2017 Publisher’s Tour: Piedmont (Part 1 of 6)
The 2017 Publisher’s Tour (Part 1 of 6)
To the Hills of Langhe
As in past years, we share our annual Italian adventure with you, our readers. We begin the 2017 Publisher’s Tour in one of the most northern regions of Italy, that of the Piedmont. A decade ago the eyes of the world were on this region for the 2006 Winter Olympic Games hosted in Turin. This year’s Tour begins about 25 miles south of Turin in the remarkable town of Alba. Located in the province of Cuneo in the hilly area known as Langhe, there are few more enticing destinations for gourmet travelers. This picturesque town has achieved world-wide acclaim for its succulent white truffles, smooth Barolo and Barbaresco wines and sweet peaches. The town may have only 30,000 residents, but here you can find some of northern Italy’s best restaurants. Alba deserves its reputation as the ‘Jewel of the Langhe’ and as one of the world’s finest food-and-wine hotspots. Truffle hunting is their great sport.
During the first part of the tour, guests stayed at the Palazzo Finati, just a few steps from the central Piazza del Duomo in Alba. This early 19th century building originally belonged to the painter Fedele Finati and his family. The Fava-Scaiola families converted the space into a hotel in 2004. The renovation was carried out with care, attention and respect for the original architecture. Some of the hotels suites still have Finati’s original and stunning frescoes on the ceiling. The rooms provided a refined and relaxing environment and uniquely is staffed entirely by women. Anna, who handles the reception area was an absolute gem. She arranged everything imaginable while the group stayed in Alba, from transportation to reservations and everything in between.
The timing of the Publisher’s Tour was ideal for enjoying the autumn truffle season and that was not by accident. For the uninitiated, Alba is the center for the Truffle Festival, an annual event that draws visitors from across the globe, which includes the highly anticipated truffle auction.
Alba’s origins date back before Roman civilization, connected probably to the time of Ligurian tribes in the area. Modern Alba occupies the site of ancient Roman Alba Pompeia. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the city was sacked by Ostrogoths, Burgundians, Byzantines, Lombards, Franks, Hungarians and Saracens. Eventually Alba was handed over to the family of Savoy, where it remained until the unification of Italy.
A stroll through town reveals castles, medieval palaces and towers and many churches. Whether walking alongside the Tanaro River, which slices through town, or along the Via Vittorio Emanuele, known for its specialty food shops, an almost regal atmosphere permeates the town. Just outside of town the tour found an endless array of interesting places to visit. For wine lovers, the mythical hamlets of Barolo, Barbaresco and Asti are a must. To the west is the town of Pollenzo, whose castle was once a royal hunting retreat and Bra is where the “Slow Food” headquarters is located. East lies Roero, a site of Roman ruins. To the south you can visit the Grinzane Cavour castle or the palace and wineries in Verduno. No matter where the group went, rolling vineyards on small family estates characterized the hilly Langhe region.
In Alba, all you need to do is let your nose carry you through the town to the traditional, simple, yet wonderful restaurants. They seem to be dotted along every cobblestone street. Temptations jump out at every corner – the alluring aroma of freshly ground coffee, the earthy scent of truffles as they are sliced in a kitchen near a street corner, the splash of a robust red as it hits a glass at a sidewalk cafe. So much food, so much wine, so little time – we tried it all!
The white truffle, as well as the black truffles are the stars of Alba and you will find it in all of its delectable forms – truffle oil, truffle honey, grated truffle, sliced truffles – all over local menus. Autumn is the best time to come, since this is when truffles are hunted out in the hillsides. The truffle festival is held in Alba in October and the town is host to one of Italy’s best-known truffle auctions. It is a star-studded event with celebrity chefs, television personalities and famous winemakers, who fly in from all over the world to attend.
The area is also known for its stellar peach production, but local specialties don’t end there. The rich, hearty food of the Piedmont is everywhere you look. Try dishes such as Gallo al Barolo, Rooster with Barolo wine or the rich Tortino di Marroni con pera Madernassa al Roero, a Roero-style chestnut pastry with Madernassa pear.
Alba is the focal point for the famous wines of Piedmont’s Langhe region. The Barolo DOCG, Barbaresco DOCG, Barbera DOC, Dolcetto DOC, Roero DOC, Verduno DOC and Nebbiolo d’Alba DOC all cluster just beyond the town’s borders, making this a stellar place to enjoy expressive red wines. The best vineyards are planted atop southern-facing hilltops, where vines dig in deep to the clay, sand and limestone soils. The majority of the wineries are only open by special appointment. We will cover far more about the exceptional wines in future editions of the Publisher’s Tour.
Alba was long ago dubbed “The City of 100 Towers” because of the abundance of defense towers that stood watch over the town. Today, only a handful of these 14th and 15th century constructions remain. The Cathedral of San Lorenzo was built atop an earlier chapel and was consecrated in the 1100s, although what we see today dates in large part from a restoration project in the 1800s.
The Church of San Domenico is one of the most beautiful in Alba. The 13th century creation houses important Renaissance frescoes and fascinating architectural elements, such as the complex Gothic portal. The Romanesque Duomo di San Lorenzo was built in the 12th century, restructured in the 15th century and again in the 19th century. Three portals and the crypt are from the original church. It is well known for its wood-carved choir loft built in 1512 and its 12th century bell tower.
As special as the rich flavor of the truffles are, Alba is also home to another giant whose flavors are at the opposite end of the taste spectrum. The confectionery group Ferrero is based there and Nutella is widely used on desserts.
In June, 2014, Langhe was added to the UNESCO World Heritage list for more than just truffles. Its cultural landscapes and winemaking traditions express the great aesthetic qualities that have made the area the archetype of European vineyards.