We awake to a cold, damp drizzle this morning, our first full day in the Piemonte region, having checked into our hotel near midnight the evening before. Our hotel, the Albergo dell’Agenzia, is located in Pollenzo, a small hamlet near the town of Bra and about a quarter hour from Alba
, the principle city in this area, and an hour and a half from Milan. We have come in search of white truffles, the mysterious, delicate fungus which grows wild in this region and which gives it its common name, the white truffle of Alba.
This is white truffle season and the town of Alba celebrates the short season, which runs from September through November, with an annual truffle festival, highlighted by the truffle market at which prize specimens are displayed, gawked at and bought and sold. This will be our destination in a couple of days (the festival takes place on weekends), but today we have arranged to go on a truffle hunt, following a professional, licensed truffle hunter through the woods in search of these delicacies, a dog or two tracking them by their powerful scent. On a previous trip to this area we had attempted to go on a truffle hunt, but rainy conditions forced the truffle hunter to cancel. As we look out the window at the drizzle this morning we get a sinking feeling that a similar fate awaits today’s excursion.
“So sorry, Signor Menard, but your truffle hunt has been canceled,” the clerk at the front desk tells us as we head to breakfast. With these words, we slough off the breakfast room, disappointed but also looking forward to some free time in this magical part of Italy. Besides truffles, the Piemonte is famous for producing hazelnuts which have been a catalyst for developing the chocolate industry here. Anyone who has slathered Nutella on a piece of bread knows just how good chocolate and hazelnuts can be together. We have previously toured the area, visiting one of our confection producers, Cuba Venchi, from the far southern portion of this region. But the candyman will have to wait until our next trip.
If this area is known for one thing, if it has an international reputation for any one product, it is wine. The hills of the Piemonte produce some of Italy’s best wines and a look at the map reveals two small towns on either side of Alba that signify that greatness – Barolo and Barbaresco. This is how we will spend our day.
After taking care of some business we get in our car and begin the short drive to Barolo, about twenty minutes from our sanctuary in Pollenzo. The road snakes along a valley that is flanked with steep hills, covered with row upon row of grape vines. Everywhere the eye can see there are grape vines, which are bare from harvesting earlier this season. On this drizzly afternoon the fading leaves produce a slightly melancholy mood and as we arrive in the main square of Barolo the town is desolate and quiet. We park our car and wander about this small town whose name is synonymous with wine greatness. As we stroll down the streets we pass a number of small cantine, or wine shops, mostly run by the wine producers themselves and, naturally, featuring their particular vintages. We are looking to taste a number of different vintages to get some sense of the differences between them and to discover what make a Barolo a Barolo.
We find what we are looking for in the regional enoteca, situated in the center of town. The single large room features bottles of Barolos from many of the region’s producers, displayed by year, hundreds of bottles each with its own distinct label covering much of the walls. Recent vintages for sale are stacked in racks along another wall and toward the end of the room there is a desk behind which a woman is serving tastings of three vintages for €6. We pay for two tastings and are poured Barolos from three different areas in the DOC zone, each area characterized by different soil characteristics which are reflected in the character of the wines. The woman does her best to explain these differences and to answer our questions, which are many, but strangely she seems ill equipped to do much more than pour the wine into our glasses. We sip and swirl, but do not spit, trying not to appear too much like Paul Giamatti’s character in Sideways. The wines, all of which share the same basic recipe of one hundred percent nebbiolo grape, aged for a minimum of two years in wooden barrels, are delicious and quite different from one another. We compare our impressions and write notes, attempting not to seem too pompous or full of ourselves. In the end we agree that we like all three wines because, simply, they taste good.
Before leaving the enoteca we wander around a bit more, trying to learn what we can about this internationally acclaimed wine. But despite the producers’ investment in this education center, it is difficult to learn much. The place just does not seem to be set up or staffed sufficiently to guide amateurs such as ourselves through a journey of discovery. There are no magical “aha” moments here, and if any light bulbs go off in our heads they are the tiny flickers of a nightlight. On the whole the regional enoteca is a disappointment.
We wander into a few of the cantinas run by wine producers and sample a few more wines. Here the manager gives us some useful information, but in each case we are able to sample only the wines from that producer. What this town needs, we begin to feel, is some sort of institute where they can teach Wine 101, running visitors through the basics of wine production, having them taste a range of wines discussing each one and providing some objective frames of reference for evaluating them. Instead, we are left on our own to teach ourselves and we are proving to be both poor teachers and students.
