The medieval Italian city of Alba attracts gourmet visitors throughout the year, drawn by the Barolos and Barbarescos made in the surrounding Langhe vineyards, the distinctive cuisine of Piedmont, and, above all, the unique aroma and taste of tartufo bianco. Alba is the unofficial white truffle capital of the world but nothing quite prepares even the most adventurous food lover for a visit to the famous Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco, which kicks off each year on the first weekend of October.
I arrive to find the town in the midst of what appears to be an extravagant medieval pageant, with locals excited by their annual palio, similar to Siena’s famous race but featuring donkeys instead of horses. Curious tourists seem more interested in a parade of local beauties competing for the sought-after title of Miss Tartufo.
These festivities continue over seven weekends, with numerous artistic and musical events, but the biggest crowds are always found outside the entrance to the fiera’s cavernous covered market, lining up in front of posters of celebrities – Sophia Loren and Luciano Pavarotti, Alain Delon and Giorgio Armani, Marilyn Monroe and Alfred Hitchcock – posing with the noble tuber magnatum pico during the 82 years of the festival’s history.
Taking my place in the queue I suddenly pick up the scent of white truffle wafting out from the market. Once inside, nothing can quite describe the intense, almost hypnotic, fragrance. At stalls running the length of market, the precious tubers are meticulously arranged by each truffle seller, ready to be sniffed, dusted and caressed, weighed and measured, before the all-important bargaining for the price begins. In France they boast of l’or noir, the black truffle variety, but Italians dismiss such claims, insisting that their own “white gold” truffles are superior and so justifiably more expensive.
Truffles thrive in damp conditions but the dry hot summer that preceded my visit last year sent prices soaring to more than €3,000 per kilo. Nevertheless, among the trays of tubers, laid out like gems in a diamond store, I notice some smaller specimens, enough for grating over a couple of plates of pasta, priced at a tempting €30 to €40.
As if this were a casino, the high rollers of the truffle world have their own private salon, an auction closed off to the public, on the last day of the fiera, with video links to buyers from Hong Kong, New York, Moscow, Tokyo and beyond. There are celebrity bidders too, who have previously included Hollywood stars such as Julia Roberts and Sharon Stone, and star chefs such as Wolfgang Puck. The stakes can get seriously high, with a single truffle fetching more than €100,000. Stanley Ho, the king of Macau’s casinos, holds the world record when it comes to truffles, spending $330,000 at a charity auction in 2010 for a large pair of white truffles.
For hungry shoppers whose budgets don’t stretch to whole truffles, there is much else on offer. I wander past dozens of stalls filled with truffle-flavoured salami and prosciutto, olive oil, and huge cheeses spiked with wafer-thin slices of tartufo. Right at the end of the market a huge wine tasting of Piedmont’s greatest vintages is taking place, led by flamboyant sommelier, Giancarlo Germano, who also doubles as the master truffle-grater for the tempting plates of tagliatelle, fried eggs and risotto coming out of the kitchen.
Truffle enthusiasts are drawn here from all over the world, and I find myself in conversation with a group of Middle Eastern bankers. They have ordered plates of plain pasta and are grating huge shavings of a large truffle.
They generously insist I take a plate too and, although I have eaten white truffles in many gourmet restaurants – at stratospheric prices – nothing has tasted quite as good as this stand-up lunch in the heart of truffle-land.
The Fiera 2012 runs every weekend from October 6 to November 18, www.fieradeltartufo.org