Truffles, peaches, donkeys in the real Italy

JENNIFER ENNION
Last updated 13:11 11/08/2014
Truffle hunting
Reuters

TRUFFLE HUNTER: Ezio Costa, 66, inspects a truffle that was found by his dog Jolly in the woods in Monchiero near Alba.

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The crowds are thick down the narrow laneways of Alba.

Italians weave around each other as they funnel into pasticcerie and delicatezze - the aromas of just-baked bread and drying salami wafting out of doorways.

Others flock into boutiques selling leather boots and beautiful  winter coats, while women descend on a table of stylish handbags nearby.

The tiny northern town, not far from Milan, is alive because today is truffle day.

People flock here from around the region for the weekly market,  where they pick up plump white and black truffles, along with the  rest of their fresh groceries.

In Piazza F Pertinace, stall tables are piled high with thick wheels of hard cheese, jars of jams and chutneys, bags of nuts, crates of moscato grapes, and all types of vegies - bright yellow capsicums, rich red tomatoes, perfect peaches.

Then I reach the salami. Crates are laden with strings of dried  sausages flavoured with Alba's famed ingredient - tartufo.

A young woman stands behind the table, handing slices to the  rows of shoppers. The salami is rich in truffle flavour and easily devoured.

Elsewhere, there are bottles of truffle oil for sale, as well as  jars of truffle cream, and truffle-infused polenta and risotto.

People file into a ''tartufi'' store in a corner of the market  place and I follow them in.

There, among shelves of truffle-shaving  implements and cooking products, misshapen black and white truffles  are being weighed and bought by Italian connoiseurs.

I'm fascinated by Alba's obsession with these fungi-like  treasures that grow wild over the forested hillsides of the region.

''The woods are very important for us because they give out the  white truffles,'' my local guide, Serena, says.

Truffle hunters, I learn, are guarded when it comes to the hills  on which they uncover the delicacies, and go in search late at  night with only a torch and their truffle-sniffing dogs.

They then sell their finds to restauranteurs and residents in  Alba - the largest village in the Piedmont region.

With the aroma of truffles in the air and surrounding slopes  covered in grape vines, it's a fitting place to come on a gourmet  food tour.

I've joined The White Truffles of Alba tour run by boutique Australian company The Traveller's Collection.

Only a handful of us are on it, making it more like travelling with friends and family than strangers.

We're all interested in delicious food and delectable wine, meaning we're right at home exploring Alba and the surrounding  villages of Borgomale, Barolo and Neive over seven days.

The tour includes a number of food experiences, and coincides with Alba's annual white truffle fair.

Held every autumn, the fair not only includes great market stalls and truffle-themed restaurant menus, but kicks off with donkey racing and ends with a truffle auction.

It's a drizzly day when we watch the racing, and locals and  tourists huddle under umbrellas in outdoor grandstands.

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''It's the most important day for us,'' says Serena, who lives in the Barbaresco region, about 7km from Alba.
 ''Everybody waits for the donkey day.''

Before racing begins, costumed locals take part in a medieval  procession through town, followed by folkloric performances that  include dancing and flag throwing.

The donkey palio then begins, with each of Alba's nine quarters represented by two riders who lap the circuit three times.

It's an interesting insight into cultural traditions here. As I watch in the drizzle, among a handful of visitors but amid an arena of Italians, I realise we're far from the typical tourist trail.

We're learning about local cuisine and culture from the locals  themselves - just the way travel should be. 

GETTING THERE:

Alba is in the far northwestern corner of Italy,  in the Piedmont region. It is about one hour and 40 minutes  southwest of Milan.

A number of airlines fly from Australia to Milan, including  Emirates, Etihad and Singapore Airlines.

PLAYING THERE:

For more on what to do while visiting Italy,  check out italia.it/en.

*The writer travelled as a guest of The Traveller's Collection

- AAP

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