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10 DAYS IN ALBA: PALIO, TRUFFLES, AND WINE

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Oct 29th, 2009, 12:44 PM
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10 DAYS IN ALBA: PALIO, TRUFFLES, AND WINE

This will be a brief report on a recent trip to Alba in the Piemonte region of Alba. Husband Mike and I left Baton Rouge on September 30, 2009 and returned on October 10. We flew into Malpensa airport in Milan and then took a car to Alba. We were there during the famous Palio degli Asini (donkey race) and the opening of the White Truffle festival. We also enjoyed a truffle hunt and a cooking lesson. We visited a number of great wineries to taste wines and learn about the winemaking process. And of course we ate our own body weight in grissini, pasta, porcini and brasato! Many excellent restaurants.

I'll be posting this in short pieces, so in this first part I'll start with our accommodations: Villa La Favorita, Localita Altavilla 12bis in Alba.

La Favorita is a great small B&B just outside of Alba. The owner Roberta is a most gracious hostess, providing all manner of information, maps, and directions. She also arranged for the truffle hunt and the cooking lesson. Roberta's place sits on a fair amount of acreage and there are many fruit trees and vineyards on the property. So there is almost a country feel to your surroundings. Yet you are a convenient 3 minutes away from a convenient parking spot in downtown Alba.

Our room was not exceedingly large but very nice with a fair-sized bathroom. Breakfasts every morning in the little lemon house were very good - yogurt, fresh fruits, jams (from Roberta's fruit trees), breads, hot dishes like frittata or quiche, sliced prosciutto or salame, and always a sweet treat at the end. Mike loved having panna cotta for breakfast!

Being in a B&B and having the "run of the house" was a plus in many ways. There was an honor bar with wines (from Roberta's grapes), beer, soft drinks, bottled water. There was also a refrigerator where guests could store their cheese and salame purchases. Roberta's yellow lab Sally was a fixture, greeting us every day when we came back from our adventures.

Overall, service was excellent. Roberta and I exchanged many emails before my visit, and I came to almost feel that I was visiting at the home of a friend. The only negative (and a small one at that) was the noise factor at night - often we'd awaken to hear other guests coming in late.

In my next post, I'll give you a rundown on our itinerary and restaurants. Feel free to ask questions. Ciao!
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Oct 29th, 2009, 01:57 PM
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We have several days booked at Villa La Favorita next June, so while there will be no Palio or truffles for us, I look forward to hearing more about your itinerary, particulary wineries and restaurants.
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Oct 29th, 2009, 10:36 PM
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Waiting eagerly for your account, will you top EKS? ;-)
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Oct 30th, 2009, 03:48 AM
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There is NO competition here! Or maybe just a competition on how many calories each of us can put away on a trip to Piemonte!!

This is a great start and I can't wait to read more, Drbb!
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Oct 30th, 2009, 07:14 AM
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Calorie-wise I'm sure I AM the winner!! Lots of great food. Plus we were tasting wines almost every day - often 5 or 6 Barolos, Barbarescos and Barberas at each winery.
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Oct 30th, 2009, 10:58 AM
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I did a great deal of research - mostly Internet - prior to this trip. Let me warn you that Mike and I are both into food and wine so the remainder of the report will have a lot of details on this!

We had decided that on this trip we would do something we had never down before - stay in one place. So this trip was quite different for us in that it was a little more low-key. The itinerary I had planned was not exactly what we ended up doing, but it was close. Because there are no grand historic sites or must-see museums in this area, we definitely had a lot of flexibility in our schedule.

The only constraints were the appointments that I had booked at the wineries. Visits were by appointment only, and there were several wineries that had indicated no visits were possible since it was harvest time. A fantastic time to be in the Piemonte by the way. We were able to see a lot of the harvest, and Nebbiolo grapes for Barolo were still hanging heavy and purple on the vines.

Let me also say now that every winery we visited was extremely hospitable and very gracious with their time and tastings. We spent a minimum of two hours at each place, with the exception of Pio Cesare. Whether you are into wines or not, seeing at least a few of these places is a real education. They are VERY intent on expressing their philosophy and terroir through their wine-making techniques. Whether large like Fontanafredda or small like Elio Grasso, this is serious business, and the pride of the winemakers is very evident in every step. There was never an expectation that we buy their wines or pay for tastings, other than at Fontanafredda which charged a small fee for a private tour.

