A Trip to Alba: Not Only Good Truffles
It is a very reassuring feeling to begin to be known in a locale. This was our fourth trip to Alba and always the same hotel but miraculously we seem to graduate to better rooms. We are also getting quite good in driving from a small town to another and distances that seemed to be an hour driving took only 25 minutes or so this year (such as driving from our hotel in Alba to Albaretto della Torre or to Cervere).
I am starting to develop some firm beliefs with regard to which dishes go best with truffles. The list is actually quite short. Heading the list is fried eggs (sometimes with fonduta) with truffles. It is not possible to have this in the States as I have never tasted eggs that good here, even the farm eggs. A close contender is hand chopped raw veal: Carne crudi. Again it is not possible to have such a thing here as the Piemontese veal is very special and the labor intensive process too costly. Third, some vegetable flan, such as cardoons with fonduta is a good match with truffles. Among the pasta dishes, the traditional thin noodles called tajarin is the best, even better than risotto as a match for truffles. The traditional agnolotti is good too, but perhaps a tad less suitable for truffles than tajarin. Apart from what I mentioned, you can serve white truffles with whatever you want (quail salad, raw fish, potato soup, veal scaloppini, even game) but Piemontese will sneer at you and for good reason.
A harder question is to gauge the quality of truffles. Alba truffles are attached to the roots of 3 kinds of trees: oak, beech. and cedar. When you scratch the surface, you can surmise the origin: beech is lightest, oak is brown and cedar is reddish. I used to think that a light color is associated with the degree of ripeness but this is clearly wrong. Actually some of the most aromatic truffles are very light in color. But my provisional conclusion is that beech tree imparts a more delicate and perfumed aroma to the truffle. Oak, on the other hand, gives an aroma which is more garlicky and pronounced.
Besides two qualities clearly matter: freshness and size. Size is important aesthetically and also when you grate it you get larger slices and, everything else equal, the aroma is more pronounced. Truffles which are not consumed within a week or so start losing their aromas and the texture becomes softer. I am afraid most of the truffles we eat in the States are simply not on par with what you get in the reputable places in Piemonte.
This time we tried some old favorites with friends and I convinced them to give a shot to Antica Corone Reale di Renzo in Cervere. Besides, we dined at Da Cesare and had lunch at Trattoria della Posta in Monforte d'Alba. My wife and I had a quick meal at Antine in Barbaresco, too.
My strategy in these meals consisting of ordering one or two portions with truffles only, instead of a full truffle menu. This way, we tried some exceptional dishes.
Da Renzo, in my opinion, is the best restaurant in Langhe today. Their is a father and son team in the kitchen and the cooking is both intense and refined. Even the amuse, fonduta with cotechino sausage is extraordinary. The local snails with young leeks from Cervere is a signature dish and perhaps the best snail dish I have tasted. I had a taste of the fried eggs with fonduta and truffles that somebody else has ordered and this was the beginning of the conversion for me to see the happy marriage. The hand chopped veal they use for truffles is simply garnished with olive oil and the taste is stunning. The gobbi is so transparent and the hand chopped veal so tasty that it is the contender to the best pasta dish after the demise of Guido (their hand cut agnolotti was rightly legendary).
Main courses are equally successful. Roasted suckling pig with balsamic vinegar is as good as one can get in Spain (say, at Zuberoa) and the pork is the noble Cinte Senese variety(very rare and an endangered species). They also prepare a traditional dish called finanziera consisting of internal organs of very young veal and cock's comb, held together by cooking juices and cream. Brain, sweetbread, kidneys, heart, liver, tripe and gelatinous feet all vye for attention in this memorable dish. Certainly a cardiologist's dream.
I was also very fortunate that the group I was together with let me order the wines in all places we visited. Ordering wine is a source of potential tension and this is one reason why I am sometimes reluctant to dine out with people whose wine taste I don't know. My meal gets ruined if I set my eye to a bottle and if the other party thinks otherwise. Fortunately this was not a problem in our little group as both Robert and Ulrich turned out to be ideal dining companions, deferring to my judgement. I hope I did not let them down and of the four bottle we drank, I strongly recommend the 1999 Roberto Voerzio Barolo Brunate to friends. This is a wine that hides its 14.5% alcohol well and the new oak is perfectly integrated in the overall structure and the creaminess that I associate with old vines. A delight with suckling pig and finanziera. Too strong for the delicate truffle (in my opinion, the best match for Alba truffles is an aged Meursault from the likes of Jobard or Coche or Roulot, but I can not find them in Piemonte and settle for a Barbera).
