Today, as the Boston Red Sox stand on the verge of their second World Series title in four years, it’s get away day for us. After 13 days, our trip is coming to a close and we are bound today from Piemonte to Lombardia, a few hours to the north, where we will set up camp for two days before taking a short drive to Milan’s Malpensa airport and our long flight home. But just like the Sox, we do not plan to coast home. There is much work to be done before claiming the trophy.
We awake to another beautiful day in Pollenzo, the small hamlet about twenty minutes from one of the commercial and cultural centers of the Piemonte, Alba. This is the second day of nice weather after a stretch of cold drizzle, and it feels like business as usual for we seasoned Italian travelers. In fact, one of the great advantages of travel in Italy is a high likelihood of great weather.
Our itinerary today is fairly simple. We will drive a couple of hours to Erbusco, a small town on the other side of Milan from where we are, not far from the city of Brescia. There we will return to a favorite destination of our, the Albereta, a luxury hotel and, more recently, spa, located in the Franciacorta wine district about an hour from Milan and an hour and a half from Malpensa Airport. We have stayed at the Albereta on a couple of occasions for some last minute relaxation before returning home, but our return flight on Wednesday is so early that we will pull up stakes and spend our last evening at a hotel that is a shuttle bus ride from the airport. This time our itinerary includes two days at the Albereta simply to relax and to discover and enjoy the property in a way we have been too rushed to do in the past.
Along the way to the Albereta we plan to stop in Alba to experience the white truffle festival. This annual event, which takes place on weekends during the truffle season between September and November, is written up in all of the guidebooks and websites, but we want to experience what it is like, how the locals really perceive all of the hoopla about truffles and to enjoy the sights and smells of this celebration.
Before checking out of the Albergo dell’Agenzia we arrange to borrow a couple of bikes from the hotel for one last excursion. We have picked up a map and guide the evening before and it speaks of a long bike trail along the Tanaro River that is flat and easy to navigate. We get the keys from the concierge and unlock a couple of bikes, old and uniform and a far cry from the 24 speed bikes we have used to ascend to Fiesole and Torgiano. These single speed bikes remind me more of the clunker I had growing up, right down to the coaster brakes (there are also hand brakes included). We set out from the hotel’s parking area and park, which includes some excavated Roman ruins, and cycle to the main square in front of the Albergo. Travelling by bicycle, especially on this extremely easy, flat terrain, is relaxing and a great way to see scenery that we have missed from the car. We take a spin around the village of Pollenzo, getting a good look at the Gastronomic University and a couple of inns and restaurants that we had not previously seen, and then point our cycles toward the countryside.
The path remains completely flat and a real joy to traverse. The promised path along the Tanaro River turns out to be too difficult to reach, requiring us to bike along the main highway, a narrow two lane road, for a couple of miles before reaching the bike path. We opt instead, then, for a meandering country road that takes us through a number of farms (with “attenti al cane” – beware of the dog – signs warning us not to come too close) and through groves of tall trees that are blazing with fall colors. In all we bike for about an hour before returning our bikes and getting in the car, our bottoms aching from the bicycle seats and ready to experience the world famous Alba white truffle fair.
The center of Alba is not easy to reach by car. There are numerous traffic circles and sharp curves, piazzas and one way streets. Even with Marky Mark, which tells us exactly where to turn (missing the fact, on occasion, that we need to go three quarters of the way around a traffic circle rather than simply turning left, which would be a catastrophe), the driving is particularly tough today. During the white truffle season the center of Alba is transformed into a great outdoor party, with the truffle festival taking place indoors in a building in the center of town. After fighting traffic for a while we find a parking space near the center, worrying slightly whether we will be able to find the exposition center.
The answer turns out to be simple. Simply start walking and within moments the crowd will sweep you along with them, a human torrent that will surely carry you to the truffle festival. We join this wave, disembarking occasionally to check out the stands that are lined up along the street, selling torrone, nuts, candy, souvenirs and all manner of cheeses, meats and fungi. Along the way a number of booths are selling white and black truffles which are displayed in plastic or glass cases to keep away unwanted hands.