So this is what we did:

Wednesday, September 30
Leave Baton Rouge to fly to Milan via Atlanta and Delta Airlines

Thursday, October 1
Arrive Milan, pick up car, drive to Alba
Check-in at Villa La Favorita
3:30 Visit to Pio Cesare, Alba
Visit Alba Centro

Friday, October 2
10:30 Visit Renato Ratti winery, La Morra
Visit La Morra centro
2:30 Visit to Marcarini winery, La Morra

Saturday, October 3
In Alba
AlbaQualita Food exposition and Fiera del Tartufo Bianca
2:00 Visit Fontanafredda winery, Serralunga d’Alba

Sunday, October 4
In Alba
10:00 - Assignment of the donkeys to the town district riders, Piazza Risorgimento
2:00 – Parade in medieval costume, Alba Centro
4:30 -- Palio degli Asini

Monday, October 5
Drive to Monchiero Alta – truffle hunt with trifulao Ezio Costa
Visit Barolo (Enoteca Regionale del Barolo, Museo dei Cavatappi)

Tuesday October 6
9:30 Visit Luciano Sandrone winery, Barolo
Drive to Monforte d’Alba
3:00 – Visit Elio Grasso winery, Monforte d”Alba

Wednesday October 7
Visit Barbaresco (Enoteca Regionale del Barbaresco, Produttori dei Barberesco)
2:00 -- Cooking lesson with Rita, Villa La Favorita

Thursday October 8 –
Drive to Mango (Enoteca Regionale del Moscato) then through Santo Stefano Belbo to Canelli
Visit Canelli (Enoteca Regionale di Canelli)

Friday, October 9
Return to La Morra (Gallo Winery)
Go into Alba for last minute shopping
Pack wines and suitcases

Saturday, October 10
Back to USA

Now add to that -- lots of lunches – mostly the two-hour kind – and dinners. Plus café time, shopping and people-watching. And a few naps.

Next installment: A quick guide to some of our favorite restaurants in this area!
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Oct 30th, 2009, 02:30 PM
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You have to tell me about your visit to Luciano Sandrone winery, Barolo - We wanted to do that the last time we were in Piemonte, but they never answered their phones!
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Oct 31st, 2009, 11:54 AM
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Hi, drbb. We were in the Alba area at the same time you were. We stayed at Marcarini Agriturismo, located close to Treiso. We passed by the Villa Favorita each time we went into Alba and I wondered if you were there yet and having as good a time as we were. Sounds like you did and saw a lot. We may even have passed you at the Palio. I'm looking forward to your restaurant info to see whether we enjoyed some of the same places. I'm hoping to get going on my own report early next week.
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Oct 31st, 2009, 01:43 PM
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great start to a TR.

I love the idea of a palio degli asini - I'll just pop out now and tell my own two donkeys about it!

drbb - how did you find out about and pick the wineries?
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Oct 31st, 2009, 11:33 PM
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Nice selection of Barolo wineries, and you were lucky to be able to visit at this time as its is right in the middle of the most intense period for any winery, harvesting and crushing.Intrested to hear about your Fontafredda visit, in recent years they haven't been very visitor friendly for smaller groups.

Did you watch the whole donkey palio? I heard it was a bit long and drawn out this year, but then so was this years Palio di Asti, too many false starts on the final.
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Nov 2nd, 2009, 08:14 AM
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montysc - Our visit to Sandrone was very nice! A lovely girl named Sara was our guide and I had corresponded with her by email several times to find the right day and time. Then after our tasting, Luciano's daughter Barbara Sandrone came in to meet us. I was amazed at her graciousness and hospitality. She spent about 15 minutes talking to us about the harvest and about wines from California that she liked.

