Beautiful autumn colours. Sunrays warming your body. The outskirts of the Alps seen in the reflections of a blue lake. Rows of vines in green, yellow and red. Hilltop medieval villages with a castello towering above.
And then the food. The pastas, the porcini mushrooms but above all the Tartufo Bianco, the white truffles. Growing hidden underneath the roots of oaks or hazelnut trees, discovered by dogs with their sensitive sense of smell and truffle hunters, sold at auctions in Alba at prices similar to gold or saffron and sampled at countless Michelin starred restaurants around the villages in the Langhe region during the autumn season.
And the king of wines, Barolo. And the prince, Barbaresco. Pungent, strong in taste, matching the truffles perfectly. Our senses go into overdrive. Even our children are euphoric, although they have exchanged the Barolo for a glass of water.
Lago di Orta
We flew into Milan and started our week in Piedmont with a visit to Lago di Orta, the smallest of the northern Italian lakes. We stayed two nights at Orta San Guilio, a medieval town with exciting alleyways leading either down to the lake or up towards the mountain, Sacro Monte di San Francesco. Orta San Guilio is built on a promontory and we walked around it the first day sampling the architecture and the food and the beauty of the lake.
The next morning Mikee and I went up to the Sacro Monte and photographed the lake and its island, Isola San Guilio. Isola San Guilio has a nunnery in its centre and a few lanes to walk and is accessible by boat that goes regularly from Orta San Guilio.
We stayed at Villa Crespi (two stars in Guide Michelin) and had dinner there the first night. The second night we had dinner at Locanda di Orta (one star in Guide Michelin) in the centre of Orta San Guilio, not far from Piazza Motta, the centre of the small town. Locanda di Orta was a hugely positive surprise and one of the many culinary highlights of our trip.
From Lago di Orta we turned south and drove a few hours to Alba, the capital of white truffle. White truffles are in season from late September to beginning December with October and November being the best months. It is found in woods and forests in the Langhe region, where the soil is right for the fungus to grow. It grows entirely underneath the ground in symbiosis with the roots of certain trees including hazelnut, oak, lindens (lime trees) and poplar. The only way to find where they grow is to follow their pungent smell. Dogs and pigs have sensitive noses and are used to track them down. We followed a truffle hunter with his dogs one afternoon and learnt a little of the techniques used to hunt down the elusive fungus.
And the centre for the trade as well as the growing of the truffle is Alba, a beautiful medieval town, and with enough of Italian fashion to attract Mikee and Jennifer apart from the restaurants and the market. We went there for the truffle market on Saturday, squeezing in among all the people looking at the valuable truffles. And Alba is also home to Piazzo Duomo, the three star Guide Michelin restaurant, where a truffle lunch or dinner cost a fortune and is a memory for life. All four of us enjoyed the experience. Due to Jennifer’s and my shopping (we bought a wonderful coat for Jennifer), we came late to Piazza Duomo, and when we arrived Eric and Mikee where already seated at our table, the only children in this palace of worship to the palate.
And we spent lots of time wandering around the many hilltop villages and towns admiring the architecture and looking out at the splendid views of the valleys, often a little bit misty and full of saturated rich autumn colours. And in many of the villages and towns we found lovely restaurants. Not just dinner but lunch too is a solemn affair in this region and you must devote time to it.
Restaurants worthy a return visit
I have already mentioned the three star Piazza Duomo. We have been there before and came back now. And we will definitely be back again. But this was our first time in the truffle season, and it was the culinary highlight of our trip.
We stayed the first days around Alba at Locanda del Pilone, one star in Guide Michelin and another wonderful experience. We came there first in May this year and it was even better now with the white truffle.
On Friday evening we visited Massimo Camia (one star) between Serralunga and Barolo. A very modern setting, in a region where normally all buildings are medieval. But the food was as classic as you could expect.
But the unexpected surprises where maybe the most interesting ones. La Rosa Rossa in Cherasco, where we had lunch on Friday was such a treat. Apart from the obligatory white truffle and the bottle of Barolo we had snails in many forms, a specialty for this little town.
And after the lunch at Piazzo Duomo on Wednesday, we decided to have a simple dinner and sat outside in a courtyard warmed by a fire at Uve in La Morra. The platters of prosciutto and salumi where appreciated by everyone.
Villages and towns worthy a return visit
We loved them all, from Orta San Guilio to Alba. The small hilltowns were hidden gems. We appreciated Serralunga with an enormous castello at the top encircled by a small medieval village and with several small restaurants. La Morra had the church and a piazza with the most gorgeous uninterupted views. Unfortunately it was misty, when we visited La Morra.
And any wine lover must visit Barolo and Barbaresco. Especially Barolo with its enotecas and imposing castle is interesting. Grinzane Cavour has a castello converted into museum and is home to a one star Guide Michelin restaurant. All of these places have small alleyways and are full of medieval buildings. Lovely to stroll around in and with unexpected views showing up suddenly in between the buildings.
After a week we returned back to England full of memories of villages, autumnal landscapes and a culture and heritage rich of food and wine.