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Day 7: Time Passes Slowly

ITALY | Saturday, 7 June 2014 | Views [2694]

According to the Bible, the seventh day is supposedly the holy day of rest. I’ve never been religious which is just as well as we had a full itinerary to get through. It started in Grinzane Cavour, where we briefly checked out national monument, Castle of the Count of Cavour. Inside there’s an enoteca, the one Michelin star Ristorante Al Castello and a museum, but outside is the most impressive. We were headed for 30 degrees Celcius-plus that day and the turrets of the massive, thirteenth century building were strikingly set against a clear blue sky. We smiled at couples young and old canoodling on benches out the front, before heading to Monforte for a wine festival.

The Barolo Boys had put on this particular event; a former local football team who united to get all Barolo produces in the area in one location for a tasting. This time, Valle d’Aosta, Franciacorta and Burgundy were also included. From the centre of Monforte we climbed uphill towards Palazzo Martinengo, past white-haired men sitting on the side of the street and pastel coloured buildings creeping with roses. We arrived at the entrance and were given wine glasses to hang around our necks. Stalls with cheese, crafts, potted garlic products and different wine varieties snaked up the hill and in and out of buildings, including Le Case della Saracca, the ‘glass labyrinth’ and hotel, and Palazzo Martinengo. Inside the palazzo chandeliers hung from decorative ceilings and a young producer crowd chatted as their glasses were refilled. But it was the outside terrace that hooked me. Complete with chic outdoor furniture, manicured hedges, a fountain and a view of the town below and the hills in the distance; it was like something straight out of an up-market travel commercial.

Driving from Monforte through the hills to upper Monchiero, Bob Dylan was playing, as usual:

Time passes slowly up here in the daylight,
We stare straight ahead and try so hard to stay right,
Like the red rose of summer that blooms in the day;
Time passes slowly and fades away. 

The realisation that tomorrow was our last full day crept to mind, and I felt a palatable pang of sadness in my chest. Twenty minutes later, it disappeared, which tends to happen when you’re surrounded by puppies. The puppies belonged to Ezio and Clelia at Tra Arte e Querce, an agriturism “between art and oak”. Eso Peluzzi, a famous painter, used to live there – hence the art – and Ezio is a trifolao (truffle hunter) – hence the oak. One of their truffle dogs had given birth a couple of months earlier, and we watched with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ as Ezio handled a truffle like a tennis ball with the pups. The dogs get a taste for truffle by playing with it from a young age, and the dogs that keep the ‘black gold’ in their mouths the longest are usually the ones with the most promise. Once they are trained, they’re valued at around €6000 each.

We tore ourselves away from the puppies and followed Ezio and his prized truffle dog, Lucky, into the woods. The path disappeared and morphed into a steep decline, but Ezio and Lucky were unfazed. I should have worn better shoes! Lucky sniffed around as Ezio shouted commands in Piemontese dialect, until the dog picked up a scent and started digging. When the hole was deep enough, Ezio gently moved the dog aside and carefully continued with what looked like a pick, feeling the ground with practiced fingers for the truffle. He then levered it out, brought it to his nose and inhaled deeply, his eyes closed. Lucky received a treat, and we had our star ingredient for lunch. Back up at the property, Ezio brought out a shallow pot filled with yellow tajarin, heavily speckled with truffle and finished with tissue-thin shavings of black truffle. As we ate greedily, Ezio placed a blue gingham handkerchief on the table, opening it to reveal out half a dozen black truffles. Some were almost as big as tennis balls; all had been collected that morning. The aroma as we ate was intoxicating.

 

In Melbourne, seeing a pile of black truffles like that would send any food-respecting individual into a frenzy. Here, black truffles are more common and are available all year round. Black truffles satisfy the demand until  October through to December, during which time the region’s prized white truffles are available. White truffle season is the busiest time of year in Langhe. Unlike the black truffles, white truffles can’t be cultivated. In other words they are one hundred per cent wild. Truffle hunters know the spots where they are most likely to grow, and hunt the truffles under the cover of night to avoid others discovering their secret locations. Even so, there is no guarantee that a tree that produced white truffles one year will do so the next. Pietro explained that as a general rule, black truffles should be used in cooking as heat releases their strong flavour, while white truffles are more delicate and should be reserved for garnish. As for truffle oils, pastes and products? “They’re bullshit”.

It was time for me to get out of the dining room and into the kitchen. I put my hands where my mouth is back in Alba at Ristorante Dulcis Vitis, where chef Bruno Cingolani gave me a personalised bagna caôda masterclass. Bagna caôda is Piemontese for ‘hot dip’ and is eaten in a similar style to fondue. After spending the week hearing about how much garlic was involved in the dish, I was nervous. All it takes is three ingredients, garlic, anchovies and olive oil. Together, Bruno and I peeled soft, young garlic and filleted the anchovies. Bruno then cooked the garlic in milk until it was soft (this is a modern technique to tone down the garlic, much to Pietro’s horror), while cooking the anchovies in Liguria extra virgin olive oil until the fish dissolved, ensuring the oil never reached boiling point. Once the garlic was ready, Bruno drained the milk and added the cloves to the anchovy and oil concoction. First he stirred it, then he mashed it together, and then he served us cheese and wine.

Carl and I said our ‘thank yous’ and ‘see you laters’ before walking around town and settling for a quick drink. Aperitivo followed our quick drink, so by the time we returned to see Bruno I was feeling nothing short of fantastic. We were five that evening in Bruno’s courtyard – bagna caôda is a social food, made to be shared. Tall glass jars overflowing with vibrant vegetables were places in the middle of the table along with house bread, sliced boiled potatoes, sweet and sour pink onion, roasted beetroot and thinly sliced raw veal. The bagna caôda arrived in individual ceramic pots heated by tea light candles. I was so pleased that one of my last dinners in Langhe was also one of my favourites. We dipped and dunked and passed until we were full… and then Bruno brought out spaghetti alla carbonara with salty chunks of ham and baby wild strawberries with ice cream. 

It was Saturday night in Alba, and it seemed as though the entire town was at a little cocktail bar called Hemingway for their fifth birthday. The square was jammed with people listening to live music and watching fire twirlers. As for me, I people watched. One of the gorgeous things about living in a small town is that everyone comes to the same place. Younger people were ordering drinks while their parents sat at separate tables with their friends. Locals from the ‘family dinner’ the previous Sunday were there, as was 78-year-old Italo Stupino from Neive. I sat outside with new friends who spoke English when they remembered, but when they didn’t, I was just as content listening in their company.

Tags: cooking, food, italy, langhe, passport & plate, piedmont, piemonte, roero, travel, world nomads

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