I initiated all of the visits by sending an email first. Two hints - don't know if they helped but I guess they didn't hurt! First, I think inquiring in simple Italian helped. (Buon giorno- Il miei marito ed io visiteranno La Morra in ottobre. È possibile visitare la vostra cantina? Grazie.) I always added a sentence that apologized for my Italian, and I received much encouragement on the replies. I have found this to be true when we have traveled - people will go out of their way to accommodate you. Second, I would also add a sentence about a particular wine of that winery that we had drunk and enjoyed in the past. I don't know - maybe it conveys a more sincere interest? There were several wineries that told us that they could not do tours because of harvest - Paolo Scavini, Bruno Giacosa. Oh well, another time.

Hi Julie -- Glad you had a great time! I'll try to post some restaurant info later today. Did you go to the truffle market? How was Lago di Como?

annhig - My husband and I are into wines, and so I had a long list of favorite wineries on my to-visit list! I had a Gambero Rosso 2009 at home and that helped a lot in finding email addresses, web sites, and physical addresses. I had also done some background research on the different styles of wine produced in the Langhe, and so selected some based on whether they took a "modern" or "traditonal" approach to production. The Palio was a blast! I highly recommend it.

Tim - the Fontanafredda visit was the only one arranged by Roberta. It really wasn't on my list originally but Roberta thought that we'd enjoy it due to Fontanafredda’s long history. She called for us and arranged for a private tour with a guide. I think we paid 20 euros each for the tour and the tastings. Well worth it. The tour was very interesting, the wines maybe less so.

We arrived at the Palio at about 3:00 PM so we only said about half of the pageant that went on before the actual race. (We had reserved seats in the stands, also arranged by Roberta. They were a little pricey but it beat standing up and getting crushed in the crowd. I never would have been able to see most of the race standing at the sidelines since I’m only a little over 5 feet tall!) They had quite a bit of difficulty getting the donkeys out and lined up for the two heats. A lot of falling off before the riders even got started! We really enjoyed the whole spectacle.
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Nov 2nd, 2009, 12:22 PM
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Ok, now on to the important stuff – FOOD!

Our restaurant experiences were generally quite good. Although this is a MAJOR wine-producing area, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of places that offer wines by the glass and half bottles. This was a very good thing on days when we tasted at the wineries!!

I had reservations for most evenings and for a few lunches. Even with the truffle fair in Alba and the tourist crowd one might expect at harvest time, it was relatively easy to get a seat in most restaurants.

As ekscrunchy has pointed out in a previous post, the cuisine choices in the Langhe tend to be very traditional and centered on roasted or braised meats (veal, beef, lamb, game) and pasta. Very few vegetable dishes other than savory flans or soups. The only salad was at a pizzeria. Even desserts tend towards the traditional standards. So you see the same types of dishes over and over on menus. In other words, don’t expect a great deal of variety.

We did eat two “picnic” lunches at La Favorita, noshing on culatello and truffle cheese purchased at the truffle market, along with grissini and pizza that we picked up at a bakery. We also ate one lunch at the truffle fair itself. We shared a generous portion of fresh tajarin (tagliatelle pasta) smothered in butter and fresh sage. Every vendor of cheese and salame was handing out samples too, so we grazed for almost two hours.

Here’s where we ate--

Alba:
***La Libera, via Elvio Pertinace 24/a
La Piola (in Piazza Duomo), Piazza Risorgimento 4
*Osteria dell’Arco, piazza Savona 5
*La Bottega Del Vicoletto, Via Bertero 6
*La Duchessa (pizzeria), via Ospedale 5

La Morra:
***Osteria del Vignaiolo, frazione Santa Maria, just outside of La Morra

Treiso:
**Profumo di Vino, Viale Rimembranza 1, on main piazza
***La Ciau del Tornavento, Piazza Baracco 7

Monchiero Alto:
**Tra Arte e Querce, Monchiero Alta (Ezio & Clelia Costa)

Monforte d’Alba:
***Trattoria della Posta, Localita Santa Anna 87 (outside of town)

Barbaresco:
***Antinè, Via Torino 34/a

Key:
*** great food, memorable experience, would go back
** OK food, nice experience, once was probably enough
* OK food, but not worth the walk
No stars = Do not under any circumstances go here!

I will go into much more detail (ambience, service, what we ate, wines and cost) on our restaurant experiences as I go along.