The following day we had lunch at Trattoria Posta. It seems that I like the restaurant more than Robert did and this might be because we ordered different things. Their onion fonduta with salsicce was very good but the porcini and bacon with tomatoes baked in chestnut leaves even better.
The agnolotti del plin with ground veal, reggiano and herbs was very good too. Yet, it did not have the ethereal quality of the similar dish at Renzo. I included this picture to show 2 different truffles (beech and oak) in the dish. As I was asking too many questions, they let me see for myself and compare the two. I still could not reach a conclusion other than concluding that they were generous with portions and charged less per 100 grams than what Robert and I paid to a dealer when we bought a mid-sized truffle to take to a Swiss restaurant/inn near Lugano when we spent a night before they returned to Nice and we moved on to Verona (Motto di Gallo).
The best dish at Trattoria Posta though was the roasted goose breast with goose liver and balsamico. The goose liver was well integrated in the sauce and the goose was caramelized outside and juicy inside. Basically the dish was a confit and it was deeper in taste than a duck confit. It went extremely well with the 2000 Masseto which was perhaps a crime to drink but at the price an understandable crime. To be honest, this is the first Masseto I tried and I was impressed by its breed and iron backbone. It is neither like a Pomerol or an opulent Washington Merlot but not a strange animal either. It has some hints of complexity and I would like to hear from somebody if they know how Massetos age. I liked it more than Redigaffi that I know better.
The same night we went to Da Cesare for dinner. It was a delight to see Cesare in good shape. This is my third time there and my good memories held. Of course, I had come for the capretto, the young goat, that Cesare spit roasts in the special fire place. How does that look?
While writing this, I remembered that SteveP had gone to great lenghts to describe the taste of this dish at eGullet. He had said that it is between veal and lamb but like neither of them. If this is what he said, or if I attribute to him, I can not add much. They hack it up to pieces and serve in a large platter. You choose a few pieces and they serve a second later. The skin is wonderfully crisp and smoky and the meat is moist and a dash pleasantly chewy. It is served with nice chips.
One problem with Cesare is that he does not have a dish which goes very well with truffles. He has a risotto but his risotto is of average quality. In return, what he calls langithat is agnolotti with castelmagno cheese is exceptional. It explodes in the mouth. The only problem is that the castelmagno is a bit strong for truffle.
We also had a small wild duck. The same day, we had seen hunters on the road with their funny hats chasing game. I was careful to eat my duckling just in case a bullet was still inside but this did not turned out to be the case. Joke aside, the last baby wild duck I had eaten was a lackluster preparation at l'Esperance in Burgundy. Cesare roasted it to order and to perfection with a medley of vegetables and lots of roasted garlic. A delight...
Desserts are very good at Cesare. I like their extremely rich zabaione with moscato but Robert found it too sweet and he prefers the preparation with spumante. In his turn Robert raved about his sorbet with grappa and wild herbs and he ordered a second. The small bite I had made an impression. My favorite on the other hand was the semifreddo of mandarino which was as intense and flavorful as the rest of Cesare's cooking.
Of the 4-5 bottles we ordered at Cesare, the most noteworthy one was again a Barolo Roberto Voerzio. Another 99 but Cerequio, not Brunate. This is more opulent and ready to drink but a tad less concentrated than the Brunate.
We went to Antinein Barbaresco for lunch and ordered only a tajarin and fried eggs with truffles. The latter is so simple yet satisfying:
We shortshifted Antine but they made a good impression. Is there any one star in France that you can order only 2 appetizers and 2 espressos with half bottle of red wine? You can, but they will let you know that they are unhappy. Not in Piemonte. They actually served some very fresh chocolate truffles and petit fours with the espressos and they were extremely kind. This is a place I would like to return.
Prices were very reasonable despite the weak $ and the quality of truffles very good.