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robert brown

All about truffles

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While it appears that food capitals such as New York, London, Paris and Northern California are resting on their laurels or at best moving sideways, gastronomic life in Piemonte just keeps getting better. This, at least, was how it appeared to me just having spent another four nights in the region.

The cornerstone of my expedition was the recently opened hotel-restaurant Relais San Maurizio/Ristorante Guido da Castigliole in the town of Santo Stefano Belbo. Located about 20 miles due east of Alba, the town is in the heart of the Moscato producing area while the hotel is set on top of one of the many hills covered in vineyards. Formerly a monastery and then a private residence that dates from the 17th century, the Relais San Maurizio is the first tasteful, high-luxury place to stay at in all of Piemonte wine country. The sprawling property has been completely restored in restrained Rococo with period furniture, decorated ceilings, vitrines filled with small antiques, seven spacious and gorgeous public rooms, an extremely spacious subterranean dining room with a vaulted brick ceiling and 51 guest rooms, six suites of which are in an outbuilding and two next to a consecrated chapel in the main building. The junior suites we and our traveling companions booked were spacious, beautifully decorated, again with period furniture, and with awe-inspiring views over the vineyards and the amphitheatre hills that are a trademark of the Langhe. At 210 euros a night with breakfast, our four-night stay was value for money in the extreme. Nonetheless, we all had a few complaints: The hotel does not contain noise well (except between our two adjoining rooms) as we could hear a few late-night revelers banging on a piano below and laughing loudly. The beds were firm and comfortable, but the pillows rather unyielding and felt like they were made of straw. . Breakfast was served buffet-style in a large room with elaborately-painted ceilings; it was too bad that it was put together with so many commercial products, with one notable exception being home-made yogurt that we were served on our last morning. Although open since late July of this year, the Relais San Maurizio still has not finished building its spa, which will have an indoor swimming pool, gym, sauna, and massage rooms.

Piemonte’s First Family of Food, the Alciati’s, have divided themselves in two while remaining a single economic entity. Momma chef Lidia, at age 72, is joining in a few months her youngest son Andrea, and her disciple Lorenzo Secondo, at the Relais San Maurizio where Andrea has been running the dining room and Lorenzo the kitchen since the hotel-restaurant opened. If our dinner at the San Maurizio Guido was any indication, one must hope that Lidia will bring the standards up those of the old Guido in Costigliole d’Asti. Admittedly we had had a large lunch elsewhere the same day, which may have diminished slightly our opinion, but only slightly. While the menu offered mostly dishes from the original Guido, the execution seemed uninspired. As for Ugo Alciati, the chef son, and his brother, Piero the Eldest, who is unrivalled as a maitre d’hotel in terms of looks, smoothness and cordiality, they are off to Pollenzo, 12 miles west of Alba where the second new Guido will open this spring as part of a complex that will include a luxury hotel (ready in the fall of 2004) and the Slow Food’s “University of Taste”.

When I asked Piero at the end of our dinner five days before the Costigliole Guido’s would close for good what was going to become of the legendary restaurant, he told me that the family was keeping the premises as a laboratory (I guess even quasi-traditional Piemonte cooks are now into laboratories), private dinners and an on-going wine cellar. Nonetheless it was with a bit of sadness that we downed our last dinner, and a good one (but not the best one of our excursion) it was. The vitello tonnato, which has certainly been offered every night for decades, was extraordinary as always with its pink veal from the nearby mountains around Cuneo. It is veal you see for the first time and never forget. The two other appetizers that we all received in small portions were the seemingly-ubiquitous fall classic, cardoons with melted Fontina (aka “fonduta”) with white truffles and mousse of duck liver with white truffles and tiny cubes of Marsala aspic. Guido’s tagliatelle with truffles is one of the more revered pasta dishes of Piemonte as are the spinach agnolotti filled with potato. Both of these were delicious even though we had them last year at this time.

One way to avoid repetition is to ask for something special, which I did a few weeks before. I phoned Piero Alciati from New York and asked him if it were possible to have game birds. I specifically mentioned the forbidden ortolan, and while he was unable to locate any, he did provide us with partridge, which his mother roasted and served in a red wine sauce with a turnips, carrots, and cheese prepared as a flan. It was a perfectly prepared, solid game dish that was worth ordering more for its relative unavailability rather than something memorable tasting. The cheese course at Guido has always been puzzling: four small piece of various Piemonte cheese fanned out on a plate. I also have found desserts hit and miss at Guido. I had a chocolate and pistachio semifreddo that was somewhat rich and sweet; not really subtle but satisfying.

