Since buying my first white truffle a few years ago from a restaurant supplier based in Holland Park, London, I've spent a bit more time than I should thinking about Alba, a small town in Piemonte, Italy. Mostly I've been thinking about being in Alba in truffle season, which kicks off in the first week-end of October.
I am rather fond of Michelin Starred chef Giorgio Locatelli's rather chunky book, Made in Italy Food and Stories. Reading its section on white truffles did not help keep me focused on more pressing matters. Locatelli vividly recalls travelling to Alba with his grandfather each year to buy white truffles, which were promptly handed over to his grandmother to shave over her specially prepared family meals - they were not for the family restaurant back then.
As if you're not already jealous enough of Locatelli's childhood, he walks the reader through the colourful town square of Alba, full of stalls where the trifolou (the truffle hunters) set out their weighing scales and their white truffles, mysteriously wrapped in cloths; the haggling and the dirty deals over the price; and the great ceremony with which the best truffles, always hidden from the gaze of the fair, would be presented to buyers with serious money.
In October 2007, central Alba remains very beautiful and colourful: flat cobblestone streets, the odd church, lots of enotecas and tiny restaurants, plenty of shrinking men happily watching the tourists through their cigarette smoke and espressos. There are a few brave trifolou standing behind stalls in the main squares of the town. However, the white truffle fair has kicked on quite a bit since Locatelli and his grandfather were here - the bulk of the trifolou now show their truffles in a temporary indoor area which has about as much charm as Canary Wharf's O2 Arena.
The giant photos of Sophia Loren holding knotted off-white moonrocks the size of tennis balls to her daintily inhaling nose on the outside of its entrance make aliens homesick and tease cocaine users. Indoors, the burly trifolou, the smokey men of the mountains with their broomy mustaches, muddied boots, thistled socks and earth covered fingers selling their truffles in such a vast, white, and clean space look slightly odd. A bit Mickey Mouse on ice skates for the first time.
The indoor arena was not not just for the trifolou and their truffles - other vendors were seducing the tourists with bags of the popular tajarin pasta (which works well with shaved white truffles), cheeses, salamis and every other Italian food product that one could imagine.
Earlier that morning we'd been warned by some locals that the white truffle fair had become a bit of a trap for unsuspecting tourists. "Not many good white truffles so early in the season. Too dry", they said. "Lots of the truffles at the fair will not yet be from Alba, they're so expensive and all the decent truffles go to the restaurants. We eat our truffles later in November, when the fair is over and the tourists have gone."
Undeterred, V and I happily strolled about smelling at very close range lots of the truffles on display, but didn't end up buying any. Some of the white truffles were much better than others, but in general they were a bit more delicate and less pungent and musky than we'd been hoping for.
In attempting to describe the giddy scent of white truffles, something I readily admit is not so easy to do, Locatelli says: "If life could be described as a smell, then it's the smell of truffles. They smell of people and sweat. They just remind me so much of human beings; that is why I love them." I don't disagree with him. After an hour or so with the whiff of truffles in the air I was hungry. And I wanted to dine on a crowded backpacker bus passing through a barnyard in the height of summer.
Last Sunday night, 80 cashed up people paid US$5000 per head for a fund-raising meal at Charlie Trotter's in Chicago prepared by seven of the world's greatest chefs, including Ferran Adria, Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, Tetsuya Wakuda and Pierre Herme. Blumenthal's dish was razor clams, sea urchins, three different type of seaweed and edible sand (made from tapioca and ice-cream cones) served with Ipods concealed in large seashells. Guests donned headphones and ate the dish to the sound of waves crashing on the seashore. Perhaps the sounds of the crowded summer backpacker barnyard bus will make it on to Blumenthal's Ipod during white truffle season. Fun, yes, but not quite the romance of the crashing waves on the seashore.