I was standing on the terrace of Palas Cerequio, once a series of farm buildings, today a small, elegant hotel on the outskirts of La Morra in Barolo, Piemonte.
The view in every direction was of the vines that make this region so appealing, while beside me Pio Boffa, who makes Pio Cesare wines, explained what we were looking at. As he did so, he confessed that he loves his food as much as his wine, so the conversation soon moved on to the region’s other key crop, the white truffle – far more expensive than any Barolo wine.
“The winemaker and the truffle hunter don’t actually want the same from nature. The more rain there is, the better the truffle harvest – but the more difficult the wine vintage,” Boffa explained, adding: “But as 2013 has been the wettest spring for 45 years, an excellent truffle vintage should be some compensation.” We’ll have to wait until the October/November harvest to see if he is right.
Fifty years ago, Boffa recalled, it was mostly Germans and Swiss who would drive down for truffle season, whereas now demand is truly international. Similarly, the prospect of cooking with white truffles, with their heady, earthy aromas, has attracted many talented chefs over the past 15 years. There are, Boffa concluded with pride, far more excellent restaurants in his vicinity than ever before.
But great food does not necessarily require expensive ingredients – as was shown by our first dinner, cooked by Gian Piero Vivalda at Antica Corona Reale, a long-established restaurant in Cervere, near Bra.
In fact, the delight in Vivalda’s menu came from the flavours he cleverly extracted from the accompanying ingredients. There was the verdant purée of chard with the slices of roast quail; the unusual combination of rice and diced cabbage inside golden ravioli (obviously made with a generous quantity of egg yolks); and, best of all, a thin cake of potatoes from the small mountain village of Entracque, with a succulent veal shank. When I asked the waiter for the recipe, all that I could decipher was that it was a laborious process that magically encompassed nothing other than two simple ingredients: those highly regarded potatoes and lots of butter.
Potatoes proved to be the unlikely connection between this meal and a dinner at Piazza Duomo in the centre of Alba which was as remarkable for its originality as for its location.
The small restaurant, whose single dining room has only eight tables, is located on the first floor of a building that had been three apartments until 2005. Since then it has been home to Enrico Crippa who, unlike most top chefs, finishes his dishes from a “pass” halfway down the kitchen rather than by the exit to the restaurant.
I can report on the absolute precision of Crippa’s kitchen because we occupied a table for two that is occasionally squeezed into his tiny office, which has glass walls on three sides. The views of the two-man pastry section to the right, and of 10 other chefs weaving around each other to the left, were totally absorbing (although how Crippa fits in the three extra chefs he has to recruit during truffle season I cannot imagine).
This vantage point allowed us to watch the preparation of multiple plates of small dishes that emanate from an ambitious chef like Crippa. And while a couple tipped their hat to elBulli, most incorporated inexpensive ingredients such as marinated turnips, small artichokes and diced porcini mushrooms grown in Crippa’s garden and enhanced by colourful herbs and flowers.
An exciting menu led us to four fascinating dishes. There was the potato connection in a creamy potato soup with a quail’s egg marinated in lapsang souchong (in winter this comes with the odd slice of white truffle); an “egg and egg salad” incorporating lettuce leaves topped with grated, marinated egg yolks and Italian caviar and bottarga (mullet roe); a pink risotto, finished with chopped flowers and prawns; and a combination of prawns and cherries whose colours would have delighted any artist. We drank a 2009 Arbarei, made from Riesling grapes by Ceretto in the Alta Langhe for €35, from a wine list compiled by sommelier Mauro Mattei.
I waited until Crippa had put the finishing touches to two plates before passing on my compliments on his kitchen’s creativity. He smiled modestly before replying, “Grazie, but it still all depends on me being the first in here every morning and the last to leave.”
More columns at www.ft.com/lander
Antica Corona Reale