Even more traditional than Guido is Camulin, just down the road from our hotel in the neighboring Cossano Belbo. Like Guido, the menu is short and presented orally. Because Steve Plotnicki wrote about Camulin recently and well, it suffices for me to say that we had a joyful time, but the tasty food ended after the splendid appetizers and pasta dishes with the exception of the classic “bolito misto alla Piemontese” which was an assortment of boiled veal scallopine, calf’s brains, polenta, pumpkin, and other meats and vegetables. My wife liked that some parts of the dish were sweet and others savory

Two meals in two towns whose names could have been included in the lyrics of "Let's Call the Whole Thing Off" topped our list of the best of the trip: a lunch at Ristorante San Marco in Canelli and a dinner at the Ristorante Enoteca in Canale. San Marco, a few miles down the road from Santo Stefano Belbo, had more of a middle-class family-run restaurant. Its typical white plaster walls and wood-beam ceiling and displays of wine bottles and framed certificates and small drawings belied the quality of the cuisine that struck a balance between traditional and creative. Although we were past the peak of the white truffle season on December 15, the owner Piercarlo Ferrero, head of the association of truffle hinters (“trifolau”) had placed on the table a 93 gram specimen he had gathered himself, which I was able to smell from across our large table.

To begin, we received an assortment of appetizers, some of which were covered generously with our truffle. “Carne cruda di Vitella” with truffles was a light, refreshing start. My cardoons with “fonduta” and white truffle were tasty, but stringy: not the thick pieces of cardoon that came in the Guido version, and orange peppers stuffed with tuna were sublime. As “primi piatti”, the four of us ordered two portions of classic pastas with truffles: the pinched together agnolottini “dal plin”, served without sauce and in a folded napkin, and tagliarini with herbs and aromatic butter. Both were “fatte in casa” as one should expect, and about as delicious as these dishes can be.

Remembering how much I have enjoyed the classic Piemonte fall dish “Ciotola del ‘Trifulau’, I ordered it. It is made with polenta, warmed whole egg yolk, the cheese “toma de Roccaverano” and plenty of white truffle shavings that the diner mixes together. For me, the dish was the only serious disappointment of my lunch: Compared to the one at Gener Neuv in Asti, San Marco’s was a heavy, goopy mess. However, a loin of lamb with Barbaresco sauce and black truffle and a roasted pheasant cooked in a sauce (exactly what we forgot to ask) were immensely praised by the two women at our table.

The cheese selection at San Marco numbered about 15 varieties of Piemontese cheeses. I was far from disappointed with what I tried, among them an aged Castelmagno, but was disappointed that the restaurant charges by the piece, a practice I abhor. As for dessert, one was unforgettable: a smooth and refreshing zabaglione of Moscado and Marsala that we all agreed that it clearly was the best zabaglione of our lives and about the best meal-finisher we have had in Italy. Future visitors, take note.

The feeling of excitement that comes from the strong hunch that one has just eaten at the hands of what the French call a “grand de demain” is a rare occurrence. Yet, this is the sentiment I was overcome with as I contemplated the dinner we had just had at Ristorante Enoteca. Located both in Canale, 8 miles NNW of Alba, and in one of those all-purpose little buildings belonging to Italian small towns (this one had two fellows in uniform standing around at eight o’clock at night) chef Davide Palluda’s restaurant is on the second floor in a space that was formerly a day-care center) and above the Enoteca di Roero Arneis, the sales and tasting arm of the producers of the inexpensive but favorably-regarded wines, particularly the whites.

Our arrival got off to a mixed start. Chef Davide’s wife, a fetching, enchanting, and somewhat shy hostess greeted us with good humor mixed with a dash of sardonicism. After showing us to our table, we were, after refusing aperitifs, abandoned and ignored for longer than was desirable. This gave me trepidations about the restaurant which were eventually allayed by a delicious “amuse-guele” of a cream of asparagus soup that was intensely rich in flavor. With service back on track, the two fellows shared a perfectly-executed risotto of Parmesan with shavings of white truffles. My wife ordered an artichoke soup with pieces of bacala and bits of ginger, which she pronounced good, but not great. Her cousin’s wife had delicious raviolis, some of which were filled with red onion ( the first time I ever had this in a pasta; yet this mundane ingredient worked wonderfully) and others that I am unable to recall as they were consumed so quickly we didn’t have a chance to taste them.

