Sure Alba has it’s gothic towers dating back to the 12th century. Yes, there really isn’t anthing else than can match the easy European charm of the town, some 75km south or Turin in Piedmont, with it’s wonderful rustic food, wines and cobbled ancient streets.
But really the whole point of Alba is its white truffles, the white tuber magnatum pico or Alba truffle, the magnificantly musky, earthy scented tuber that is harvested from October to December each year. It is at this time that they are at their most aromatic intense. And whatever anybody tells you the smell of an imported one will never match that of one straight from the ground.
So important is the white truffle - or tartufo bianco as it’s known locally - to Alba that each year that it has its own festival from 4 October to 9 November in 2008. It is around this time each year that truffle aromas start to waft through the town’s narrow streets as truffle hunters or trifulau arrive to sell their harvest.
It is no coincidence that it is around this time of year that busloads of tourists also arrive in town and crowd the streets. And it is a scientific fact that one in eight of them (mostly men) not even able to taste truffles properly. But few people will admit this disability simply because they would be spoiling the celebration which involves eating, drinking, exhibitions, theatre, marching bands, flag-waving troubadors, medeival games and all the pomp and circumstance you’d expect in this princely region.
Most are here to watch as well as shop. But not all truffle sellers are licensed and inevitably there are rogue operators that will pile the prized Alba next to similar looking but inferior variety. All but experts can tell the difference. This is why on Saturdays well-healed tourists crowd into the indoor truffle market which is open from 8am to 8pm with its “Truffle Quality Commission” which will check the weight and quality of truffles.
The outdoor Sunday market is more of a local affair, where the tubers are individually displayed in small plates or on foil pie cases. Inevitably, they are also traded furtively from the boots of cars leaking the heavenly aroma and reassuringly containing electronic scales.
Much of the appeal of the festival nowadays is commercial. Shops sell all manner of truffle paraphernalia including special truffle collecting bags, brushes to remove earth from truffles, truffle slicers and branded junk.
And as with many exotic foods the attraction to truffles is sexual. Truffles grow symbiotically in the roots oak, hazel, poplar and beech. Traditionally they were sniffed out by female pigs, who would also eat them, because the truffle smell mimics a sexy pheromone excreted in the saliva of male pigs known as androstenol, mimiced by a sulphurous compound known as 2,4-dithiapentane. Nowadays trained dogs are a safer investment.
The black of Piedmont truffle, which sells for $2,000 plus a kilo, is also found in the region. But it is thought to be inferior to the white truffle which sells from $3,000 a kilo and more.
During the truffle festival, on November 9 this year, prized specimens are auctioned to celebrity chefs and five star international hotel chains for charity in the grand Castle of Grinzane Cavour which dates back in parts to the 13th century. It was during one of these auctions that In December 2007 a 750g twin Alba truffle, discovered by Luciano Savini and his dog Rocco, sold for about $230,000 to a Hong kong-based bidder.
Fortunately, for the rest of us - or at least seven out of eight of us - only a few tens of grams are needed to be shaved onto pasta or a white risotto for an aromatic, memorable meal.