Is it Christmas Yet?
For many of us, we start thinking about Christmas almost as soon as summer is over. Halloween is just a hiccup. We spend a few days kicking around the fallen leaves, admiring the red and golden orange hues, wrapping up warmer and getting back into the rhythm of work. Before we know it we’re rushing about like madmen pushing through crowded streets and standing in long queues, as there is always that last-minute Christmas shopping to do.
While we go about our day-to-day with our heads stuck in the sand, there are other people who are living it up in these Autumn months. They are ordering steaming hot plates of buttered pasta with the most exquisite fresh truffles shaved over right at their table, filling the air with its intoxicating scent and melting over tongues as they deliver twisted forkfuls into their mouths.
They are getting up at the crack of dawn to gallivant through damp and lush forests, following a lively truffle hunting dog as he makes his own path through the thick undergrowth of tall oak and bushy hazelnut trees. They are laughing and listening to fascinating stories told by the truffle hunter, as he recounts the biggest and best truffle he ever found, or a funny story from his first days training his pup. They are opening a scrumptious bottle of Barbaresco red wine, or maybe it’s Barolo, as they snack on truffled salamis and cheese while savouring the views of the sunset reflecting off the imposing snow-capped Alps.
The White Alba Truffle
And why not you? In the Italian province of Cuneo lies a small town in Piedmont called Alba. Alba is really the centre of the entire truffle universe, as here is where the most exquisite and rare truffle grows. The white tuber magnatum is native to this region. Harvest starts around the end of September and lasts until December (that’s now!) The king of truffles, it has a distinct aesthetic, beige inside and out with white veins.
During the months of October and November, the town of Alba hosts an Annual Truffle Fair where you can enjoy some of the best and freshest truffles the world has to offer, or just watch as they get auctioned off at astronomical prices. The fair is really not to be missed, combining local festivities, culture, food and wine. The town is a delight in itself, part of the hilly Langhe region, where some of Italy’s best wines are from.
A week or weekend trip to Alba is a gourmand’s paradise, with ample restaurants, wine tastings and historic town centres to enjoy. Multiple hike paths will take you through the vineyards on incredible scenic journeys for walking off all that indulgence.
I visited the Langhe region about a year and a half ago in May, before I knew about the harvesting season in Alba (before I was a blogger!) I stayed in Neive, a beautiful hilltop town steeped in history and the perfect hub for visiting the neighbouring wine regions of Barbaresco, Barbera, La Morra and Barolo.
As my first wine tour, I sought expert tutelage from Robert of Travel Langhe, who lives in Neive with his wife Leslie. We spent two days touring the region together from morning until evening, meeting local winemakers, enjoying wine tastings, town visits, and leisurely lunches. This autumn my travel schedule takes me to India, but I hope to return next year for the Alba Truffle Fair.
Coming to an Italian Near You
Wherever you are, chefs and restaurateurs from around the world will be looking to get their hands on the white Alba truffle over the next two months. Now is the time to visit the best Italian restaurant near you and order up a plate of this exquisite delicacy. It will be expensive, but for such a treat enjoyed for such a short time of the year, I urge you to indulge at least once. By Christmas, the white Alba season will have come and gone.
Ding ding. Time for round two. When the Alba harvest ends, another important truffle harvest begins. The second most expensive and sought after truffle in the world is the black tuber melanosporum, also known as the Perigord winter black truffle. The best time to enjoy them is in January and February. Although it gets its name from Perigord in southwestern France, it also grows in Italy, known there as Dolce di Norcia, and is even cultivated in New Zealand.
You can experience a truffle hunt in France, too, while staying at a Relais & Chateaux hotel (for some interesting tidbits about these hotels see my recent post on Portuguese pousadas), dining on these seasonal truffles paired with fine French cuisine.
It’s Not All Black and White
The white Alba and black Perigord are indeed the top two, crème de la crème truffle varieties of the world. But it’s all a matter of taste (and budget!) Some people happen to enjoy more the flavour of the black winter truffle over Alba. There are also a few other types worth knowing.
France harvests the popular Burgundy tuber uncinatum truffle from September through December. The Spanish tuber brumale, for example, is one of the most abundant black truffles in Europe. The black summer truffle tuber aestivum is the least aromatic and tasty, commonly found in the warmer months. You can also go truffle hunting for the tuber aestivum around the beautiful Lake Geneva in Switzerland.
Given the subtleties in distinguishing between truffles, always ask about the type before buying. Last year I wrote a blog post called Truffles 101: Key Facts You Should Know, which goes into some greater detail.
Bucket List Goals
Truffles are extremely difficult to cultivate. Efforts have been made outside Europe, which helps supply truffles year-round, but Europe’s harvest remains quite unique. Due to their short shelf life, expiring after seven days and deteriorating in quality from the moment they are picked, truffles are definitely best enjoyed at or nearest to their source.
Truffle hunting takes place year-round throughout Southern Europe. However, for a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list-worthy experience, visit Alba before Christmas, or Perigord in January or February to truly appreciate this delicacy.
Featured Photo Credit: Eric Chan