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Posts Tagged ‘Piedmont Italy’

Renato Agnello has been a truffalato for 67 years, hunting the elusive white truffle as his father and grandfathers did for generations before him. He was trained by his papa, starting at the age of six, here in the oak and hazelnut woods of northwestern Italy. Today Renato is demonstrating how he and his dog, Gigi, go searching for the underground fungus that looks like a knobby rock. It can sell for thousands of dollars a pound and adds a distinctive, subtle, earthy flavor to foods.

While we stroll the leafy woodland, Gigi sniffs here and there, gets excited at one spot, then turns away. Whatever her sensitive nose picked up, it wasn’t a truffle. I ask Renato why hunters don’t use pigs; aren’t they known for finding truffles? Yes, but it seems that pigs find them both delicious and sexually appealing and can go into frenzies when they root them up (who knew?) So here is Gigi, a dog  with presumably no erotic hopes, bounding through the woods.

Piedmont is the region best known for white truffles, and the town of Alba is where they’re most celebrated. Every October and November, the Truffle Fair draws visitors from around the world to taste, buy, and join in hunting expeditions. Virtually every restaurant serves white truffles, sliced or in sauces. The more common black truffle is usually cooked, but white truffles are often eaten raw, thinly shaved over pasta, risotto or a cream or meat sauce.

Searching for truffles is the secret work of autumn nights, with hunters jealously guarding treasured spots.  Renato says that truffles are becoming harder to find, as vineyards replace woodlands in this top-quality wine region. He remembers the cabbage-sized truffles his grandfather found; those big ones are very rare these days. But now Gigi is digging frantically at the base of a tree, so we hustle over and Renato reaches a hand in the hole. He pulls out a truffle no bigger than a pea, the only one he gets this afternoon.  Gigi’s happy–she did her job and expects a treat. We do too, in a local restaurant that serves truffle bits on a tasty veal dish.

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In a 13th century castle in Italy, I’m savoring hazelnut-crusted veal garnished with truffle shavings while being served by smiling waiters who praise my attempts to speak Italian and keep pouring red wine in my glass. Could anything be more sublime? No. At least, not until dessert arrives.

The imposing stone castle is Grinzane Cavour, set on a hill above acres of vineyards in the Piedmont wine country of northern Italy, and the restaurant is Ristorane al Castello. Its owner/chef Alessandro Boglione, who’s been here since 2009, has earned a Michelin star for his creative ways with cookery, but his prices are lower than you see at many starred restaurants. (That doesn’t mean it’s in the low budget category, however.) Local farms provide most of the ingredients. Appetizers of the day might be Jerusalem artichoke tart with Raschera cheese and black truffle cream or smoked duck with grapes and Grand Marnier-flavored tomatoes. Pastas range from veal tail-filled agnolotto on savoy cabbage and candied ginger to wild fennel lasagnetta with mountain snails and pecorino cheese.  Definitely creative.  A main dish could be suckling pig with apple puree, salt cod in cream, or, my choice, the veal with hazelnuts and truffles.  Featured wines are from the region’s great wineries. Then there are the desserts: warm hazelnut cake, coconut foam with chocolate and curry cream, and mine, bunet con pesche sciroppate. That roughly translates as chocolate pudding with peach syrup, which doesn’t begin to describe how luscious it is, rich melt-in-the-mouth chocolate under a drizzle of light peach sauce.

Ristorante al Castello is only part of the immense castle. Floors above it hold displays of traditional tools, handicrafts, and furnishings, and below is an enoteca (bar/tasting room/sales room). Every November, chefs worldwide come to the castle for the White Truffle Auction. That’s when the best of white truffles sell for sky-high prices.

I’m already looking forward to my next fine meal at Grinzane Cavour, along with  a taste of superb wine, a glimpse of history, and the pleasure of being in the vine-covered hills of the Italian countryside. The restaurant is closed Tuesdays and the month of January.

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