(ed. note: I would like to welcome the former “Sage of eGullet” Robert Brown as a contributor to this website. These days Robert is doing much of his dining in Italy. Here, he gives us a treatise on truffles. Welcome, Robert!)
La Ciau del Tornavento outside of Alba and adjoining Barbaresco is, to our minds, the class of Piemontese restaurants. I was a little hesitant to go this year as the white truffle season was, because of lack of rain and unseasonably mild weather, slow to get off the ground. In fact the truffle that we selected was somewhat restrained, although as I will explain later, it led us to a discovery that has enormous implications for their adherents, but only if they are willing to travel to the region and spend hundreds of dollars to indulge themselves. Our efforts to smoke out a prize truffle were not without trying. At this restaurant when you ask to choose your own truffle, the person tending your table brings out from the kitchen a large Styrofoam chest that looked to be holding tens of thousands of Euros worth of specimens. Not wanting to be obnoxious, I limited myself to examining five or six large ones, as I knew that they are general better in quality than small ones, None that I chose were the type that you could “smell across the room”, but on the other hand, a strong aroma is no guarantee of strong taste, either. Our truffle weighed 115 grams and, at the end of the meal we reduced it to 53 since the waiter or waitress brings a small digital scale to weigh it before and after. For the record, the restaurant charged us $360.
The restaurant occupies a small Art Deco ,Fascist-style wood and concrete building dated “1931” above the entrance and looks like it may have been the town hall of Treiso. The dining room is very large and the tables are spread very wide apart. Large picture windows present a pretty view out the back, although at this time of day we could only see the festive lights strung on several trees. Lovers of Piemonte wines will be in heaven. The immense wine list appears to represent every winemaker in Barbaresco and Barolo in each worthwhile vintage going back into at least the late 1990s. Recently, the owners converted the house next door into a four-room hotel, which is a Godsend since it does away with having to drive on winding country roads to Alba late at night. The rooms are comfortable and nicely equipped, well worth the 120 euros including a very good breakfast.
The pictures we took tend to be self-explanatory. We used our Blackberry, which explains for the unevenness in quality. We left out one dessert-a chestnut semifreddo- three little amuses-gueules and two cheese chariots that are quite copious and filled with, except for a Gorgonzola dolce served on a bed of polenta, cheeses of the region that are hard to find.
Besides the dishes we ordered, the kitchen came forth with two small dishes: the cream of cardoons and a marinated anchovy in order to try out our truffle on even more dishes. On one hand they are “free food”, while on the other help in making your truffle weigh less—a form of giving with one hand and taking away with the other. We both agreed that the carne cruda of veal was our favorite dish.
The “uovo cocotte” is a must-have in truffle season as well as one of the restaurant’s risotto with truffles. We contemplated ordering a main course you could sink your teeth in such as goat prepared two ways or breast of squab. But as this was truffle season, we stuck with what goes best.
It was during the end of the meal when we were sharing the panna cotta gelato covered with caramel sauce and our truffle that Susan remarked how the taste of our truffle was at its most intense. I picked up what remained of it, smelled first its exposed center and then its exterior, and remarked how the center was about four times more pungent than the outside. Essentially, then, we were leaving the best part of the truffle behind simply by having our truffle served the way it universally is, shaving it from the outside in. No fools our sommelier, waitress and the wife of chef Maurilio Garola be, as they all said that the interior of a large truffle is more flavorful than the outside. In fact a small truffle of 30 grams takes 3 days to form while a larger truffle of more than 100 grams takes 10 to 15 days which accounts for the intensity and concentration of flavor .
We could only conclude that the right way (and apparently the only way) to get the most out of at least an Alba white truffle is to order a big one—clearly the bigger the better and at least a bit over 100 grams-have it cut in half and start off by alternating between halves so that the best part of the truffle ends up on the key first and second courses: those with egg, pasta, cardoons, and raw meat that are best suited for truffles. Of course going with another couple or two of friends or relatives will reduce the cost. It’s another reason to stay away from the tiny truffles you tend to see in New York and other big-city American restaurants that are a shadow of the real deal and why it is essential that you do your serious Alba white truffle consumption in the provinces of Cuneo and Asti.