Ciao for now!
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Nov 2nd, 2009, 02:44 PM
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hi drbb,

lovely report about a lovely area. some one in my italian class spent a fortnight in the near-by national park in the summer and came back raving about it.

I'd love to see the donkey palio - i had no idea such events existed. Do they ride the donkeys or just herd them thorugh the streets?

keep it coming,

regards, ann

ps - apropos your italian letter, you might like to give it a little tweak as follows:

"Buon giorno. Mio marito e io visiteremo la Morra in ottobre. Possiamo visitare la vostra cantina? Grazie."

then you can miss off the bit apologising for your Italian!
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Nov 2nd, 2009, 03:14 PM
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ann--

Thanks for the grammar lesson! Actually I think they like it when I make mistakes! I'd still have to apologize I'm sure. : - )

They actually race the donkeys - two heats of about 8 donkeys each around a track that has been marked off with bales of hay. Then the final 4 from each heat do the final race to determine the big winner. It's crazy! Some donkeys won't go, some shake off their riders, some go backwards. There are donkeys running without riders, and riders chasing after their donkeys. Each donkey represents a "borgo" or neighborhood in Alba so there is a lot of yelling, cheering, cursing, crying -- in the stands and on the track.
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Nov 3rd, 2009, 01:36 PM
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First day in the Piemonte -

Landed at Milan Malpensa at about 10 AM. We rented a compact car through Kemwel and picked it up at the Hertz desk. $535 for 10 days, unlimited mileage. The auto rental lots are right outside the terminal so it's a pretty easy process to pick up a car and get on your way.

We had bought a Garmin Nuvi preloaded with European maps. I had also pre-programmed it with all the addresses we would need including restaurants, Villa La Favorita and wineries. This device turned out to be very handy, especially for night time driving in a strange place. I had also printed out Via Michelin maps as a backup, but really did not need them. However be aware that the pronunciation of Italian street names is atrocious!

Took us only 2 hours to get to Alba. Giovanna showed us to our room at La Favorita, and we unpacked and freshened up before coming down to meet Roberta and get a tour of the house. She gave us a good walking map of Alba and directions to the closet parking lot. While it’s only a short distance into Alba, it is not really walkable, being on a steep winding road with lots of vehicle traffic and no shoulder.

We headed into Alba and found Pio Cesare for our 3:30 appointment. The front of this winery is imposing – a huge solid brown wooden gate with a large brass knocker. But the inside is very pretty – huge garden courtyard with the tasting rooms off the left. The family lives upstairs and most of the winery production rooms are underground. In the tasting room there was a thick glass “window” set into the floor to see into the cellar. Huge French oak barrels. The smell of fermenting grapes permeates every corner of the building.

We were greeted by Gustavo who took us through the cellars. We could not go into the vinification rooms as they were busy with processing grapes. We saw the private stash of the family, going back to the early 1900s. Gustavo said that the Barolos back to 1958 are very drinkable. Then we went into the tasting rooms to try the 2005 Barolo and Barbaresco. Since we didn’t see the vinification rooms, we only spent about 45 minutes here, the least of all the wineries we visited. But Gustavo was very personable and passionate about the wine-making philosophy of Pio Cesare.

We went back to La Favorita, took a short nap, changed clothes, and went into Alba to walk. There was a bancomat near the cathedral and we got some cash. At 8:00 we headed for La Libera. Grissini were on the table, and Mike started to munch as we perused the menu.

We had:
A traditional antipasti misti – insalata russe, vitello tonnato, carne cruda, and a stuffed yellow pepper
Tortino di cardi gobi with a fonduta of Raschera cheese and a small quail egg baked in the middle
Tajarin with a ragu of veal
Scamone of veal “fassone piemontese”
An excellent bottle of Elio Grasso Barbera d’Alba Vigna Martina 2006
Panna cotta with a compote of Santa Clara plums
With bottled water and two cafés. 87 euros total. The food was all very good, and the wine list quite reasonable. Our bottle of wine was only 20 euros, and there were many more that were similarly priced.

One thing that we noticed as the week went on is that restaurants here did not have huge markups on wine. What we paid at the winery direct from the producer was generally the same as what we would pay either in a wine store or in a restaurant. Maybe 2 or 3 euros less at most.

