We Still Didn’t Drink All The Vino: Mai Tai Tom’s 2018 Return To Italy
CHAPTER ELEVEN: DOGGING IT WHILE TRACKING TRUFFLES
DAY ELEVEN – Get Me To The Station On Time, Going To The Dogs, Don’t Tell Where We Are, The “Ronaldo Of Truffle Dogs,” Wandering The “Capital Of White Truffles”, Crushed In Barbaresco, Praying For A Wine Choice, One View Better Than The Next, Stamp My UNESCO Card Again, Terrace Time Picnic, Truffle Time & Dinner Amongst The Boxes
Another gorgeous day in paradise … aka La Morra.
After gazing out at a beautiful sunrise, we gathered for a feast in the Rocche Costamagna breakfast room. Soon we would be out in the wild for a little hunting expedition.
About a month before we left for Italy, I had contacted Meet Piemonte (a tour operator) and set up a White Truffle Hunt for the six of us. Our plan was to meet our guide/interpreter along with a man and his truffle hunting dog at the Alba train station at 10 a.m.
We hopped in our two cars. Greg and Gloria followed me as we headed toward Alba. The GPS we had rented from AutoEurope was a little haywire so Kim got out his phone … and Mary got out her phone. Tracy, realizing this had disaster written all over it, tried to climb in the boot.
Soon, the three GPS systems started directing me to the train station. All would have been fine if they were on the same page. Simultaneously the systems blurted out, “Turn left.” Turn right.” Finally, we went back to one system and our caravan arrived at the Alba train station about 9:58. We parked our cars and went in search of our guides.
One slight problem, when we met them we saw their car could only fit two persons plus a dog. We had wrongly assumed we were going in a van. Instead, we were to follow them. Kim went back to get the car, but when he tried to get out, he was unable to exit because the brain trust had not read the sign that we needed to pre-pay. Finally, Elisa, our Meet Piemonte guide, helped us figure out how to exit, and we headed for the hills near Alba,
We reached a remote spot after driving up a windy back road, and the hunt was about to begin. Elisa introduced us to Giovanni and man’s best friend, the two-year-old Brittany Spaniel named Nira.
What a cutie!
In Italian, with Elisa translating, Giovanni told us that Nira’s mother was the “Ronaldo” of truffle dogs, worth approximately $100,000! He has seven dogs he rotates for truffle hunting as it is a very strenuous activity for the dogs (not to mention, Giovanni). He said Nira isn’t quite the dog her mother is, but she’s still learning.
Giovanni told us that when he’s not truffle hunting, he is a wine maker with a place not too far from Barolo. Truffle season had just begun, and he said his days sometimes last up to 20 hours. He added that nighttime is the best time for truffle hunting as the scent of the truffles is stronger and there are less distractions. As he started the next part of his introduction his expression turned into a sly smile as he told us truffle hunting is quite lucrative, so he has to keep the area he hunts a secret, so if we told anyone it would not be good for us. I told Elisa that wouldn’t be a problem since we barely found the train station.
We hiked into the woods, and as we trudged along, Nira was traversing the hills, running nimbly up and down the steep slopes in search of truffles. I hadn’t seen anyone navigate so quickly over dangerous terrain since our waitress at the Buza Bar in Dubrovnik.
At one point Nira started digging, and Giovanni ran to that spot. He explained he had to get there quickly because Nira would have eaten the truffle. Was it a white truffle? No, it was a black truffle. As they might say … “So Nira, yet so far-a.” Well, maybe not.
Soon Nira was at it again, and sure enough she struck pay dirt (from the dirt that pays).
It was a white truffle.
In our hour or so of hunting Nira found two black truffles and one white truffle.
The entire experience last about 90 minutes and it was great fun.
Some people might think it’s a little hokey, but we had a blast! I highly recommend it.
After hearing what a loser I was driving into Alba, Elisa hopped in her car back at the train station and led us to a parking lot located near the center of town. She also gave us restaurant and gelato recommendations.
There was a festive atmosphere walking into Alba past a carrousel. People were setting up for the Alba White Truffle Fair, which would commence in two days.
That truffle hunting can make you hungry, so we walked down the main drag (Via Vittorio Emanuele ) toward Vincafé, which Elisa had told us about. Of course, we hadn’t seen a church since yesterday afternoon, so first we ducked inside Chiesa di S. Maria Maddalena.
The main altar is dedicated to Santa Maria Maddalena.
At the top of the altar, we saw the famed Silver Urn that once held the body of Margherita di Savoia (Blessed Margaret of Savoy). Margherita had “requested and obtained the permission for the foundation of a new Dominican monastery, dedicated to St. Mary Magdalene.”
Finally, the oval ceiling of this elliptical interior pays homage to the Savoy dynasty. The church was constructed in 1749.
Lunch at Vincafé was terrific. I was now totally addicted to ravioli with sage butter.
One good church deserves another (or two) so we headed over to Cattredale San Lorenzo, whose bell tower dates back to the 12th century.
This pretty much was a “wow” from the time we entered and saw the glorious ceiling and colorful interior.
There is a chapel dedicated to a saint that has the coolest saint name. The Chapel of Saint Bobo has an 1872 painting of the saint.
We checked out The Veneration of the Madonna of the Rosary and an ancient baptismal font.
Perhaps the most interesting thing we saw here were the 34 wood-carved chorus stalls dating back to 1512. From the occasionally correct Wikipedia, “The images alternate in their subject matter. They depict differing views of development of the city of Alba, actually inventing architectural features.”
Alba is known as “The City of 100 Medieval Towers” and is definitely a spot I could stay on a future trip to the Piemonte area. Tracy simply wrote, “I love Alba!”
