As the wheels hit the ground and shook us awake, we looked out of our tiny window flaps to catch a glimpse of a small runway with sprawling greens over rolling snow-capped hills, above which the clouds floated like the sentry. We had arrived in Turin, the capital of Piedmont, but our stay was short-lived as we were headed to Alba, the wine, truffle, gastronomy, and cultural capital of the region.
As we boarded our bus and headed towards the Autostrade (highways), the sights became further captivating. The bright green turfs, creeks flowing in between, cattle grazing lazily, and countryside houses dotted the horizon through the ride. As we turned from one highway onto another the soothing visuals were not only alluring but also playfully enchanting. And so it went, gently swayed by the motion of our transport but more so moved by the scenery we were passing through, we were approaching our destination where some welcoming wine bottles were sitting in an ice-bath waiting for us eagerly.
Alba is known for being a touristic town: after all a town that has stood steadfast and witnessed the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, a change of hands between the French and the Spaniards and the two World Wars surely has tales to tell. Once called the ‘city of hundred towers’, some of the buildings in Turin date back to the 14th century. These towers have stood guard, sturdy and reliable since they were built, protecting the city during the numerous wars and keeping its people secure. Today this past weaves into the fabric of the present-day and the intermingled city lives on, old, sometimes even a bit battered, but ever alive.
Walking into the city centre of Alba is an experience unto itself. Stony high-rising castle-like walls and slim alleys with the grace of over centuries still kept alive are signs of the culture that the city still celebrates and wishes to stay with. It is a harmonious blend of the old and the new. The centre in fact is a small square called Piazza Savona which houses many small cafes and gelaterias. During the summers, visitors crowd the place as flea markets animate the atmosphere. By noon the sidewalks are parked with people, sipping from round-shaped wine glasses filled with a garnet-hued glittering Campari aperitif, a local favourite, made from a herb-flavoured bitter and sparkling wine. The marketplace may otherwise fail to impress with its dining options but it does have a Michelin-starred restaurant in its heart at Piazza Risorgimento called Ristorante Piazza Duomo. The dishes here are a treat to the palate as well as to the eye. Chef Enrico Crippa is the homegrown hero in local gastronomy having been rewarded with two Michelin stars in 2012, a highly rated accolade in the culinary world, and the only one in the region. His virtuosity of capturing the best of local ingredients and transforming them, through his skills and knowledge, into an edible masterpiece has been appreciated by a swarm of critics and endorsed both by international media and the cognoscenti. What is interesting here is the production of classic dishes with delicate touches, all enhanced with cooking techniques and a complexity of flavours bound together in effortless harmony. Not only is it a sin to miss this while in Alba but is definitely worth a special journey even if not in the region. If you wish to be a little more adventurous, head out and make a drive to small hamlets in the region and try local restaurants there serving meals worth Michelin stars, or take a dive into a local trattoria to see the family kitchens. Cantina dei Cacciatori in Roero is an Italian dhaba serving home-style dishes made using only the freshest of seasonal local ingredients while Il Boscareto in Serralunga d’Alba is a luxurious treat. Il Centro in Priocca D’Alba is a blend of the two, serving classic dishes prepared in a modern style. Which one captures your fancy is only to emerge once you have had a go at each.
Hazelnuts and Alba are synonyms much like Vatican City and the 16th Chapel. Their crunchy texture on the palate with the discerning release of sweet nutty flavours will make you close your eyes and think of the yards they’re sourced from. I must admit that I indulged rather extravagantly on this local snack while on this trip and my waistline holds proof to this date. The tradition of these nuts is so strong in the area that Italy today is the second largest producer in the world. At the edge of the city centre is the giant production facility and the birthplace for the most-known chocolate company in the region, Ferrero Rocher. The aromas of hazelnut and milk chocolate can be sensed from afar. It is almost a soul-call to visit the facility and see these delights being produced. Nutella spreads and Frangelico liqueur are other ways of enjoying this addictive nut but the best and the most accessible mode is hazelnut gelato. Coming back to the city centre, do make a halt at Zucherro Gelateria and try their gelatos. If not, it’s easy to spot a crepe station freshly whipping out some mouth-watering Nutella crepes.