Two of chef Davide’s main courses were masterful; by far the best we encountered on the trip. I had two large, succulent pieces of venison in a rich sweet and sour sauce that I thought was extraordinary. However, they did not get quite the reception of a simple portion of the center of tenderloin of veal that was otherworldly. It was hard to believe it was veal, as my wife described it as having the buttery texture of Kobe beef that tasted like the best veal one could imagine.

As did Peter Rodgers, to whom I owe gratitude for bringing Ristorante Enoteca to my attention in his post below, we had a lengthy chat with Davide Palluda, so engaging that I forgot to ask him for a copy of the menu. One of two desserts, therefore, is a dim memory with the other being a chocolate cake with pistachio sauce, Delicious as it was, it still was not the best dessert of the two we ordered. It suffices to say that this aspect of Palluda’s cuisine is solid. From our conversation, we found out that the chef has worked in some unnamed restaurants in Alsace, the Balzi Rossi on the French-Italian Riviera border, and, if memory serves me correct, Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence. /again, chef Davide is one to keep on eye on and to put on any “must” list of restaurants in Italy. It is chefs like him that are adding variety and adventurism to Piemonte cuisine.

We visited two other restaurants: a simple trattoria, Da Miglia, in the two-horse town of Valdevilla five minutes from the Relais San Maurizio, and an establishment called “Italia” in Quarona, located in Northern Piemonte not far from Lago Maggiore, renown as home to the factory and discount outlet of Loro-Piana (a “do not miss” for anyone coming to Italy for serious clothes shopping). The former served simple local food, the highlights being their salumi. Of course we took them up on the offer to stop by a couple of days later and pick up some home-cured Prosciutto di Parma, lardo, and a chunk of “bresciola di cervo” (venison) to take home. The latter, Ristorante Italia, was a fine example of how you can choose a restaurant to eat in strictly for its location and eat well and for little; in our case a full lunch for $30.00 each.

When our excursion reached its end, my wife and I both agreed that this was our most satisfying of eight or so visits we have made to Piemonte. There was something magical, if not mystical, about being there in late fall: the vineyard-covered hills of the Lange in their denuded state, often shrouded in mist or fog; the sense of privilege having a waiter slicing at an up-tempo what seems like an unnecessary quantity of white truffles; the all-consuming preoccupation of eating and drinking that permeates the entire region, and the love of them that almost every artisan---the chefs, restaurateurs, winemakers, shop owners, and farmers---wants to share and use to win you over. Lucky for us that such abstractions can be quantified in our pocketbooks. You eat spectacularly well and amply for half the price, even less, than back home or in neighboring France. We had what rank as some of the best wines in the world for between $65. (a 1996 Bruno Giacosa Barbaresco Santo Stefano at Guido and the 1995 at Ristorante Enoteca for just a little more) and $115 for the rare 1990 Barolo Monfortino of Giacomo Conterno at Camulin.

Whether it is people placing large bets that the 2006 Olympic Winter Games will turn Piemonte into a new and permanent tourist area or a belated recognition from wine and food lovers that it is a special place that accounts for its upsurge in hotel and restaurant activity, the fact is that anyone who forsakes going to Piemonte in favor of returning to other gastronomic regions or cities should now think twice. As they now say in Piemonte every fall, “Let the game begin.”


Edited by robert brown (log)

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A lovely recounting of what sounds like a fun trip. Your description of Enotecha sounds so much like what the region is about. It's such a funny part of the world. It's so close to urban centers, yet it seems so remote. And despite all the artisanal products, it's both industrial and at the same time extrmely wealthy. I guess the natural products of the region throw off enough wealth so they can have an insulated lifestyle and not have to commercialize their way of life. Because you can go to Burgundy or the Rhone and find food that is inedible. Still, I wish there wasn't so much sameness in the food from place to place.

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Extraordinary account, Robert. Thank you.


