Squeezed into a twenty-seater bus is not my idea of the nicest way to travel, but this is where we found ourselves as we headed along the roads bound for Alba, two hours south-west of Milan. It was off to for the Alba International White Truffle Fair. We sat in the back of the bus. Apparently, the cool kids sit in the back of the bus. There was certainly no coolness in me as sensed the oncoming of nausea as we rocked and swayed in response to the swerve and rumble of the roads we found ourselves on. I had expected to be traveling on motorways, and we did for a while, complete with ten minutes at a typical European motorway food and fuel stop, but much of the trip was through towns, with roundabouts and traffic.
I talked for a while, and then turned my eyes to the outside, to the passing landscape of northern Italy. Hills gave way to plains, rich farmland that provided the raw materials for the staples of diet.
Three hours after boarding we were dropped off at an intersection with no idea of where we would go to find the festival. I took a photo of the street name, just in case we would later have to ask for how to return the same spot, the one where we would catch the bus back in the afternoon.
We followed an empty street that felt to be in the right direction and five minutes later spilled out into a narrow alleyway where a weekly market was in full flow.
A steady stream of people, faces half hidden under the obligatory masks, of these days flowed through either side of the stalls in the middle, obeying what seemed to be an unwritten rule. To go east you walked on the north side, to go west, on the south side. Carabinieri, security personnel and badged volunteers meandered through the crowds, subtly indicating when masks were not fitted just right. In passing, I looked at the clothes, and knick knacks, that were being peddled. I had no interest in these but thought of the sellers and what they lives might have been like. Was this their only source of income? Was this a second little business for something extra? When did they rest? How long has they been doing this?
Ten minutes or so of shuffling later, and after resisting the waft of roasting chestnuts, we came across a sign on an alleyway wall, with an arrow signalling the path to the “entrata”.
A scan of our Covid Vaccination Certificates, a blue paper wristband that reminded me of what I had worn at the climbing gym in Singapore so many times, and 30 euros later, we were inside the enclosure with a wine glass in hand. We were in truffle land.
I should say now that the other than one lovely salad, the only truffle I had ever had previously was truffle fries. I don’t know if this was real truffle or not but they were good. I knew from cooking shows that truffles were used in other dishes, but I had no idea how much they were used in the seasonal production of local food. One side of the courtyard saw the local wineries offering tastings of their wines, many of which I had not heard of before. We bypassed these and went to the tent on the right, at the end to take a glass of local red which was included with the ticket (actually 2 glasses of local red). From there it was a wander in the central stalls which were selling truffles, and some other, less regal, fungi.
I thought of how much the displays looked like a jeweller’s with all of the gems carefully sat behind glass. And no wonder really. The white truffles sell for 500 euros a kilogram. The black truffles are about 120 euro a kilogram. I don’t know why the price is different, I don’t know how they taste different, but they do look different. Had I been adventurous, and wealthier, and bought a truffle, I would then have taken it to the central booth and got it certified as being authentic by a series of truffle judges! All for what is a piece of fungus, perhaps a rare one with a short shelf life, but a piece of fungus nevertheless.
The far end of the courtyard housed the eatery of the affair where, apparently, the meal to be had was poached eggs with truffle. I was somewhat tempted, but the queue was long and local produce stalls that lined the left side of the courtyard awaited after a red refill. I had imagined that truffle cheese would be a thing, but not the extend of cheeses that had truffle. Soft cheeses, hard cheeses, round cheeses, blue cheeses – all with truffle. Plenty of truffly meat products too for the non-vegetarians to sample. I did try a few nuts but couldn’t tell you if they were truffle flavoured.
Truffles seemed to infuse all manner of other prettily presented foods: jams, spreads, preserved fruits, biscotti, pasta, oils, vinegars, and likely others that I don’t look at closely. Unfortunately, the truffle cooking event was all booked out but I did manage a glimpse of a chef’s hat bobbling away through the crack in the doorway when one of the events staff passed through. Time to exit.
We still had some time on our hands and so we wandered through the town that was filled with people at cafes and restaurants. A visit to the richly adorned Chiesa di Santa Maria Maddalena and a coffee/wine, people watching interlude took us to the time when the Chiesa San Domenica-cum-art gallery, housing an exhibition of Piero Simondo’s work, opened for the afternoon visitation hours.
From there it was into the town square, with its imposing Cattedrale di San Lorenzo which, alas, was closed.
I noticed tours being conducted and found out that they were excursions which explored the archaeological sites of the city, many of which were well hidden below view. It would have been nice to join one and delve into the deep, but time was short and so we headed back to our departure point much the way we came. The market was all but gone and the storefronts appeared again. All that was left of the earlier activity were piles of cardboard boxes, and the last of the vendors who were packing their goods into trucks that filled the narrow alleyways. Once again, I asked myself of these people and their lives.
It was quite an experience, but one that seemed to only touch the surface of what could be found there. I don’t know if I will ever make it back to Alba, there is so much to see and do, but if that time comes, I will look forward to learning more about life in this region of the world.