We make our way to the entrance of the exhibition hall and get in line to pay our €1 admission charge. Italians, who have never proved themselves particularly adept at standing in single file lines (an obviously an Anglo-Saxon invention), jostle and maneuver for any advantage to be the first in line to buy a ticket and then stand in another line. We play their game, subtly throwing elbows and shielding any ingress with our bodies. At last we reach the front of the line and pay an additional €6 each for a ticket entitling us to a red wine and spumante tasting, and our fee earns us a free wine glass and holster which ties around your neck. Everyone else inside the exhibition seems to have done the same, for everyone has a piece of cloth hanging from his or her neck with a wine glass tucked inside it.
Even before entering the exhibition hall it is clear that the featured item here is truffles. While there are only a dozen or so truffle exhibitors here, each of them at booths and tables arrayed along the central portion of the hall, the aroma of truffles is as unmistakable as it is powerful. As we enter the hall we see hundreds of gawkers, most with wine glasses around their necks, but most of them are not examining the truffles. Indeed, the truffle market apparently opens early in the morning when most of the serious commerce in truffles takes place, access limited at that hour by invitation only. At this hour any riffraff can enter and the tables are crowded with dozens of curiosity seekers, gourmands and a few home chefs who wish to get a bargain on a truffle. Bargains are possible here, as the prices are as low as one can find. We, too, are interested in buying a truffle, even though we will not have our own kitchen for the remainder of the trip. We have learned during our truffle cooking class several days earlier, however, that we prefer black truffles to the white. This is quite fortuitous for us, as white truffle prices this year are at an all time high, reaching somewhere in the range of $5,000 per kilo. Black truffles, particularly the summer truffles which are available at this time of year (we actually preferred the black prestige truffle, the tuber melanosporum, but Suzy reminds me that these are not currently in season) go for a fraction of the price and we buy a nice one with a good perfume, slightly smaller than a golf ball, for €9. It is put in a paper bag and handed to us and we guard it like Brinks delivery men.
The rest of the two hours we spend in the market is devoted to sampling cheeses, tasting wines (the wine glass necklace comes in very handy) and talking with producers. We find our conversation with a wine producer called the Scuola Enologica, or wine school, particularly interesting. The representatives in the booth are young college aged kids who are enrolled in the school which is located in Alba, and who learn the art of winemaking through producing the winery’s various vintages. We try a couple and they taste fine to our untrained palate. We buy a bottle of the school’s Dolcetto for the princely sum of €4.
We return to our car, a couple of hours drive to Erbusco ahead of us, hoping to make just a brief stop for a snack. We find an open table on the sidewalk outside a trendy bar on the Piazza Savona which we had spied on our way to dinner a few nights earlier and order an assortment of cured meats and cheeses along with a couple of glasses of wine. The wine arrives quickly but the cheese takes nearly three quarters of an hour and grumbling, we wolf it down, realizing that once again we will arrive at our destination after dark. The drive to our hotel takes a little longer than anticipated and, as expected, we arrive around 7:30, once again in the dark.
One of the reasons we have returned over the years to the Albereta, in addition to the total comfort and luxury of this Relais & Chateau property, is a fond memory of a most entertaining evening spent many years ago at the hotel’s restaurant, run by Italy’s most famous super chef, Gualtiere Marchese. When we booked our room for this trip, however, we had been notified that the restaurant would be closed for Sunday dinner and all day Monday, the exact time we would be there. Planning ahead we have purchased a high end picnic dinner for our room at the truffle festival – a fresh loaf of bread sliced into thick pieces by the baker, a brick of fresh butter and our black summer truffle, which I slice into paper thin slices with a truffle slicer that we have purchased at the exhibition. It is a sinfully wonderful treat. In addition we have bought a couple different cheeses, some truffle salami and have saved some of the meats from our snack in Alba. So, saddened by the knowledge that we cannot dine at the Marchese restaurant, but buoyed by the prospect of a dinner of truffle sandwiches, we tuck in to a delicious feast, the powerful scent of truffles filling the room and we eventually drift off to sleep, but not before setting our alarm to wake us a few hours later to watch what may be the final game of this year’s World Series.
The Albereta, truffles and the possibility of a Red Sox World Series sweep. Life doesn’t get much better than that.
Bill and Suzy