Alba has been an agricultural state and owes most of its attraction to it. Wines, truffles, and asparagus are other local delicacies that have been the key contributors with wines leading by a huge margin. Wines in Alba, or for that matter in Italy, is not a beverage but a way of life. Alba is the hub for wine-drinking with areas of Asti, Barolo, Barbaresco, Dogliani, Ghemme, Gatinara, and Gavi surrounding the place. Winemakers here are always approachable and can share tales about their winemaking principles and experiences with a big smile and are always generous with an offer of a sip of their favourite vino. A stroll in the vineyards is relaxing after all the shopping and walking in the city, and standing amidst the vines, enjoying nature at its purest. And then, you give in, picking a grape and crushing the berry between your teeth to release that priceless juice from them which, in only half a decade, will turn into wines that can age for years and mark an evening as a memory of a lifetime, Such bonhomie can’t be captured by a mere cameras.
Nebbiolo is the varietal that dominates most of the area and Barolos and Barbarescos are the two boastful wines that are produced from it. Barolos are the masculine avatar while Barbarescos are the more feminine version. These reds are a great pair, and they sit comfortably well on the dinner table besides a preparation of duck breasts, chunks of a well-aged and charred steak, or even something as simple as grilled chicken. Asti, neighbouring Alba, is the hermitage of a varietal that’s playful and light-hearted, called Moscato. It is simply impossible to not like this varietal in its semi-sweet, semi-sparkling, low alcoholic version, called Moscato d’Asti, which wittingly amongst locals is also called ‘the perfect breakfast wine’. It has the charisma of bringing out the adolescent in you, drawing at the sweet slurps with a wide smile. If not the reds or this sweet drop, then turn towards the only white wine that has the highest designation amongst wines (DOCG), from the town of Gavi, conveniently also called Gavi. If you get lucky to find seafood in the region don’t think twice to order a bottle of this crisp fruity sip and create some gastronomic magic.
Towards the end of October – early-November is the season that draws the connoisseurs and gastronomes to the region for a different reason from that of history, hazelnuts, or even wines. The city smells of a different aroma and the hills are this time surrounded not by viticulturists but sniffer dogs, hounds, and their owners. Amongst the most prized and luxurious of ingredients in a kitchen is an ingredient with dense aromas, musty appearance, and an unparalleled taste. Truffles, as they are called, belong to the family of fungi and are regarded as a rarity and thus call for the highest bids for their best versions. White truffles of Alba are like French caviar and the best of the breed for a season, are reserved for the elites – the chefs who come to buy from the world over. The land that rejects cultivating good vines homes great truffles, that’s the general belief and has lived from its birth. It is a sight to see masters chasing their super-sniffing dogs running in the yards and forests spotting the best of these delights. These dogs are trained to detect the truffles buried up to 10 feet underground, and they scratch at the mud to bring them out to and deliver them to their masters. And all that effort just to receive a treat as a reward. The master then polish off all the mud from the fungi and prepare them to be showcased in the regional markets to earn a price that is can be astronomically high for something that is edible and has a short shelf life. For an idea, Alba’s white truffles can go for as high as INR 9 lakhs per kilo and the smallest shred of it can lighten up a commercial kitchen with meaty aromas cherished by true connoisseurs and gastronomes around the globe. Not to mention, the delight of shaving it over a creamy risotto and letting it release its aromatic goodness on your palate is nothing short of heavenly, and in this matter no amount of hyperbole will ever surmount to over-emphasis!
To sum it up, even as I read what I have written, I find that inasmuch as I have conveyed my documented details of a truly wonderful trip, words will never quite convey the magic that is this marvellous region. The safest way to assure yourself of a good time is get a ticket and fly there. The French use the word terroir, which roughly translates to sense of place. They apply it to wines but here in this case it applies to every possible product that the region has to offer. Alba, Piedmont and Italy would be lacking if it weren’t for a combination of all these. I, for one, am already planning my next sojourn.