — shaved atop fresh robiola cheese with oil-soaked bread and some Barolo wine.

Truffle hunting dogs with their master in the forests of Langhe. (Photo: Andrea Cairone/Unsplash)

Here in the bucolic Langhe area of southern Piedmont, the rolling landscapes are laced with vineyards, topped by medieval villages, monasteries and castles, and cut through by rushing rivers. Think a more pastoral, less touristic version of Tuscany, with fields of lazily grazing livestock and a food culture all its own. The people of the Langhe have long cooked truffles in their eggs and produced two of Italy’s most complex and distinguished red wines — Barbaresco and Barolo — from the native nebbiolo grape. Together with the neighboring hills of Roero (birthplace of the Slow Food movement) and Monferrato, the region has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site for its vinicultural traditions. It’s also home to no fewer than 11 Michelin-starred restaurants, attracting travelers whose mission it is to do nothing more than dine on some of the world’s finest foods, imbibe equally lauded wines, sleep, and repeat.

On one night, I meet a friend from Alba — the region’s main city — in the tiny village of Barolo, which, given the fame of its namesake wine, I assumed would be something of a production center. But it charmingly turns out to be little more than a clutch of winding stone streets crowning a hilltop with a central square, a few wine bars, and some unpretentious restaurants with only a handful of tables nestled inside.

Ravioli del plin with butter and sage at Easy Così restaurant in Barolo. (Courtesy of Easy Così)

After a requisite aperitivo of locally distilled vermouth (whose invention is credited to an 18th-century distiller in the Piedmontese capital of Turin), we headed to a little place called Easy Così for a dinner of local classics. An antipasto of vitello tonnato (thinly sliced veal cloaked in tuna sauce) was followed by primi of lasagna with truffled cheese and tortelli filled with finely ground Fassona beef, then a secondo of more veal stewed in Barolo wine, and finally a hazelnut-chocolate bonet, which is similar to panna cotta, only creamier. As we ate, my friend rattled off a list of other Piedmontese specialties I had to try: salsiccia di Bra sausage; eggy tajarin pasta; veal tartare with beetroot; the intense garlicky anchovy sauce bagna cauda that’s served hot like fondue with vegetables for dipping; and anything involving nocciole delle Langhe, the area’s vaunted hazelnuts, which appear in everything from bonets and gelato to nougat and pasta flour.

“And don’t forget the truffle menus,” she winked as we sipped our limoncello, served with the bill and always on the house. This time of year, she explained, many restaurants will have four-course tasting menus designed specifically to showcase the tartufo bianco, often pulled fresh from the soil hours before.

The next day, following my nose like Lizzy the truffle dog, I drove along winding hillside roads, past vineyards ablaze in autumnal reds, yellows, and oranges, to the walled town of Monforte D’Alba. Here, at the top of a hill stacked with pastel villas, a 13th-century bell tower stands guard over a grassy amphitheater where the celebrated Monfortin Jazz festival takes place in the summer months, attracting stars from Gal Costa to Ludovico Einaudi to Gilberto Gil. Down in the town square, I settled in to a wine bar to watch the comings and goings. The sommelier insisted I try a Barolo made on a hill just nearby. Rich, rounded, and fruity, it was splendid — which was how I ended up at the cellar of the Raineri winery the following day.

Harvesting nebbiolo grapes in the vineyards of Serralunga d’Alba. (Photo: Andrea Cairone/Unsplash)

My friend from Alba had warned me that wine tastings at Langhe vineyards are not the chichi, impromptu affairs they are in places like Napa or Bordeaux; winemakers here could even be downright grumpy if you showed up at a busy time. Luckily, my visit to Raineri coincided with the end of their harvest, and the two people running the operation — hired by the original trio of owners — were as eager to partake in a tasting as I was. Eight fine wines were opened and a platter of cheese and bread was served alongside a long, chatty lesson on what makes Langhe wines so extraordinary. I learned about the region’s rich clay-marl soils and about winemaking traditions that stretched back to the days of the Roman Empire. I also heard the story of the Barolo Boys, a group of young maverick winemakers who introduced a series of technical innovations in the 1980s. For one, they began aging their wines in French-oak barrique barrels, a move that scandalized Italian winemakers but elevated the region’s production to international acclaim to the point that Barolo is now often hailed as the “king of wine.” I left with a box of six bottles.

Pastina con il formaggino with white-truffle shavings enjoyed at the 2021 Truffle Fair in Alba. (Photo: Gabrielle Lipton)

While Langhe is undeniably beautiful in autumn, the main reason to visit at this time of year is for the white-truffle season, which runs from late September through December. The ultimate celebration of the region’s culinary treasure is the annual International Alba White Truffle Fair, a multi-weekend event that has been held in and around the historic center of Alba since 1929. It attracts gastronomes from around the world with its cookery workshops, wine tastings, assorted cultural programs, and — at center stage — a truffle market where buyers and sellers haggle over the precious fungus, which sells for an average of US$4,570 a kilo.

On the day I attended, I spotted Natale Romagnolo — this time wearing a fine Italian suit — serving as a truffle judge. He gave me a small wave before returning to his fungus-sniffing, and I headed to one of the fair’s gourmet lunch demonstrations. Over the course of an hour or so, chef Giuseppe Iannotti from two-Michelin-starred restaurant Krèsios in Campania cooked a favorite dish from his childhood: pastina con il formaggino, made with melon seed–shaped pasta and fresh formaggino cheese, and finished with parmigiano and olive oil. The rustic simplicity of the meal, Iannotti said, was to give more attention to the white truffle, which he shaved generously atop each bowl as sparkling wine from a local vineyard was poured into guests’ flutes.

“Gastronomy is faith,” the chef said as we closed our eyes and inhaled the aromas. It was all I needed to hear to confirm my belief that I’d be back in Langhe someday.

 

The Deets

Getting There

The town of Alba, the gastronomic heart of Langhe, is an 80-minute drive from Turin and two hours from Milan.

Where to Stay

Set on 42 hectares of vineyards and forested slopes, the new terra cotta–hued Casa di Langa (doubles from US$530) has 39 contemporary rooms and its own truffle concierge.

Truffle Tips

Two-hour truffle tours with Natale Romagnolo can be booked through lacasadeltrifulau.it. This year’s International Alba White Truffle Festival runs from Oct. 8 to Dec. 4.

 

This article originally appeared in the March/May 2022 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Treasure Hunt”).

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