We would just miss the start of the White Truffle Festival in Alba by a few days. To be clear, a mushroom grows above ground, while a truffle (same family) grows underground. In this case, on the roots of oak, linden and hazelnut trees. These days dogs rather than pigs are trained to sniff them out. Prices below are 35 Euros per scratch and 400 Euros per hectogram (about 3.5 ounces)!!An aside: Many years ago Mike and I once paid $18 each for scant shavings of white truffle on risotto at an Easter dinner gathering at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay, California!!
The festival originated in 1928 and over the years became renowned internationally for this fabulous smelling and tasting white truffle (or bianco tartufi in Italian). It is 80% water and the rest minerals and fat. The event is capped off with a live auction of the most prized and expensive morsel found. Invited only guests, renowned chefs, and celebrities attend. Proceeds are donated to philanthropic organizations. There is also a cooking award and a person is designated White Truffle Ambassador of the World. Those names would not be announced until the end of the festival though.
But this weekend was all about the pre-kickoff to the festival with the Palio degli Asini (or race of the donkeys). It is a take-off on the Palio di Siena, where jockeys representing their neighborhoods race horses bareback through the Piazza del Campo in Siena. That race is over in about 90 seconds and is taken very seriously with much training to qualify as a jockey.
Here we saw colorful flags hanging from balconies proclaiming neighborhood loyalties. Music groups (mostly drumming) paraded down the streets yesterday and today wearing neighborhood colors and skillfully tossed those matching flags. They DO take it seriously in spite of the hilarity of the situation.
At 10:00 we walked to the main square where donkeys were corralled ready to be assigned to neighborhoods by a pick from the hat. Some looked more enthusiastic than others and some downright lazy, flopped on the ground. Numbers were painted on there hindquarters. Jockeys and on-lookers surrounded the corral evaluating the situation.
There were lots of opinions, pointing, and sizing up of these asini, but luck of the draw would decide the fate of each neighborhood donkey candidate. Sighs or roars arose when a neighborhood and donkey were paired up. I imagine some "training" would occur between the lottery and the start of the race at 16:30.
At noon we boarded the van and headed to the quaint village of Triesa and La Ciau del Tornavento restaurant (click here to read more) for lunch. Name means something like "key of the returning wind" as best I can figure. The building itself was converted from a former post office.
When we walked in I thought I was on an elegant Hollywood movie set. Everything--floor to ceiling glass walls on three sides, staff impeccably dressed, polished table service, glass-covered cheese cart--were rich and picture perfect. We sat at a round table and a dozen courses began, pretty much each with a new bottle of wine to share.
Our hosts today were Chefs Maurilio Garola and Cecilia Monte. They came to our table to greet Chef John as though they were old and dear friends. Lunch lasted three hours and each course was a fabulous surprise in presentation and taste.
Some of the courses included: cheese souffle with peppers, shrimp with fried squash blossoms, bruschetta topped with fried onions, beef carpaccio, a soup with white truffle shavings and par-boiled egg, spinach ravioli in straw nest, polenta with veggies and scallops, wild baby strawberries on panna cotta, a selection of little pastries and sweets, a couple more I can't remember, and then a pick-me-up espresso.
This sounds like a lot of food, but helpings were small and timing leisurely. We were definitely full when we left, but not overly stuffed. After our meal we walked about their grassy terrace overlooking hector after hector of varieties of grape vines. There was also a huge steel artsy sundial in 24-hour clock mode. Not enough sun for it to work today, but still beautiful.
A vault filled with the most valuable wines.