Italy Roundtable: Fall Food Festivals & the Almighty White Truffle

by Jessica on October 11, 2011

by | October 11th, 2011  

This is the fifth installment of the Italy Blogging Roundtable I started with four amazing bloggers in May. Each month we choose a topic and write about our take on it, publishing our articles on the same day – it’s always fun for us to see what the other members of the Roundtable have to say on the same topic, and we hope you enjoy reading each series as well.

This month’s topic is “autumn in Italy.” Do you have suggestions for future topics? Let us know by leaving a note in the comments!

Anyone watching me eat during my travels these days would never guess that as a kid I was the pickiest eater ever. The list of things I “didn’t like” was longer than I was tall, and I’d pick whatever I didn’t like out of my meal. By the end of some dinners, my plate was ringed by a wreath of unwanted morsels.

I’m still not what I’d call a serious adventurer when it comes to food, but I’ve gotten far more daring in what I’m willing to try – especially when I travel. In Italy, a country devoted to great food, this has served me well pretty much every time I’ve been there. At no time of year is my willingness to try new foods more useful, however, than the fall.

Autumn in Italy is, at least so far, my favorite time to be in the country. Aside from the usual reasons – great weather, smaller crowds, slightly lower prices – fall is the season of food festivals. There are, to be sure, festivals going on throughout Italy almost year-round, and many of them have a food component. Food festivals in the fall, however, are focused on one particular type of food when it’s at its peak. It’s a celebration of Italy’s devotion to seasonal cuisine.

Just a few of the notable food festivals in the autumn in Italy are:

Perhaps the most talked-about Italian food festival honors one of the most rare and coveted culinary treats – the white truffle. Each October, the Piedmont town of Alba (also famous for its wine) reminds the world of its status as the center of the white truffle universe with its White Truffle Festival. Sure, there are a few other places in Italy (and in nearby Croatia) that have a seat at the white truffle table, but I find it telling that one of the names for the white truffle is the “Alba madonna.”

Truffles are homely little mushrooms, often resembling rocks or animal droppings more than something you’d want to put in your mouth, that grow underground and are extremely difficult to cultivate. They cluster around the roots of certain trees in certain climates, which is why such limited areas get international fame for producing reliable truffle “crops.”

The traditional animal used to help truffle hunters locate the prized fungi have long been pigs – the trouble is that they’re just as notorious for eating the truffles as they are for finding them. More recently, dogs have been trained to be expert truffle hunters, and man’s best friend is far easier to train to locate but not consume what they find.

This video was shot in Tuscany, but it’s the same kind of truffle hunt that you’d see in the area around Alba:

Truffle hunters guard their best truffle spots jealously (and sometimes with weapons), and the best truffle dogs and pigs are worth their weight in gold truffles. The truffles themselves are so expensive that even in Alba in the fall, when truffles are likely more concentrated to a small area than anywhere else on earth, they’re still used sparingly. One of the most popular ways to eat truffles is to shave thin slices over pasta or fried eggs (lightly dressed, if at all, with a bit of butter), and you’ll also see specialty cheeses that have bits of truffles in them.

People flock to Alba in the fall to attend the White Truffle Festival (or, in Italian, the Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco d’Alba), enjoying exhibits and demonstrations using the white truffle as well as shops and vendors selling the best food and wine the region has to offer. It’s a food festival lover’s dream.

Here’s a video montage of what you can expect at Alba’s White Truffle Festival (if you’re easily offended by cheesy music, you might want to turn your speakers down):

And here’s where I make a potentially dangerous confession: I don’t like truffles.

In point of fact, I don’t like mushrooms of any sort, really, and truffles are so pungent that I don’t even particularly like the smell of them. Enthusiasts may describe mushrooms as “earthy,” and say that truffles – while technically fungi – are really nothing like other mushrooms, but I have yet to try a truffle-related anything that I liked.

