"It smells of happiness", I declared as I stepped onto the streets of the annual truffle fair in Alba and got hit in the nose with some intoxicating and unmistakeable tartufo bianco. Northern Italy is well-known for its powerful culinary allies, the truffle and eggy pasta dishes, along with some really amazing red wines.
Getting there was kind of a pain in the ass as the air traffic controlers went on strike and I spent 6 hours camped out on the cold, thread-bare carpet of the EasyJet terminal at Orly, but once they got back to work, off to Milan. This was kind of an involved trip with many different parties meeting and disembarking and passing in the night and so many trains and parking restrictions...but traveling in Italy is easy and people are generally fairly awesome to tourist, and you can't beat the food. In the two weeks I spent there, I was fed something mediocre exactly zero times, and everything was so fantastically good that it could only be replicated with another trip to Italy.
Italy has a great network of working farm B&Bs called Agriturismos that I fully took advantage of this trip. While there's no real central booking to it, people are quite nice and you email them with your dates and if they are fully booked, they will invite you over for wine and cheese anyway. Cascina Nuova in Valenza was a good place to call home for a couple of days as we explored the area in a rented car.
It was pleasantly foggy and misty out as we set out for Moncalvo (which, we ended up being a full day too early for their truffle festival), and stopped at anything that caught our fancy on the way to different towns with wine-names.
and then on to the friggin' lovely town of Barbaresco. It's a cute hilltop village that smells like wine and is surrounded by vineyards. I fell in love, especially when I found that there were 100 different wines to try at the city hall for a tasting event.
Occasionally, a tractor filled with grapes drove by, and then drive back down the hill empty.
Piedmont is pretty much magic. It was slightly cooler than Tuscany, and far less visited. Very few tourist make it up here, and there was very little in way of English spoken or given out as an easy menu option. Italian is similar to French, but I really had no idea what most of the menu items were. A happy accident: ordering what translated to "meat salad" and instead of getting a green salad with some meat as I had pictured in my mind's eye, I got a lovely mass of beef tartare with fragrant good olive oil, and a smattering of truffles on top. A fantastic way to lunch, and a good way to start off an adventure. Oh, and I had always just had beef tartare with a raw egg mixed in, but this was ethereal. Totally appropriate that this is where the Slow Food movement began.
Even the fog is special in Piedmont.
There's a certain class of grapes called Nebbiolo, which are not harvested until the autumn when the fog starts setting in. A very chatty Swiss man told me all about them, and then some, while pouring liberally.
We did manage to meet up with some friends for a few hours, which is always kind of random and out of place when you are traveling, but fun.
The truffles were lovely as well. Lumpy little nuggets of deep, earthy dankness. You'd buy them pretty much wholesale, or they would charge you by the gram at a restaurant and give you a little planer to shave them over your food. I thought it appropriate to shave the truffle down until your fingerbones poked through as they were that tasty.