We waddled back to the car at about 10:30 and then to La Favorita.

Next: La Morra, wineries and brasato!
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Nov 4th, 2009, 06:03 AM
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hi drbb,

i thought afterwards that it was a dreadful cheek my correcting your italian; thank you for taking it so gracefully. and of course "ed io" is perfectly correct.

i love your description of the palio. I'm sure that our donkeys would throw their riders off just the same.

when you went to the wineries, did you feel obliged to buy at every one? how did you get out of it if you didn't?
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Nov 4th, 2009, 01:29 PM
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Thanks, Drbb, for bringing back such great memories! I am intrigued that you had the cardoons; these were not in season when we were there in April. Last weekend I saw them at our local farmer's market for the first time. Unfortunately, I do not think that my own kitchen will be turning out a cardoon fonduta with quail egg and Raschera anytime soon!
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Nov 4th, 2009, 11:15 PM
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annhig

"when you went to the wineries, did you feel obliged to buy at every one? how did you get out of it if you didn't?"

why wouldn't you want to buy a bottle or two (or a case or two)if you visit a winery? Especially in Piedmont these are not tourist attractions, but small working wineries and often its a member of the family who will show you around and open a bottle or two for you to taste. I would think its a cheek if the winemaker had opened an expensive bottle of Barolo and you didn't at least offer to buy at least a bottle of one of their wines, if nothing else for courtesy. In my time in Piedmont I have noticed nowadays that many (popular visiting) wineries have started charging a tasting charge which most will waive if you buy a couple of bottles.

Eks, pity you missed fall in Piedmont, its regarded of course as one of the best times to be here, what with truffles (now coming into full season, and cheap this year at around 2.50 Euro a gram), mushrooms (we pick wonderful mushrooms almost everyday out of our woods - Rina is very creative in her mushroom dishes) as well as the Cardo Gobbo, the best coming from around Nizza Monferrato, which last Sunday had a truffle, cardo gobbo and Barbera festival.
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Nov 5th, 2009, 01:37 PM
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annhig - Believe me, I'm used to people correcting my Italian!! I do appreciate it.

We actually ended up buying a bottle or two (actually, it may have been 4 from Sandrone - I'll have to go back and check!) from each winery except Pio Cesare. They were not set up at all for purchasing.

We hoped to be able to buy wines at each visit - I had selected wineries that we were aware of and wanted to learn more or were already special to us because we had had their wines before and enjoyed them. Mike and I bought some other wines as well, in La Morra at Gallo (ekscrunchy, the same place that sells all those wonderful San Cassiano jarred treats) and in Alba at Fraccia and I Grand Vini. We ended up bringing back 20 bottles as checked luggage. No problems at Customs. More on that later.

As Tim points out "Why wouldn't we..?" Although for us it was not as much a matter of courtesy as it was that we wanted a wonderful momento of the time we had spent there. And I don't care what the importers say, the wine suffers some in bulk transit from Italy to the USA. The wines taste much better there! A few years from now we hope to open some of those wonderful Barolos and reminisce about our trip.

On the courtesy point, we really didn’t feel obligated. For most of the places, we had to ask if they would sell us some bottles.

Ekscrunchy, there was a stall at the truffle fair with fresh cardoons. They were slicing off small bits and handing out samples drenched in bagna cauda. The raw taste – not so much to my fancy. But the tortino was excellent. Lots of mushrooms too – especially huge porcini. I really came to enjoy the Piemontese inventiveness with tarts and flans of savory vegetables.

I’ll post some more trip report tomorrow.

Buona sera!
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Nov 5th, 2009, 09:25 PM
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Drb, obviously true wine lovers! Actually I meant out of courtesy even if you didn't care for the wine that much - which would be hard in your case as you had carefully selected the cantina in advance.- I look forward to your further descriptions.

I know what you mean by asking to buy a bottle, this is often the case for smaller wineries which don't cater for visitors on a regular basis. My new favourite Barolo comes from a very small winery actually in basement of the winemakers house, and he is not licensed to sell directly, did give us a couple of bottles though.

Cardoons are a bit bitter LOL aren't they. Need something like Bagna Cauda to combine with.
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