The International Alba White Truffle Fair, or Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco di Alba, attracts tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world every year. For over 80 years, the elusive Tuber magnatum Pico has lured visitors to this Langhe town in the autumn.
From October to November, Alba trades in the sweet scents of Nutella (it's the hometown of the decadent chocolate-hazelnut spread) for the heady, tantalizing aroma of the truffle, or tartufo.
We’re not talking about the chocolate truffle, which, in fact, took its name from the tartufo due to its lumpy appearance. The original truffle is a hypogenous fungus, or underground mushroom, that grows in symbiosis with the roots of oak, beech, poplar, and hazelnut trees. Several species of truffles exist, such as the Black Summer Truffle (Tuber aestivum), also found in Piemonte; but the Alba White Truffle is the rarest of all. In fact, it is actually the second most expensive food in the world, after edible gold leaf. It can fetch up to tens of thousands of dollars per pound.
The Truffle's Value and Prestige
At the Alba White Truffle Fair, only truffles that have been hunted in the Langhe, Roero, and Monferrato are available – territories where hazelnut groves and poplar trees grow diffusely. It’s the perfect land for this “white gold” of the earth, and the reason for which the international fair is held here. Indeed, the fair’s prestige and renown is felt throughout the world. Each year, the prize of “Alba White Truffle of the Year” has been awarded to an important guest. In the past, this honor was given to Rita Hayworth, Alfred Hitchcock, Francis Ford Coppola, Penelope Cruz, Marilyn Monroe, and Sofia Loren, among others.
But what makes a mushroom such a high-end product? The secret lies in their rarity and bewitching aroma and flavor, a combination that makes the truffle the prize that it is. Truffles are neither cared for nor cultivated. Enterprising folk have tried creating truffle “farms” without luck. These mushrooms can only be found, or “hunted,” by trained trifolao and their canine partners. In the past, truffles were hunted by trained pigs, but now it is more common for dogs to be trained for the job (pigs are too reluctant to give up their prizes).
The Hunt, the Fair, and the Auction
The best period for truffle hunting typically runs for four months from autumn until mid-winter. The calendar for legally hunting for truffles varies each year, and the information can be found online. For example, this year truffle hunting runs from September 21 to January 31. Calendar on www.regione.piemonte.it
At the International Alba White Truffle Fair, each truffle specimen has been quality-tested by a committee of experts that exists solely for the safeguarding of truffles. If this sounds extravagant, just think: would you be okay buying an expensive gold necklace, just to find out it’s fool’s gold, or marred? In fact, a National Center for Truffle Studies even exists, which has outlined the criteria for selecting a top-notch truffle and defined the acceptable aromas. And let’s not forget the University of Truffle-Hunting Dogs.
According to the National Center for Truffle Studies, the aromas that may be present in a truffle include: fermented, mushroom, honey, hay, garlic, spices, damp earth, and ammonia.
The optimal quality of the truffle brings us to the great Truffle Auction held at the Castle of Grinzane Cavour. In November, the biggest, best quality truffles are auctioned. In the past, buyers have come from all over the world – in person or connecting in with a conference call – including Singapore, Hong Kong, South Korea, Paris, Indonesia, and Japan. They may be industry owners, celebrities, investors, important restaurateurs and winemakers, or private buyers. In 2013, the auction’s record lot of two Alba White Truffles weighing in at a total of 950 grams sold to a private buyer from Hong Kong for €90,000. Proceeds go towards charity.
You've bought a white truffle...now what?
Don’t let the truffle’s price and prestige intimidate you. At the Fiera, there are plenty of smaller specimens that are completely affordable to the traveling foodie. But once you have secured a precious truffle, how can you be sure to do it justice?
First of all, eat it as soon as possible – within a week or up to about twelve days after its harvest (ask the trifolao when it was harvested). It loses water weight, aroma, and flavor as time passes. Store it in a closed container, wrapped in a paper towel.
Second, its delicate sensations will best be highlighted when eaten raw and shaved as thinly as possible over simple dishes. Do not peel it. Traditional plates include over risotto, eggs, or buttered fresh pasta. For example, the Piemontese fresh egg pasta tajarin is fabulous with white truffle; warm Fontina cheese fonduta, or fondue, is incredible infused with truffle; carne cruda or beef tartar topped with white truffle; soft-boiled, baked, and poached eggs pair wonderfully; or something a little different, like purple potato and garlic soup with white truffle. Some specialty cheeses will be speckled with truffle, and tartufo-infused extra virgin olive oil is heavenly when drizzled over pasta or toasted bread with a pinch of salt. In Alba, even gelato al tartufo is available during the Truffle Fair.
Finally, this is the time to break out the fine red wine. The goal with pairing wine with white truffle is to mediate the truffle’s scent that at times recalls sulfur. Look for a wine that can hold its own with the enthralling truffle aroma, yet not overwhelm it. For the so-called “king of the table,” no other wine would be better matched than the “king of wines,” Barolo. Barbaresco is just as highly recommended, as well as other Nebbiolo wines of Piemonte, whose complexity and elegance enhance the truffle. As for a white wine, look for a medium to full-bodied one like Gavi or Timorasso, both excellent choices.