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.
If you’re a fine diner, on any trip to the Langhe in Piedmont (or even Italy, for that matter), it would be remiss of you not to consider visiting the three-Michelin starred restaurant, Piazza Duomo, which overlooks the piazza of the same name in Alba, the town that plays host to the international white truffle fair every year in October and November. The restaurant, a project of the Ceretto family, famous wine-producers of the Langhe and head chef Enrico Crippa, is the Langhe’s only three-Michelin starred restaurant, and one of eight in all of Italy. Crowned by the Michelin guide as the best restaurant in Piedmont in arguably the best region for food in Italy, it is possibly one of the best restaurants in Italy. And having dined there recently, I can confirm it is all that it is cracked up to be – simply an unforgettable experience, where eating the white truffle of Alba is a work of art.
The entrance is an almost unmarked door down a laneway off the main piazza of Alba, a small but internationally famous formerly walled Roman town. The door is a deep crimson hue, and made me think that the restaurant would have a sensual and brooding atmosphere. Once inside, however, the feeling is quite different. Walking up brightly-lit stairs we were greeted by the charming maître d’. The décor is somewhat understated, minimalist, very modern and sleek but not cold or sterile. Adorned on the walls is an incredible work of art depicting, among other things, the 7 continents of the world in grape leaf formations. Jackets are taken and anticipation is high, and we are taken to one of very few tables in an incredibly intimate space. But ‘intimate’ may in fact be a misnomer because even though the room is small, the tables are set well apart allowing patrons to talk without being overheard. Also the lighting is strangely bright but I decided that this is because the food and wine are serious business here and you need to see properly all dishes in perfect light, like exhibiting art at a gallery.
But given the small number of tables (probably less than 30), you feel like you are sharing an exclusive experience with the other diners; a sort of private show that is somehow performed night after night, year after year, with relentless meticulousness. I never felt even a hint of weariness. I have dined twice at Piazza Duomo and both times the energy and enthusiasm exhibited by all players was admirable. Perhaps this is because Piazza Duomo has enjoyed a meteoric rise and there has been no time to stand still or get bored. Opened in 2005, it gained its first Michelin star in 2006, the second in 2009 and was crowned with its third Michelin star on 14 November 2012, when head chef Enrico Crippa was only 41 years of age.
Crippa himself has an impressive CV, having won twice first prize at the Sologne Artistic Cuisine Competition (in 1990 and 1992). And when you see the presentation of the food, learning of this accolade should come as no surprise. All the restaurant’s dishes are presented as pieces of art. One of my favourite dishes is the Panna Cotta Matisse. Panna cotta is a traditional dessert from Piedmont, but the presentation of Crippa’s version is formidable, and makes eating it a shame.
Another stand out dish is the salad known as 21….31….41. One of his signature dishes, the name refers to the number of ingredients that varies depending upon the season, with 41 ingredients at the height of Spring with the most ‘biodiverse’ example of the salad adorned with beautiful microflowers, versus the more restrained winter version of 21 leaves, herbs and garnishes. The method of eating the salad is an art form in itself. It is served in a small upright bowl, you are provided with pincers and instructed to commence at the top of the salad and work your way down to the bottom, as the salad is constructed in a particular way to ensure that the flavours develop in the most pleasing way. At the end, there is a small petri dish of Japanese inspired dressing, that serves as a sort of palate cleanser.
Having been lucky enough to eat the white truffle of Alba a number of times, I can say that the best white truffle dish I have ever had, and possibly the best dish of my life, was Crippa’s signature white truffle dish. This elegant dish is a potato cream, with Lapsang Souchong tea, quail egg and a generous amount of shaved white truffle, served in a beautiful and delicate glass vessel. The recipe was showcased at the Truffle Fair of Alba in 2012 and having read the recipe, there is no way you would ever try to recreate this dish at home. It is truly a dish better left to the experts, to be enjoyed in Alba during the seasonal truffle fair, when the electric atmosphere descends upon Alba during the second half of October and November for the white truffle. Other diners confessed to me that, having sampled many other restaurant’s attempts at showcasing the Alba white truffle, this was by far the most spectacular. Simply put, unforgettable.
What more can I say. Crippa is a genius. Just make sure you book in advance to avoid disappointment.
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'.