Yes, truffle season has just started in the Langhe, Piemonte!….and the air in Alba is perfumed with bewitching wafts of this earthy fungus. Truffles might look like small wrinkled old potatoes but these buried treasures are not called ‘White Gold’ for nothing. Alba white truffles fetch the highest prices when they are finally auctioned in November at the local Castello di Grinzane, with sizes sometimes reaching those of a good-sized baking potato.
The Langhe area of Piemonte, now part of “il patrimonio del’ UNESCO”, is one of my favourite places – particularly as I lived here for a while – and when permeated with autumnal colours and smells, I am transported straight to an earthly ‘paradiso’!
“Le mie terre di Vigne, di prugnoli e di castagneti dove sono cresciute le frutta che ho sempre mangiate, e mie belle colline.” Cesare Pavese da ‘Le Maestrine’ 1931
There is usually a gentle autumnal haze or ‘foschia’ giving an air of mystery and gentleness to the land – softening the vibrant colours of autumn, touching the grapes with a magical bloom and blurring the lines between land and sky.
The Italian writer Cesare Pavese wrote of the love for his homeland of ‘hills and vineyards’ and indeed the Langhe is blessed by nature…rolling hills of vines topped with medieval castles, woodlands full of hidden delights, a musty air of truffles and mushrooms, an abundance of chestnuts, hazlenuts, figs and fruits….and of course it’s famous Nebbiola grapes, named after the seasonal fog or ‘nebbia’ and the source of the complex, deeply earthy Barolo wine.
Among the hills and vineyards surrounding Alba lies the castle village of Roddi where an extraordinary and unique centuries-old ‘university’ exists – the ‘University of Truffle Dogs’ or “Universita dei cani da tartufi”. Here dogs and their noses are still trained in the ancient art of truffling and although not every dog passes muster or graduates with honours, the top dogs that do are usually crossbreeds or ‘bastardini’.
Truffle hunters – or ‘trifolao’ in piemontese dialect – were originally farmers or ‘contadini’ who would head off secretly at night or at dawn with their trusty (and trained!) dog, carrying only a lantern and wooden stick (‘barot’), dressed in a heavy multi-pocketed jacket which would hold dog treats and hopefully plenty of truffles. Up until the 1950’s pigs were also used – but perhaps because they’re notoriously difficult to train, the tradition stopped and there is sadly no ‘pig university’!
Looking more above ground now, autumn is the time of year you see maize plants everywhere drying in the fields. Corn or ‘mais’ was – and still is – grown prolifically in northern Italy where it’s used predominantly for polenta, the staple ‘contadini’ diet.
After harvest, the cobs were sun-dried and stored in these make-shift wood and net contraptions which you can see if you head off into the hills of the Alta Langhe.
I looked at these dried corn cobs and I thought – popcorn! That’s what I’ll make when I get back, something easy and light to munch on whilst I sit in front of the fire sipping a glass of Dolcetto red wine – a piemontese wine much lighter than it’s grand neighbour, Barolo. Together with the scent of truffles I can be transported back to the wistful landscape of the glorious Langhe.
TRUFFLE SCENTED POPCORN
For 4 – or a hungry 2
Preparation time: 5 minutes
Cooking time: 5 minutes
2 Tbsp olive oil
120g popping corn
1 tsp white truffle oil (it’s less strong than black truffle)
2 Tbsp finely chopped parsley
N.B. If you are fortunate enough to have bought a truffle, then use a truffle-shaver or small mandolin, and shave delicate slices of truffle into the popcorn. Toss well with the butter and parsley.
Heat olive oil and stir in the popping corn. Cover, place over medium high heat and cook for 3-5 minutes.
Remove the pan from the heat and with a firm hand on the lid shake it around until you can’t hear any seeds rattling around.
Remove the lid and take out any kernels that are still un-popped.
Melt the butter and pour over the popcorn together with the white truffle oil and chopped parsley. Add more butter or olive oil if necessary.
Tip into a large bowl and serve hot.