"I've caught you Richardson, stuffing spit-backs in your vile maw. 'Let tomorrow's omelets go empty,' is that your fucking attitude?" -E. B. Farnum

"Behold, I teach you the ubermunch. The ubermunch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the ubermunch shall be the meaning of the earth!" -Fritzy N.

"It's okay to like celery more than yogurt, but it's not okay to think that batter is yogurt."

Serving fine and fresh gratuitous comments since Oct 5 2001, 09:53 PM

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Excellent report. But a day late and a ..... :sad: I just spent my discressionary dollars or I'd have headed down there in January :wink: BTW here is a Site for the Region Oh ! Well !!!


anil

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A belated thank you for this marvelous post. I immediately started plotting my next trip to the region. I agree entirely with your comments about Piemonte in winter. I managed 24 hours there last January at the tail end of a business trip (meals at Trattoria della Posta and San Marco) and felt like, locals aside (both restaurants were quite full), I had the area to myself.

Thanks also for the latest clarification on the Alciati family. I think I had Piero at the San Maurizio. I'm betting that the place to eat will be at the new restaurant at Pollenzo -- as much as anything because I think that Piero adds so much to the experience.

I have know had two meals at San Marco, both very good, but from the sound of it the future may be with L'Ennoteca -- the chef seems out to prove that he can take the local cuisine and devise something even better. That's an attitude that, though cocky, seems auspicious.

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Robert,

I went to Guido on the very last days of the restaurant, we almost met each other!

I have to say that I thought the meal was wonderful and I made it a point to try all the "classics" before verifying how the two new enterprises go. After a few visits I am still in awe of the agnolotti and the vitello tonnato. I found the cardoons, the bell pepper, the tagliatelle with truffles and the mousse to be very good but was disappointed by the kid which was delicious and perfectly cooked except for a distinct underseasoning which spoiled it a bit. The chocolate and pear tarte was OK, never liked it too much, perhaps I should have tried a sabayon. Value for money was, with a bottle of Barolo Sandrone Cannubi Boschis 1990, a bottle of Arneis and a Forteto della Luja Loazzolo and lots of truffles on almost every dish, really good (400 euros for 4 people).

I really hope at least one of the new restaurants will be as good as the old one because I miss it already and it is one of those very few places where I would never tire to eat the same dishes day after day.

I also went to Al Sorriso which provided one fantastic dish of Red Partridge and a very good overall meal (the ficatum with pears, the bettelmatt ravioli, the ossolan gnocchi and the chocolate-hazelnut dessert where also very, very good) but not nearly the same value for money. I know one restaurant has one star and the other three but with drinking a Gattinara instead of the Barolo, we spent 370 euros for two.

The Enoteca sounds like a great target for next winter: I'll also have to return to Il Rododendro.

Francesco

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Hi,

i've read some of the discussions about truffles in this forum. however i still have some qns. my sis and i will be visiting genoa in italy in early Nov. Since Alba is not too far, we're thinking of going there and have a taste of what truffle is like. We're just average travellers but we're adventurous in trying out different crusine or food.

Our qns are:

1. is this year's truffle season good? Some discussions said that this is quite a bad year. will things improve?

2. what's the avg price for a simple dish with truffle e.g. fried egg with truffle or pasta with truffle?

3. Can someone recommend good average priced restaurants which offer truffle in the menu? we would just like to order one truffle dish and some others. Since we have no cars, we hoped that restaurants are easily accessible.

Thanks alot!

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I can only tell you that this will NOT be a good season: small and expensive. The forecast is for rain next week in Alba, which may help the late-season truffles some, according to friends there.


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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Dear Quarkz,

I just made the first of several intended posts related to this topic, part of which is the following:

"The truffle crop in the Piemonte is very much down this year, largely due to the summer heat wave. ... However, there are truffles to be eaten. The ones that we consumed had good and wonderfully typical fragrance.

Unfortunately, price reflects scarcity. The lowest prices I saw in stores, or heard reached at the end of bargaining in the weekend truffle market, were in the 3.3 to 3.5 Euro per gram range, and the highest price I encountered (at the Michelin 1-star Vecchio Tre Stelle) was 4.5 Euros per gram."

One common way to have truffles at a restautant is for the place to tell you the price they are charging per gram or (more usually) per 100 grams. They let you inspect the truffle that they would slice onto your dish, then weigh the truffle in front of you, you let them slice until you say stop, then they weight the truffle again, and you pay for the difference in weight. I found that 4 to 5 grams would cover one dish quite nicely. And this approach takes much of the quesswork out of the process. Another place where we ate charged a flat 25 Euros to have truffles shaved over any dish you choose.

