Would you buy a much sniffed at truffle? Well no, nor would I, but many flock to the Piemonte each autumn to do just that. But truffles aren't the only gourmet delight this beautiful area has to offer
When my husband suggested a short autumn break in the Italian Piemonte, I wasn't keen. Meaning foot of the mountains, it suggested an endless plain, with mountains beyond. I also knew this to be a wine growing area, but too many vineyards can get a little boring. And so, when we headed south from Turin, I was very pleasantly surprised. Far from being flat, the landscape of the Piemonte is gently undulating, like a subtly coloured Shaker quilt lying in folds across a ruffled bed. The vines too were unusual: tall and ordered like rows of blushing soldiers stepping down the hillsides. Dotted about this landscape were tiny villages topped with small castles. I was entranced.
We decided to explore the Langhe region, beginning our tour in the town of Alba.
We quickly realised that food plays an important part in the life of Alba. The International White Truffle Fair, which lasts throughout October, was underway. We had missed the opening ceremonies, but the town was in festive mood, and adorned with blue flags. Coach parties, anxious to savour the excitement of the truffle season, wandered the pretty cobbled streets, exploring the delicatessens with their displays of truffle hunting paraphernalia and special foods. We drooled over restaurant menus featuring dishes of black and the more expensive white truffles, stemming our hunger with a treat from one of the town's gelateria - vanilla ice cream never tasted so good. Across the square, gaudily lit fairground wagons sold torrone, a confection of honey, eggs and hazelnuts, in bars of all shapes and sizes.
Alas, we could not wait until the weekend, when locals would bring their treasured truffle finds to the next open market. But then, with prices often reaching four hundred euro per hundred grams, and every truffle subject to intense nasal scrutiny, I didn't really mind.
The finest of Italian wines
Piemonte is famous for other gourmet delights too, such as game, hazelnuts, fat brown porcini mushrooms and Langhe cheese. Naturally there are some great local wines to accompany them. The finest wines in the whole of Italy come from the two nearby villages of Barbaresco, and Barolo.
Much as we would have liked to visit some local wine estates, our time was limited, so we concentrated on the enoteca at Barolo, which boasts the most amazing collection of Barolo wines. The imposing red walls of Castello Falletti tower over this tiny village, where medieval dwellings cluster together like tiny dolls houses along the narrow streets. We found the enoteca at the end of an alleyway. As we pushed open the heavy wooden doors we realised that we were in the vaulted cellars of the castle itself. The wines were displayed in racks along the walls, back- lit for full effect (see photo). I was amazed at the number of individual producers and resulting fine wines from this compact region. Every day three of these wines are selected for tasting, an opportunity we could not refuse. This costs two euro per person.
Imagine being accidentally locked into this enoteca overnight. Alas, the dream could turn into a nightmare without a corkscrew. By the castle entrance is a tiny museum. Unlike its giant neighbour, this enterprise is housed in a little wine cellar, and run by just one man. It is a museum of corkscrews. Examples from the 18th century to modern day make an interesting adjunct to the town's more famous product. I even saw an ancient type that languishes unused in my kitchen drawer; it barely works. Perhaps it's antique.
Entry costs four euro; Museo dei Cavatappi, Piazza Castello 4; 0173 560539
Every village in this wonderful region is charming. The fortified town of Cherasco has arcades like miniature versions of those at Bologna. At Monforte d'Alba we climbed the cobbled streets to the grass amphitheatre and old bell tower, to enjoy panoramic views over the area.
The perfect hotel
Many people come to Piemonte in search of good food and wine, so obviously there are some excellent hotels. From 240 euro a night you can stay in the sumptuous Relais San Maurizio, at 12058 San Stefano Belbo. This is a converted monastery within the reliable Relais & Châteaux hotel group. The restaurant is Michelin-starred.
If you fancy a neo gothic country residence, once owned by a King of Savoy, then you can try Albergo dell Agenzia in via Fossano, Pollenza. A double room costs from 150 Euro.
Sadly we hadn't made reservations for either hotel. As dusk approached we stumbled across Hotel Ca' Del Lupo. Its modern exterior was unpromising, but we decided to investigate further. It turned out to be one of the most memorable places that I have ever stayed in. It is a spacious modernist hotel, full of light, and stylishly furnished. Every picture, both in the communal areas and bedrooms, is original - one feels like a guest in a luxurious private home. A glass lift took us up to our room. Revealing the meticulous planning of local architect Valerio Dalmaria, the bed faced out towards a large balcony. Our view encompassed the whole of the Piemonte plain, with snow capped Alps beyond. It was breathtaking. Double rooms normally cost 130 Euros per night. This includes a sumptuous breakfast buffet, with homemade bread and cakes. The staff are extremely helpful. If you book early, rooms can be cheaper, but you must pay in advance and cannot cancel.
We couldn't leave Piemonte without tasting its famous white truffle, opting to dine at the adjoining Restaurant Ca' del Lupo, (0173 617249), where at 12 euro for an average main course, prices were not excessive. Our table enjoyed the same view over the Piemonte plains. As the night lengthened, lights from scattered villages twinkled like clusters of stars in a dark purple sky. The starter we chose had shavings of white truffle over oeuf en cocotte and porcini mushrooms. The bread was baked in the restaurant's wood fired oven, as was my slow cooked rabbit. All of our chosen dishes and our Barbaresco wine were sublime. But the truffle; I honestly couldn't see what the fuss was about.
The next day we set off to explore the Langhe area further, before leaving Cuneo to cross the Alps into France. It was a long, winding, spectacular road home. Travelling to England would have been much quicker though! Ryanair operates flights to and from Cuneo.