Taste, not haste
ROWN the heads, livers, hearts and gizzards of the 10 thrushes with the juniper berries. Add a small glass of Marsala and pour over the cooked birds. Heat through and add to the risotto, arranged in a nest on a round serving dish.’’
It may sound medieval and disturbingly reminiscent of
but this recipe is quite modern (1968) and one of the more visceral contributions to
the collected culinary wisdom of the people of Alba, a town in the Piedmont region of Italy, published in 1996.
It is testimony to how little food has changed during the centuries in this bastion of gastronomic conservatism. Here, you will find no molecular tomfoolery a la Moreno Cedroni, the two Michelin-starred Italian chef who invented ‘‘ susci’’ (Mediterranean sushi) in the mid-1980s and still serves dishes such as cauliflower soup with cuttlefish eggs and anchovy ice cream at his Madonnina del Pescatore restaurant in Senigallia, in the Marche region. In this hillier, chillier district of northwest Italy, such dishes would be banned because they stray too far from the noble tradition of Italian cooking, as championed by the Slow Food movement at its headquarters in Bra, a small town in southern Piedmont.
In 1997, to keep standards high, the guardians of la cucina Albese (the local style of cooking) founded a university of fine food here, the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners. Occupying an entire floor of a medieval fortress in Costigliole d’Asti, it has echoes of an Ivy League university or the Sorbonne. Step through its portals and you will see chefs in starched linen tunics and tall white toques, food ambassadors who will learn the finer nuances of true Italian cuisine and convey them back to their home countries.
One specialty they will cook is bollito misto (‘‘boiled mixed meats’’), the regional dish of Piedmont. Traditionally, it is made with seven types of flesh — beef, veal, pork, chicken, calf’s head, stuffed pig’s trotter (zampone) and sausage (cotechino) — plus seven vegetables and seven condiments. Near the French border, the Gallic influence is strong, with lumache (snails) and rane (frogs) featuring on menus. You will also find pheasant, partridge, boar and fungi from the woods of the misty Langhe hills; and chub, barbel, eels and crayfish from the rivers.
In Alba, you can shop for local produce at the up-market food emporiums (think Gucci, not Coles) that line the quiet, cobbled streets, or buy fruit, vegetables, herbs, wine and cheese at the farmers market in the shadow of Il Duomo.
The town is world-famous for its white truffles, sold at the covered market every Saturday and Sunday throughout October and on the first weekend of November. During that period, regional specialties are showcased every day at the annual truffle fair, which culminates in a glitzy charity auction. Held at a nearby castle, it is attended by international
White gold: The king of truffles super-chefs and local celebrities. In 2007, a banker from Hong Kong bid
for the final lot, a twin truffle weighing less than 1kg. Ordinarily, white truffles change hands for about
($2950) a kilogram while the less prestigious black (mainly from France) cost
Eating out in Piedmont is refresh- ingly cheap, however. Take pot luck with any family osteria in Cherasco, Cuneo, Fossano or Bra and you will pay about a head for a seemingly endless succession of courses: lardo (shavings of silky white pork fat), cardo (cardoon, similar to an artichoke), grilled peppers with cauda (a creamy sauce of anchovies and nuts) and risotto flavoured with barolo.
Brick-red or garnet in colour, barolo is my favourite Italian wine, made famous by the likes of Enzo Boglietti, Fontanafredda, Prunotto and Pio Cesare, but also lovingly crafted by a handful of smaller boutique winemakers. More famous still is barbaresco, marketed to the world by Angelo Gaja, Piedmont’s most evangelical winemaker. The area also produces the fiery, brain-numbing Grappa San Stefano Manzoni, distilled from barolo, the ‘‘ King of Wines’’. The Daily Telegraph, London The 79th International White Truffle Fair of Alba will be held from October 3 to November 8. More: www.fieradeltartufo.org/en. www.langheroero.it www.italiantourism.com.au www.slowfood.com