Looking for an authentic, family-run restaurant? Trattoria Del Peso in Belvedere Langhe, a tiny village in the Alta Langa (Upper Langhe), in Piedmont is the real deal. Run by the two Schellino brothers, Ezio as front of house and Mauro in the kitchen, this Trattoria has been run by the same family since 1948 and was started by the 'nonna' of the two brothers. It was originally started as just rooms, with the trattoria to feed guests. Now open only for lunch, the menu changes daily, and Mauro's philosophy is to provide a traditional-style menu of a string of tastes, but never too heavy or too much so that you could easily come back and eat there the next day. Clever. The Sunday menu is more extensive and elaborate than the simple weekday lunch, designed to allow a longer celebration of the dining occasion, whether it's a meal between friends or family or colleagues.
Decorated with gingham tablecloths, rustic glasses, an historical display of truffle slicers, cooking implements and vintage posters, to say this place oozes of traditional character is an understatement. Then there is an old telephone booth, in the corner, which was quite unbelievably occupied by an old lady for the first 45 minutes our lunch! This brown and completely soundproofed booth - I was told - operated as the town’s single public phone booth many years ago. If only the walls could talk…
And the food was just as full of tradition, but with real character. We were there on a Sunday, and started with fresh figs with local Tuma cheese, delicate poached cod (merluzzo) with boiled potatoes, spicy breaded prawns on skewers, carne cruda (seasoned raw meat) topped with aromatic shaved black truffle, and crumbed fresh porcini. This was followed by agnolotti del plin (meat-filled agnolotti, pinched (‘plin’ in Piedmontese dialect)), and tajarin (egg noodle pasta) with porcini and black truffle, then roast lamb cutlets with prunes and fried semolina. The dessert platter was a sublime trio of pannacotta with a hint of coffee, budino (a traditional amaretto flavoured milk pudding) and pesche ripiene (poached peaches stuffed with chocolate and amaretti biscuits). True to Mauro's philosophy, the portions were not too big, so at the end of the meal you didn't feel like you had overeaten.
Coupled with some great local wine (such as Del Tetto Favorita, Gillardi Dolcetto D'Alba and Moscato d’Asti) plus limoncello, grappa and coffee, it's the kind of place you can easily while away the day. There is also a ping pong table out the back in a sun-filled room, and an old wooden bar for coffee and digestifs. Attached to the restaurant is an alimentary store (tabaccheria), from which the perfume of truffles was emanating into the restaurant!
A great, homey place. Will be back soon, maybe tomorrow!
It’s early morning near the end of summer in Monforte D’Alba. The fog is still lingering from the night before. It brings an eerie, almost mystical atmosphere. And I’m excited! I am doing a late summer truffle hunt this morning with one of my trusted truffle hunters, and his gorgeous dog.
It was raining in the morning, and he calls to check that I’m ok to go out in the rain. Er, hello! I didn’t buy gumboots for nothing. I want the authentic experience (I never do ‘simulated’ truffle hunts). I ask – is it ok for the truffles? He says it’s fine for the truffles, so I say let’s go! And go we did…. in his old 4x4 fiat panda. These cars are purpose built – small and nimble, but with the 4x4 capacity necessary to navigate this hilly countryside. There is a lot of mud, and the car is slipping and sliding down a deep descent, surrounded by vineyards, into the little valley. I am a little scared but I feel alive!
We arrive in a picturesque spot, where there is forest all around and small plantation of hazelnut trees. Out pops his canine friend, Cheetah, a brown and white curly-haired dog of almost 6 years. She is relatively young, and exceptionally well-trained and you instantly see the bond between truffle hunter and dog. He talks of her affectionately, and rightly so, as it is her ability which is critical in being able to sniff out these underground delights!
He tells me this spot is relatively convenient and easy, but we are already jumping streams and ducking under foliage. (I’m interested to see the difficult spots!) But I am taken aback by the beauty of the woods – a very green and healthy collection of poplars, ivy, ground cover, and other very tall trees (oak, walnut etc). It’s all completely wild and natural, but you couldn’t have made it more attractive if you tried - an enchanted forest; all your childhood books blended into one experience.
Even while we are chatting about life as a truffle hunter, he has a keen eye on his dog. She is pacing around the forest floor, eager to please and scope out the hidden gems. Suddenly, she gets excited and starts digging. Then stops and quickly comes back to the hunter for a treat. He tells us that she has learned this technique, of finding the truffle, but not digging too much, because when they come at night, and you can’t see, she sniffs out the truffle, comes back and tells her master where it is, and then together they go, with torch in hand to collect the prize. It’s obviously important, particularly with the more precious and delicate white truffle, that the dog doesn’t dig too close for fear of damaging the outer flesh. The more perfect-looking and intact is the truffle, the higher the pricetag.
She has found a sizeable black truffle. It is the summer variety found in Italy between June and early September, not to be mistaken with another type of black truffle, sometimes also called ‘black truffle’ or ‘Perigord truffle’, which is a winter truffle, with darker flesh and white marbling. It is more highly prized than the summer black truffle, which has a paler, beige flesh. Neither of these, however, is as esteemed as the white truffle of Alba, found in the areas around Alba (the Langhe) and Asti. The season for the white truffle is from late September to January, but it depends of course upon the climactic conditions. For example, 2012 was too dry, and as a result, I am told, there weren’t many truffles, and the quality wasn’t good. Because of the scarcity, unfortunately this caused the price to skyrocket, although not because of the quality. In the height of truffle season the white truffle could fetch as high as EUR600 per 100g, although generally the price is more around EUR250 – 300 per 100g.
The truffle hunter tells me that he comes out two or three times a day (perhaps morning, after lunch and then during the night). This is because there is no way to know positively when the truffles will be ready. Evolutionary speaking, truffles (as an underground tuber) lost the ability to spread their spores through the air and instead rely upon fungivores (truffle eaters) to find the tuber for spore dispersion. That is why the sexual spores of the truffle have an attractive perfumed scent. But it seems that the precise point at which the sex spores are ready can be as elusive as the truffles themselves (is there no app for measuring this cycle??). As a result, he tells me that he sometimes goes over one section with his dog, and finds nothing, only to find truffles on the way back! With such uncertainty, and fine timing, it’s no wonder he comes three times a day or as often as he can. And for this, it is a job of real passion and patience.
After a couple more location changes and a fair few more black truffles in tow, we finish up. And so how does one best enjoy these fine delicacies? The truffle hunter swears the best way to enjoy the white truffle is with egg, with the freshest white truffle of Alba generously shaved on top. He explains that you should never cook the white truffle because it loses its aromas. (Check out my blog post on Piazza Duomo, where I report on the best place to eat white truffle in Alba, IMHO.)
A good day hunting? Perhaps - he says - but the epitome for our trifolau is in November or December, when it’s cold (possibly freezing as there can be snow) and he strikes gold and finds a big white truffle. It’s humbling to see a man of some years be so emotionally touched, still, by the search with his dog friend for the elusive white treasure.
I organise real truffle hunt tours leaving from Monforte D’Alba from the months of June – January, conditions permitting.
Eleanor Fletcher - living in the heart of the Langhe, Monforte D'Alba (Barolo). Searching for great eats, formidable drinks and fun times. Married to a Barolo and Barbaresco producer, plus a mother of two 'principesse'.