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One common way to have truffles at a restautant is for the place to tell you the price they are charging per gram or (more usually) per 100 grams.  They let you inspect the truffle that they would slice onto your dish, then weigh the truffle in front of you, you let them slice until you say stop, then they weight the truffle again, and you pay for the difference in weight.  I found that 4 to 5 grams would cover one dish quite nicely.  And this approach takes much of the quesswork out of the process.  Another place where we ate charged a flat 25 Euros to have truffles shaved over any dish you choose.

Thanks for the very useful information.

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Quarkz, two restaurants that won't be expensive (although no restaurant in Piemonte is crazy expensive unless you go nutty on the wine-and some would say not even then) are the oft-mentioned Trattoria della Posta in Monforte d'Alba and Da Bologna in Rocchetta Tanaro (15 km east of Asti) that is owned by the brother of the late Giacomo Bologna. Carlo Bologna is a jolly, good-natured chap who takes care of everyone while the Mrs. does the cooking. There is no menu; Carlo recites the dishes of which there is a small choice among each course. My meal was tasty and traditional and lots of fun. Carlo can also arrange a visit to the family winery near by where his nephew will give you a private tour with a decent amount of tasting. Of course you have to buy something. The "Ai Sumi" , one of their two top-of-the-line Barberas is worth getting since it seems to be less findable than the Bricco dell' Ucelone. This is a popular place and you should reserve as soon as you can. (Closed Tuesday according to last year's "La Guida d'Italia" aka "The Espresso Guide".)

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If what you look for is a place where to eat plenty of truffles at a very reasonable price, another option could be the "Ristorante Pontechino" in Pontechino di Morsasco, near Acqui Terme (province of Alessandria). They don't serve haute cuisine, but honest Piemontese food to be generously topped with truffles - everything, icecream included (what could be a surprise!).

It's not just round the corner and going there without a car could be hard, but if your palate isn't too sophisticated you'll be satisfied.

BTW, they also sell truffles to their guests, but personally I wouldn't recommend purchasing them as it isn't likely to be a bargain :wink:

Pongi

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Pongi,

Do you have any other restaurant recommendations in Piemonte?

Grazie.

-Joe

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I am in residence in the Piemonte now, as it happens. See the Lake Orta thread for a discussion of Piemontese restaurants, as well as a couple of older threads with "Alba" in the title.


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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I am in residence in the Piemonte now, as it happens.  See the Lake Orta thread for a discussion of Piemontese restaurants, as well as a couple of older threads with "Alba" in the title.

Bill - there may be no truffles, but there are plenty of porcini and my father-in-law picked a bunch of other wild mushrooms he is cooking for me tomorrow. Not all the pleasures of fall are lost.

Then there is that good looking wine bubbling away up in your neighborhood...

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I am in residence in the Piemonte now, as it happens.  See the Lake Orta thread for a discussion of Piemontese restaurants, as well as a couple of older threads with "Alba" in the title.

Thanks Bill. I've been keeping my eye on all the Piemonte threads, but I thought that Pongi may have something to add.

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CONfused and EXcited

All those choices , thanks for the great help

Will stay at San Rocco just to keep costs down & will eat at Al Sorriso

From there I haven't decided in what direction to go probaly south toward asti-alba-borolo but i hear there is

great trekking in around Tinnaro valley so i might head

south and more west first

Places to stay another issue?but I won't burden you with that problem

thanks for the great advice

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We are staying in Villa La Favorita in Alba. I have been corresponding by e-mail with the proprietor, Roberta, who is delightful. We're looking forward to our stay there. I'll try to post from the road and let you know about our experience there. We're booked for three nights from 10/28 - 10/31


Edited by JosephB (log)

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Guest Morel

It's interesting you say truffles..what is the obsession with the stuff.??

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Welcome, Morel! In a good year, white truffles, eaten at the source, are like crossing mushrooms with the best sex you ever had! I'd like to hear Sam kinsey weigh in on this topic.


Bill Klapp

bklapp@egullet.com

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Guest Morel

I'm too shy to even mention how that would taste :shock::wub:

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