We spent a few days in northern Italy in early November. Our destination was Piedmont, and the white truffle festival at Alba.
Because Piedmont is a bit of a ways from here, we stopped off on the way in Rovigo, to see an exhibit of “Giapponismo”: European responses to Japanese art, which became available in Europe in the latter half of the 19th C. The exhibit included a few works by Van Gogh and Monet, whose work was heavily influenced by Japanese art. They also included a number of works by Italian artists, who incorporated Japanese sensibilities into ceramics, glassware, furniture making, even posters.
We next stopped at Cremona — intending just to have lunch, we wound up staying the whole afternoon. Cremona was the first city I saw on my very first trip to Italy, in 1970, and I had forgotten how nice it was. The city has a fine cathedral, a baptistery with a brick dome whose construction techniques anticipated Brunelleschi’s by 200 years, and a climbable (500 steps) bell tower which offered fine views of the countryside.
Cremona also has a fine museum dedicated to the great violin makers of the 17th and 18th Centuries – the Amati, Guarneri and Stradivarius families – who did their work here. The museum has, as you might expect, a number of examples of these historic instruments. But they also had some more interesting exhibits, including listening rooms where you could hear these instruments’ unique sounds.
No one knows why these instruments sound precisely the way they do. One theory is that, because this period of European history was unusually cold (it is sometimes called the “Little Ice Age”), the wood produced in the local forests was especially dense.
The white truffle fair in Alba was something of a zoo. You paid your 4 euro to enter the big tent, and got to walk by tables of huge white truffles selling for crazy prices: 350 euro per 100 grams, which is close to $2,000 a pound. At those prices, most of the buyers were professionals. But the aroma was available to all at no additional charge.
During truffle season, every restaurant had truffles on the menu. One of the classic ways to eat them is with tajarin, the local egg noodles, served with a simple butter sauce and fresh white truffles shaved on top. The truffles here aren’t much cheaper than anywhere else, but you do get more of them. And they seem to taste and smell better here. No one has yet figured out how to cultivate white truffles – they have to be located in the field, these days using specially trained truffle-hunting dogs. That’s one of the reasons they are so expensive. And no one has figured out how to preserve or dry these truffles very successfully either. They are really best eaten fresh not far from where they are found.
Ted unaccountably ate non-truffles occasionally, including a rabbit dish made with bitter chocolate and balsamic vinegar which reminded us of mole (although without the chili peppers).
We also visited the town of Asti, which has some interesting churches.
We took the opportunity to buy wines from the Barbaresco and Roero districts, which we have always enjoyed a lot. Much of the wine here is grown by small family-owned operations. When I mentioned to one winemaker that a particular wine I had had at a restaurant seemed unusually high in alcohol, he told me that this was a characteristic of the whole region. While his grandfather had struggled to make wine with an alcohol content of 13%, these days winemakers struggled to keep it below 15%. Some of this is due to higher average temperatures – generally, the hotter the growing season, the higher the alcohol content of the wine, as winemakers from California to Australia can attest. But even in cooler years, the wines are still coming in at 14.5% alcohol, considerably higher than they used to be. Some oenologists in Alba believe that the vines are adapting to changing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, but nobody really knows.
We returned home via Montalcino, in Tuscany, where we also stopped to buy wine. You may be sensing a theme here. We also stopped by Petrignano, just over the Umbrian border, to pick up this year”s supply of Guido Vestri’s wonderful olive oil.
Just after we arrived home, we learned about the devastating floods in Venice, the worst in 50 years. We have had some rain here in Ascoli, but nothing like the deluges that have hit Venice and are now threatening Tuscany too. The city of Venice will recover pretty quickly, I think, although the salt-water damage to some of the art will take a while to restore. It’s a reminder that nothing is permanent. We feel very fortunate to be able to travel as we do, and to see as much as we have seen. For everyone else – don’t wait!