My first view of the "trifolao" was somewhat disconcerting. I wondered how this gray-haired gentleman, who definitely fit into my age category, could keep up with his dog as it ran helter-skelter through the dense, hilly woods.
The goal of the chase was to locate a type of underground fungus that literally can be worth its weight in gold. Scant minutes later, panting and straining to keep up, I realized that years of following his dog have kept the "truffle hunter" in top-top physical condition.
The opportunity to join a hunt for white truffles – and to sample them in a local recipe -- was one attraction that persuaded me to visit the Piedmont (Piemonte) region of northwestern Italy. Others included its lovely landscape of gently rolling hills blanketed by vineyards planted in perfect rows, and tiny towns that have surrounded imposing stone castles since Medieval times. Adding to the appeal are an enticing history, and the fact that Piemontese food and wine, while perhaps not as well known as other world-famous cuisines, should be.
Italy's northernmost province aptly derives its name from the phrase ai piedi del monte (at the foot of the mountains). Indeed, the towering peaks of the Swiss and French Alps are often visible. While many locals are loath to concede so, the outstanding cuisine of Piedmont – and, perhaps, the focus on preparing and enjoying good food – have been positively influenced by the proximity of France.
The area's history also came under the spell of that neighbor. The Romans were the first power to control the region, and ruins of Roman structures from city walls to wine cellars remain scattered about. Parts of the area much later were annexed to France, only to return to the control of the House of Savoy. That dynasty came to reign over Piedmont early in the 11th century, and its rule was extended to much of present-day France during the following 900 years.
A good home base for traveling throughout Piedmont is Alba, known as "the town of 100 towers." That claim, always somewhat hyperbolic, dates back to a period of prosperity in the 12th-13th centuries. Noble families competed to build ever-taller fortified towers to both demonstrate their wealth, and protect it from attack. Today, only four of the original structures retain their original height, but the name sticks.
Alba also is interesting for relics of its 2,000 years of history. Among these are portions of the ancient city walls and drainage system, fragments of frescoes and other remnants of Roman rule. The town hall and several imposing churches stand as reminders of more recent Medieval times.
The sense of moving through history also extends outside Alba. Life slows down measurably as you traverse the rolling countryside. The scenery becomes etched in the mind's eye like a series of paintings.
Roads wind through tiny towns, in places so narrow that when two cars meet, one has to back up to a wider spot so the other can pass. Stone buildings line cobblestone streets. Church steeples rise above a sea of red tile rooftops as if gazing out at the surrounding view. Many a hilltop is capped by an ancient castle, whose massive walls and turrets recall times of past grandeur.
Yet each town has its own unique appeals and stories to tell. Visitors often are attracted to Serralunga d'Alba as one of only 11 villages where Barolo wine may be produced. Many connoisseurs rank it, and Barbaresco, as Italy's most prestigious red wines.
A good introduction to this noble red is available in the villa and historic wine cellars of Fontanafredda, which has been producing wines since 1878. Several casks at the winery bear a small plaque with a royal coat of arms, indicating that they were used for aging favorite vintages of Italian royalty.
The town of Grinzane Cavour, and castle of the same name, also have a strong wine connection. The castle's sturdy square tower was part of a small fortress that was built during the 12th century.
Among several exhibits there, the Regional Piedmontese Wine Cellar is of special interest. It showcases and offers tastings of the area's best wines plus several grappas. Also intriguing is the Masks Room, whose soaring ceiling is painted with portraits, crests and – of greater interest to me – fantasy monsters and allegorical creatures that range in countenance from droll to macabre.
One claim to fame of Cherasco is the fact that Napoleon Bonaparte's called it "le plus beau coin d'Italie." Even those who may not agree that the town is "the most beautiful corner" of that country can appreciate the original star-shaped Roman bastion, and the Medieval architecture that abounds.
Elegant porticoed arcades protect pedestrians from sun and rain. Sumptuous palaces include the Palazzo Salmatoris, where the Savoy family spent many a summer holiday. A graceful "Triumphal Arch," which was built in the middle 17th century, was donated by a citizen in thanks because the plague that wracked the region in 1630 spared the citizens of Cherasco.
Anyone who travels to Italy's Piedmont region is sure to leave with an appreciation of the importance of both wine and food in the lives of its people, and probably with a few extra pounds as well. Cheese and truffles – especially white truffles – hold a place of honor on many a dining table, and in the local culture and cuisine.
Cheese-making is hardly new to the Piedmont. Writings of Pliny the Elder, the Roman scholar who lived in the first century A.D., referred to cheese production in the region. Many farmers and small producers make cheese following traditional family recipes, which often call for a mixture of milk from cows, sheep and goats.
A visit with a so-called "cheese hunter" turned out to be one of the more unusual experiences of my trip. Gianna Cora described the local tradition of "maturing" cheeses by wrapping them in various kinds of leaves to both preserve and flavor them. Leaves employed for this purpose range from chestnut and fig trees to cabbage, cauliflower and other vegetables.
Gianna reported that he had gathered and used some 110,000 chestnut leaves alone during the 2005 production season. (I didn't ask how he knew.) Explaining that about three dozen of his neighbors share this unusual profession, he claimed – without embarrassment at the pun – that he is recognized as "the Big Cheese" among them.
Vying for unique appeal with participants in Gianna's unusual profession are the truffle hunters, referred to above. To appreciate their role in Piemontese society, one needs to understand the importance of the unimpressive looking fungus clinging to roots of oak, poplar and other trees that is the object of their endeavors.
It's not known who first had the curiosity, and courage, to unearth and sample a misshapen clump of underground tuber that has become accepted as a delicacy. What is documented is that truffles were mentioned in many historical documents, and continue to play an important role in the life and culture of the area.
Rare white truffles, greatly prized by restaurants and enthusiasts throughout the world, can bring up to $1,500 a pound to those lucky enough to find one with the perfect size, aroma, taste and other qualities. Because I was not in Italy during the fall hunting season, Gianna and his somewhat nondescript dog named Lady did not come across any keepers. Even so, the energy and expertise with which both traipsed through the woods – one scampering about and sniffing the ground, the other pointing his hoe-like cane and whispering a constant stream of directions and encouragement – couldn't help but hold the interest of those following behind.
The variety of ways to prepare and serve truffles is restricted only by a cook's imagination, but my out-of-season introduction was limited to a few thin slices grated over a dish of noodles. I enjoyed the slightly musky, mushroom-like odor and taste. At the same time, I concluded that the reputation, and almost mystical place in gastronomy, accorded the rather unattractive but extremely costly underground fungus are based at least in part upon an acquired taste.
For information about truffle hunting or tasting, or enjoying the other attractions of Italy's Piedmont region, contact the Italian Government Travel Office at (212) 245-5618 or www.italiantourism.com.