Our last stop on the Alba church circuit was Chiesa di S. Giovanni Battista, making it a beautiful church trifecta.
The 19th-century Side altar of St. Augustine with a 1508 painting of the Virgin Mary stood out.
A couple of more side chapels, and we were off to find gelato.
Alba’s buildings were adorned with flags, I assume in anticipation of the festival.
In a matter of moments were walking into La Romana dal 1947 for some gelato. There were lots of tempting sweets, but somehow we only went for gelato.
Back in the car, we headed toward the UNESCO World Heritage town of Barbaresco. Virtually all the drives in Piemonte are gorgeous, but heading up the hill to Barbaresco the views were spectacular.
Rolling hills of vineyards stretched as far as the eye could see.
As we got closer, I saw the house where Tracy and I will live one day.
While Greg and Gloria relaxed with a glass of wine, the four us walked past the Church of San Giovanni Battista, currently under restoration.
It was fairly quiet on this Wednesday, which only added to its charm.
You could tell it was autumn by the smell permeating the air. The crush was on, and we walked by all those grapes that would someday occupy a bottle on my table.
There were thoughts of perhaps scaling the 11th-century Torre di Barbaresco. Fortunately the views out over the valley were so stupendous that going higher really didn’t make sense, especially to my legs.
When we first entered town, there was a building I wanted to explore on the way back to the car. A deconsecrated church sits across the street from the Church of San Giovanni Battista. This former religious establishment was an old parish church whose interior has been redone. It’s now the Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco. Inside, you can choose from wines made by more than 130 different wineries.
We, of course, bought a few bottles of vino while admiring its beautiful ceiling.
Walking back to the car I stopped to read a sign about a bike route, which is a 7-stage circuit that goes from Barbaresco to Barolo and back. There are lots of ways to go, and in addition to drinking some good wine, it gives bikers a chance to enjoy some medieval towns. Ah, to be young again!
We could have called it a day, but that’s not the way we roll. With beautiful scenery at every turn …
… in 20 minutes we were at Grinzane Cavour. Staring at a steep path I was about to climb, we stopped by the bust of Camillo Benso (the Count of Cavour) who was an instrumental figure in the movement for Italian unification. The name of this town was originally just Grinzane, but changed its name in honor of the aforementioned Count of Cavour, who also served as mayor for 17 years.
As we walked toward our destination, the Castello di Grinzane Cavour, we made a brief stop in Chiesa Parrocchiale di Maria Vergine del Carmine, a small church, but a good place for an old man to catch his breath.
A few minutes later after a little huffing and puffing we were at the castle.
Sweeping views in literally every direction took our breath away (or it might have been the climb).
The one-time home of the Count of Cavour is situated in an ideal spot. There truly is not a bad view be found.
The castle houses the Enoteca Regionale Piemontese Cavour (Piemonte Regional Wine Cellar). This “Ethnographic Museum includes several rooms that house a permanent museum which includes displays on truffles, rare articles relating to the local food and wine tradition, 17th and 19th-century kitchen settings, a distillery from the 1700’s, a cask-maker’s workshop, and rural life.” We paid €6 and entered. The first thing I saw were the stairs. Onward and upward.
We toured many of the rooms …
… and I found it mildly interesting.
The views were worth the admittance price.
It also houses a Michelin Star restaurant and some lovely foliage for Tracy.
It was a short 15-minute drive back to La Morra. On the walk from the parking lot to Rocche Costamagna, we stopped in a little store to purchase cheese, crackers and some of the most delicious prosciutto for that evening’s terrace pre-dinner soirée (we were fully stocked with vino).
After a 10-minute power nap, we freshened up and soon the six of us were enjoying the gorgeous views while nibbling on this great food.
I believe this might be the most beautiful spot we’ve ever had one of these “picnics,” and we have been blessed with many incredible places. Well, it might tie with a place we’d stay within a week.
For dinner, nobody had to get the boot, because Osteria More e Macine restaurant was located within a block from the B&B.
We were led downstairs to a table located next to a bunch of wine boxes. As you might surmise, this is a casual restaurant.
Right up there with truffle-hunting dog Nira and the Buza bar waitress were the servers here risking life and limb. They deftly climbed and descended stairs (two or three at a time) serving the meals. I pulled a hamstring just watching them as I ate some delicious bread.
In a “When in La Morra” moment I ordered the risotto with white truffles for my appetizer (€2.85 per gram). They brought out my risotto with the scale and started shaving that baby as white truffles drifted down on my risotto. I might have been too captivated by this scene, because by the time I said “stop,” it had cost a few more bucks than I thought.
It was at this time I was happy we split the bill (thanks guys). It was delicious.
Tracy started with an eggplant flan with a parmesan crisp and risotto with corn and bacon (we think it was just bacon bits, so were not overly impressed).
Even with my white truffles and three bottles of wine, the bill came out to €62.50 a couple.
Tomorrow, we’d explore more Piemonte hill towns. Along the way we’d hit a wine museum, the steepest streets this side of San Francisco, find ourselves on a road where we hoped no cars would be traveling in the opposite direction, make an unexpected stop to take photos of incredible rows of trees and take part in a photo shoot from a spot we’d been earlier in the day.
Before our terrace picnic, Tracy and I would walk around a little bit of La Morra (it’s amazing she stays married to me). Our dinner would take me far outside my comfort zone … and it was worth taking the chance.
Next: DAY TWELVE – Roll Out The Barolo, Right Out Of Disney, Snow In Piemonte, A Hill Of A Climb, This Might Have Been A Mistake, 18-Wheeler Dead Ahead, Is This A Movie Set, Guided Tours Only, No Bra, A Poplar Spot and That’s Using Your Brain