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Three days in Piedmont


by Camille Pepe Sperrazza


                      Truffle hunting.


April 29th - A private car picks us up to take us from paradise to head for more adventure. It is about a 2-hour journey to the Piedmont area of Italy. We check into the AC Marriott, just outside of the city of Turin, before meeting a guide who takes us on a city tour. This is where vermouth was invented and where the concept of chocolate-covered ice cream was created, she tells us. The area is busy, with squares and statues, small cafes, and chocolate shops, typical of Europe. We visit one chocolate shop that has been in existence for 200 years. At a cafe, I have a coffee drink that is layered with chocolate.

Later, we visit the National Cinema Museum, a tremendous place that details the history of cinema and contains interactive exhibits, memorabilia, and more.  It is the largest public collection in the world. Here, I get to fly an aircraft through space and free fall from the sky. Superman’s first cape is displayed as is the original transcript of “The Godfather.” The munchkins from “The Wizard of Oz” are skipping through time; the history of projectors are explained as is animation. Behind a red curtain, we even get to view the first pornographic images - they are as tame as a piece of Renaissance art.

Our “Welcome Dinner” in Turin is at an historical building that is part museum, part speakeasy, and contains a restaurant called il Ristorante del Circolo dei lettori. Readers and writers used to come here, and many portraits adorn the walls.

We are served multiple courses, including 3 wines; rainbow trout; egg, cheese, and artichoke; risotto with borage, almond, lard and gorgonzola cheese; and Guinea Fowl with celery root, carrot and ginger (We tell them upfront we will pass on the Guinea, and order a piece of fish). It is all fancy and lovely, but the food is not for the American palette.

April 30th - We are truffle hunting, walking through the woods, climbing up and down uneven, sandy, and rocky terrain, following a dog named Mia. Mia runs very fast.

Its owner is a young woman named Martina who leads the way. It is very rare for a young female to be a truffle hunter - most are older men - and Martina says she encounters flack about it, but her grandfather was a truffle hunter and she wants to keep the family tradition alive.

She tells us the dogs are trained for this hunt from the moment they are born as their mother’s milk is mixed with truffles. The pups consume them.

When Mia sniffs a truffle, she digs, and we get to pull it from the ground. We take turns smelling it, and we collect it. After the hunt, Martina’s family will serve us a truffle lunch at the small family restaurant on these vast premises.

We cover a great deal of ground, following Mia who is very well-behaved and attentive to Martina’s commands. I wear old sneakers I plan to throw out as we were told these hunts are often muddy. It was supposed to pour rain, but the weather is fine, so the old sneakers are only covered with dry dirt.

Still, we walk, and we climb. Mia finds another truffle. We walk and climb some more. Another truffle is unearthed.

It is fun, and something I have always wanted to do, but after an hour and a half of walking and climbing, we agree to take a short car ride to a small town called Monta where there is a market today. I discover a shirt with a newspaper design, and as a retired journalism teacher, I can’t pass it up.

When our shopping is done, it is time for lunch at Martina’s quaint family restaurant where her mom does the cooking. The decor is pretty, and the table is set beautifully. There’s white wine, and - surprise - truffles is on the menu. We feast on the most delicious food of the trip - bite-sized squares of toast with truffle butter; truffles on cheese; salad with cheese and super-thin slices of truffles; egg, layered with truffles; mashed artichokes with truffles; and scrumptious homemade pasta topped with mounds of truffles. Plus we are served dried sausage, cheeses, bread, and more. The chocolate dessert is delicious.

Everything is made from scratch, with the freshest ingredients. I buy a jar of truffle honey to take home.

The wine here was fabulous, and now we are off to taste more wine, as we have a tour of the Barcelo Winery. The wine at the farmhouse was far superior.

The city of Alba is where the annual Truffle Festival is held. I purchase truffle oil at the shop that started this tradition. There is actually a wine festival here today, and people walk the streets with a sack around their necks that hold a wine glass. But we have had enough wine.

We notice many Italian flags by the windows, and that is because April 25th was a holiday. Our guide tells us the flags remain for a period of a week or two. They make a great photo backdrop.

As we walk the town, beautiful shops with food beckon. A man at one shop is baking fresh focaccia, and gives us a sample. It is delicious so I buy more.  Pizza calls our names - so we try that. Although I make it a rule to never carry glass products home anymore, somehow truffle oil, fresh jam, pesto sauce, locally-made chocolate, and more honey are irresistible…rules are made to be broken.

May 1st - The very first Eataly is around the corner from our hotel. Our guide tells us vermouth was made here in 1786. The top floor of the store is a museum with old artifacts. The vermouth-making machines resemble equipment used to create potions you might see in a Frankenstein movie. There are liquor bottles, still filled with vermouth; old postcards; and machinery. The basement is a cooking school, and the first floor is a shop, set up like the Eataly in Manhattan. We see pasta that sells for 54 euros being pressed through a mechanism to flatten it; then watch as the dough is hand-filled and cut. A spread of fresh mozzarella, Parmesan cheese, seafood, olive paste, focaccia, tuna, wine, cookies, and more is put out for us to enjoy.

The National Auto Museum details the history of the car. This is where we view Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Cadillacs, Buicks, and even old stagecoaches. It is interesting to see that artists have created beds, stovetops, kitchen cabinets, and fireplaces from used car parts.

Another exhibit features oversized hairdryers, once used at beauty shops in Europe. They are similar to large hair dryers we see at salons today - they cover women’s heads and dry their hair - but these have personal televisions inside of them, allowing women to watch automobile commercials while at the salon.

In addition to cars, Fiat made refrigerators, and our guide says she still has hers. Yes, it has to be defrosted, which is no problem. She just unplugs it.

There’s a quick visit to a mall that was once the original Fiat factory. The ramps where cars would race have been incorporated into the mall’s design.

We know Turin is the birthplace of vermouth so we attend an interactive, private vermouth-making class by an expert - Fulvio Piccinino - who wrote the book, “The Vermouth of Turin”.

Before antibiotics and other modern medicines, alcohol was used for medicinal purposes - to help coughs, soothe pain, and even “cure” stomach ailments. Spices were added to enhance flavors, and these come from all over the world. Many are presented to us tonight in both jars and in liquid form so we can smell and taste them. We also sample various vermouths - red, dry, and sweet.

Then we become alchemists and create our own vermouth. We are each provided with a small carafe of white wine which is the staple of the drink. We add sugar (more for red, and less for white) and spices that include caramel, citrus, and vanilla. It is up to us to decide which spices we want to use, stirring our concoctions, and tasting it, as each drop of spice is added to the mix.

Once we are happy with the flavor, we pour the liquid into a bottle to take home. It doesn’t quite taste like the vermouth we sampled earlier, but it is fun.

Aperitivo is served - zucchini flowers, fresh ricotta, small bites of frittata, tuna, and of course, wine.

For more information or to book a trip, contact "Commodore" Camille today. This article was accurate when it was written, but everything in life changes. Enjoy the journey.

 copyright: Camille Pepe Sperrazza