On the trail of the truffle

Italy offers an abundance of food fairs, almost as varied as the country's cuisine the greatest of them all is the Piemonte Truffle Fair

For a few short weeks, as summer turns to autumn, the north of Italy teems with food fairs. People flock to both tiny village celebrations and grand affairs in historic cities, but especially to the city of Alba, capital of the Langhe region in Piemonte, for the three-week Truffle Fair (5-21 October).

For a few short weeks, as summer turns to autumn, the north of Italy teems with food fairs. People flock to both tiny village celebrations and grand affairs in historic cities, but especially to the city of Alba, capital of the Langhe region in Piemonte, for the three-week Truffle Fair (5-21 October).

Alba is surrounded by gently rolling hills and, in autumn, the myriad red, yellow and orange hues offer a perfect backdrop to the festivities. Inside the city, the flags of the nine quartieri that make up Alba are flown. Longstanding neighbourhood rivalries come to the fore in the traditional Donkey Palio, which dates back to 1275 and is held on the first Sunday of the fair.

But while riders in medieval costumes steer their charges around Piazza Cagnasso, the truffle, in both its black and white forms, holds centre stage at the truffle market on via Vittorio Emanuele. The market is held in a large marquee, with the various sellers setting out their valuable wares for all to see and smell. It is this almost narcotic aroma, with its distinctive, earthy fragrance, that hits you as soon as you step inside. Along with the prices, that is; dependent on the vagaries of the pre-fair weather, prices can top £1,400 per kg for the white truffle and £160 per kg for the black truffle. Little wonder, then, that the colourful band of trifulao, or truffle-hunters, sell their hard-won prizes with such enthusiasm.

In one corner of the marquee, to reassure even the most hesitant buyer, there sits a quality-control section, complete with microscopes and electronic gadgetry. Here, the visitor is guided into a small booth, in which half a dozen white truffles from around Europe are displayed in jars. The visitor is asked to open and smell each of the jars, and decide which is the Piemontese truffle – a fairly easy task, as the aroma of the rival truffles is completely out-classed by those found in Piemonte.

At lunchtime, the small, stand-up bar at the back of the marquee serves various truffle-inspired dishes, including ravioli con tartufi, eggs with butter and slices of truffle, and fresh truffle tagliatelle. And, depending on the depth of your pocket, a few extra slices of truffle can be expertly served using a wooden tagliatartufi.

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