But we at least are trying. We wander the empty streets of Barolo looking for a simple bar where we can get a glass or two of wine and perhaps a plate of cheese or salami when we wander past such a place. Behind the counter are a couple of young girls with piercings through various body parts and tattoos peeking out of uncovered places. They know something about wine, however, and when the bottle we ask for is out of stock they suggest a comparable substitute which is rich, complex and much appreciated. Suzy is in heaven when she sees a dozen different cheeses in a refrigerator case by the front counter and we order a plate of assorted cheeses to go with our wine. A few moments later one of the girls delivers us a plate with eight or nine cheeses, each one distinct and full of character and each one worthy of being displayed in the fine cheese section at our local Whole Foods. It is simply amazing how the extraordinary can be the ordinary here in Italy and especially in Piemonte. We down a bottle of Barolo and a plate of cheeses that would have cost us well over $100 back home. Here it is served by two punk rockers in a hole in the wall bar for one fifth that cost. The disappointment of the regional enoteca is now officially a thing of the past.
We return to the Albergo and get ready for dinner, which the hotel has arranged for us at the nearby (in fact, attached) restaurant Guido (Via Fossano, 19, Pollenzo, tel. 0172.458422). We know little about the restaurant other than that we should be impressed at having got a reservation and what little we have learned from the internet. We are suffering from food exhaustion and general exhaustion, but are looking forward, with some slight regret, to our first white table cloth meal of the trip.
The dinner does not start off too well. We call the front desk to ask them what time our reservation is for and they cannot or will not respond directly, replying that we “can go now, if you please.” We interpret that to mean our reservation is for now or that we are already late, so we hurry across the courtyard to the doorway the front desk clerk has pointed to. Outside the door a small sign says, simply, “Guido.” We try the door and it is locked. We look through the window and can see one or two people in a cavernous room and wonder if the restaurant is even open. We try another door and then another, in all testing and coming up wanting four times. Thinking this must be the back entrance we exit the gates of the hotel complex and walk down an unlit street until we enter another driveway. This is the real back entrance, and the kitchen and wait staff’s cars are all parked here.
We return through the compound gate toward the doors we had previously tried and notice a buzzer on the gate. We ring it in hopes of asking someone to open the door, but instead the gate lock is disengaged and no human voice responds. We walk back to the entrance doors and a waitress wanders by and looks us up and down through the window. She opens the door, but does not allow us to enter, asking us if we were “reserved.” Although we are generally pretty outgoing we reply yes and she escorts us into the cavernous room we could glimpse from outside. There are maybe a dozen tables in this room, several set for large groups, and only two of the tables are occupied as we are shown to our table. Within moments all types of staff, fashionably clad in black, begin to rain down upon us, bringing us a basket of “paper bread,” large sheets of paper-thin flatbread and an enormous basket of assorted breads and breadsticks. Now that we have found a way inside this culinary fortress and put to rest any fears that we were unauthorized intruders, the horde of staff warms up to us and it is pretty obvious that they are going to do anything and everything to ensure we have an enjoyable meal.
And they succeed with flying colors. Simply put, the food here is as good as anywhere we have eaten in Italy. The atmosphere is not what we have come to love and expect here, as we generally opt for simpler, family run trattorias over fancy white tablecloth places, but this is a place that is at once elegant and completely comfortable. Within a half hour all of the tables have filled up, and we begin to suspect that reservations are made for a table, which is at your disposal at any time. There are no seatings and the tables are not turned over during the evening. So perhaps that is why the hotel did not respond when we asked them at what time our reservation was.
In addition to wonderful, attentive service, the food is great. We start with a complimentary tasting of pumpkin soup, garnished with pumpkin seeds and a meatball. An unusual combination for sure, but you can’t beat the price. The waiter, who looks like a combination of all of Hollywood’s leading men and seems to know it, runs us through a menu where every other entry is a spin on some traditional Piemontese dish, none of which are in our culinary vocabulary. Suzy starts with cardi con fonduta, an unusual vegetable we had come across in the fresh food market in Bologna that looks like giant celery but tastes like a cross between celery and artichoke hearts. She asks to have added, and receives a generous portion of white truffle, which Russell Crowe shaves onto her dish table side (he gives me a slice as consolation). I have a local dish called capunet, which is a rice and vegetable mixture served in a folded up cabbage leaf. It is outstanding. For our primi, we each have a seafood pasta, Suzy’s a maltagliati pasta and mine a tortellini. Our waiter has suggested a very nice white wine, a Gavi, whose light acidity goes perfectly with the seafood. We are amazed at the wine prices, which for the whites are all under €20. For our main courses we again opt for seafood, Suzy going with a mixture of grilled shellfish while I get the “scampi, gamberi and company,” which is lightly fried. All the while we are transfixed as much with the trendy dashing about of the waiters and the tables of beautiful people who periodically excuse themselves en masse to smoke outside, a welcome new law prohibiting smoking in restaurants. The effect of this restaurant is mesmerizing and when the first dessert comes (a complimentary assortment of sweets and a traditional chocolate dessert called bonet) it is well after midnight and tables are only now beginning to empty. An hour later we pay our bill, finish off our grappa and head back to the hotel, which is only a few paces away. On this rainy day in Piemonte we have filled the void of the cancelled truffle hunt with wine and food and we fall into bed, waking only once or twice to check the score of the World Series, and looking forward to another day in this interesting region.
Bill and Suzy