My inner 7-year-old imagines having to pick the truffle shavings off the top of a plate of pasta in Alba, but my adult self knows I would never do such a thing – not least because that would be the ultimate expression of la brutta figura known to man, probably. I will continue to try things that I’m not sure I’ll love, including white truffles in Alba, just in case my palate adjusts and I become a convert. (Hey, it happened with wine, right?)

Until that day, if any of you truffle lovers are having dinner with me and I order something with truffles in it, cozy up to me and you just might get my leftovers.

>> Is there a food delicacy that you think you should like – that you want to like – but you just don’t?

More information about Alba’s White Truffle Festival can be found at the official website.

Other Voices from the Italy Blogging Roundtable

Find out what the other members of the Italy Blogging Roundtable conjured up when they thought about “autumn in Italy.”. Click the links below to read their contributions to the Roundtable, and leave comments to join in the conversation. Tune in next month for another Roundtable round-up!

Italy Blogging Roundtable Archives:

photos, top to bottom, by: tuscanycious, Blue moon in her eyes, Blue moon in her eyes


{ 10 comments }

Gloria October 11, 2011 at 11:12 pm
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Yummy truffles (well… not for you I guess!)! In Tuscany one of the most popular fairs is the one in San Miniato, near Pisa. It’s held on the last three weekends of November and it’s huge. And more or less at the same time, in San Giovanni d’Asso, near Siena, in the Crete, there will be a fair dedicated to the white truffle. On Nov. 6th, the latter can also be reached from Siena on a steam engine train (http://www.ferrovieturistiche.it/images/eventi-proposte/VAPORE_TARTUFO_2011.pdf)!

I have never been to Alba, but it’s on my list of places to go to!

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Jessica October 12, 2011 at 2:43 pm
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I think it would be fun to go on a truffle hunt, but I might still skip them at lunch…

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Alexandra October 12, 2011 at 10:45 am
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Haha! Love the surprise ending. You’d do best not to order truffles, then, given the cost!

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Jessica October 12, 2011 at 2:43 pm
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I know, right? Eh, I guess I’m a cheap date. ;)

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Laurel Barton October 13, 2011 at 6:21 pm
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Hi Jessica! We are going to Italy for the entire month of December. Can’t wait! Maybe the roundtable could tackle Christmas in Italy before December starts (selfish, I know!). There’s some info out there on the web, but the personal reflections would be nice. Also would like to know what it’s like in Rome when you walk out of midnight MassL Will people go right home, or is there festivity in the streets? And what to expect when we wake up Christmas Day. Will the city seem deserted (like Portland will be!), or will there be lots of people like us and places to find un cafe e cornetto?

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Jessica October 14, 2011 at 2:05 pm
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Thanks for your note, Laurel – and yay for spending a month in Italy! :) We won’t be able to get to Christmas before December (we already have a November topic chosen!), but here are some resources that might help you with your questions:

http://www.italylogue.com/planning-a-trip/christmas-in-italy.html
http://www.italylogue.com/planning-a-trip/3-favorite-places-to-celebrate-christmas-in-italy-plus-a-giveaway.html
http://www.eyeonitaly.com/podcast/episode-26-visiting-italy-at-christmas/

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Mattie October 15, 2011 at 3:35 pm
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I sometimes have a hard time tasting black truffles, but white truffles are indescribably good:) Only had them in oil or paste, but I’ll be tasting them fresh in Alba in a couple weeks. Tomorrow I’m going white truffle hunting in Istria, Croatia. Can’t wait to see all those truffles for sale at the market!

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Jessica October 17, 2011 at 1:33 pm
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Oooh, have fun on the truffle hunt, Mattie – I do want to go on one of those someday (even if I don’t eat the stuff I’m hunting!).

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Rebecca Winke October 20, 2011 at 6:27 am
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I know where you’re coming from…I am both a foodie and a picky eater, which sometimes leads to culinary schizophrenia. But, hey, it’s part of our charm, right?

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Jessica October 24, 2011 at 5:23 pm
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I really hope it’s part of our charm… :)

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