Two Fools at the International Truffle Fair

The idea to go to Piedmont actually got hatched on our way back from Cinque Terre.   I was reading our guidebook to learn more about Italy and came across the “Festivals and Events” page.    I mentioned to Gabe that the Alba International White Truffle Festival was listed as mid-November.    Since the Piedmont is only a 3 to 3 1/2 hour drive from our flat in Geneva, we decided that we’d check into it.    And, as it turned out, the last weekend of the fair was our only free weekend in November.   Perfect.  Booked.   Why not?

Let’s back up and say while we like truffled foods, we are not connoisseurs.   We have some friends from Singapore who we’d call connoisseurs of truffles, but not us.    I can probably safely say the amount of truffled dishes I have had in my life have been less than five.   The only time I’d ever seen a truffle was at our anniversary dinner at Le Sesflo in Geneva where they shaved it into my risotto.  The rest of the time, it has been truffle-infused or with truffle oil.     I can probably say the same for my husband.

Planning the trip to Piedmont, I looked into trying to go on a truffle hunt, with an actual dog (Italy banned the use of truffle hunting pigs a few years ago due to the animals damaging the special truffle producing turf).    After researching, I soon found this excursion wasn’t in our budget.  Far from it. Like obscene. And you don’t even get to keep the truffle.

Since we can’t afford a truffle hunt, this image is courtesy of theguardian.co.uk

We decided that attending the Alba International White Truffle Fair would be enough of an experience.

Streets of Alba at the entrance to the Truffle Fair

Not knowing anything, we were a bit overwhelmed.  There were truffles everywhere. The farmers were proudly standing with their selection, most in glass cases.

Line up of truffle hunters

White truffle display.  Yes, the big one is 252 euros.  A today’s exchange rate, this is 325 dollars.  Takers?

I liked this guy. He kept polishing his truffles on display. We bought some truffled dry pasta and truffle oil from them to savor at a later date.

This is as close as we got to a truffle dog

As we were intimidated, we wondered around looking at other foods of the Piedmont, continuing to take it all in.   The vendors were very kind offering samples but my Italian is very weak so I felt bad at not being able to communicate.  Just a polite nod and smile.

I’ll point out that this wasn’t a very touristy event.  We didn’t see a single other person who was a) there for fun or b) speaking English.  They were all there to buy.

Cheeses……

Mushrooms….

In the end, we actually ended up buying a little white truffle.   It was a splurge but we are pretty sure we won’t be going back to the White Truffle Fair any other time in our lives.

This is how much truffle we can afford.

We sliced it up so that we could put in on buttered gnocchi pasta.

The 3 B’s of Piedmont Wine

As I mentioned in the last post, we have become fans of the wine of Italy’s Piedmont region.   However, while we knew the most famous types – Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera – we did not know the slightest about the vinoculture.

So, to develop our knowledge on Piedmont wine, we had no choice but to travel there and have an official Piedmont wine tour!

To start, all three of these are grown in the Langhe region of Italy.   This is an area within the Piedmont.   Italian wine isn’t as complicated as French with Grand Cru, Premier Cru, and village level designations.  However, they do have a similarity in that certain plots are valued more.  However, these are more ‘small areas’ than particular plots belonging only to one winery.     While France uses AOC to designate the its approval of the grape / area, Italy uses the term DOC.

The Langhe region is very hilly.

Of the three I mentioned above, in addition to being types of wine made with Nebbiolo grapes, Barolo and Barbaresco are also towns.   There is no town of Barbera, but the Barbera grapes grow in the Piedmont and come from different towns…Barbera d’Alba, Barbera d’Asti, etc.

Barolo is the king – the best.   There are eleven towns in the Langhe which can call their wine Barolo.   Building on that, there are many crus, or plots of land where these special Nebbiolo grapes come from.    At our first stop, Fratelli Revello, we tasted their Barolo 2008, Barolo Vigna Gattera 2007, Barolo Vigna Giachini 2007 and Barola Vigna Concha 2007.   The names Gattera, Giachini and Concha are the plots.  They pointed out their window to show us where they came from – to the south, to the southeast, and across the street.  Thus, Barolos are not blended.

Checking out the Barolo map while overlooking the beautiful vineyards

While visiting the Marchesi di Barolo winery, we learned a bit more about Barolo’s history and the influence of the Savoy, who made their capital in nearby Torino.  This was very influential in the growth of Barolo.

As I mentioned, Barolo is a town.  And it is quite lovely….it is located in the middle of the hills, complete with a charming castle.

View of Barolo as we descended from our tasting above in La Morra

If you don’t have a planned visit, there are countless local wine stores in the town of Barolo with signs that invite strollers to come have a tasting.  We abstained due to the heavy amounts we were tasting at our visits, but did buy some local goods – hazelnut creme, pasta, and a handmade wine opener.

Exploring the town of Barolo, Italy

Barolo’s castle

Barbaresco is a town and also a type of Piedmont wine made with the Nebbiolo grape.   Exactly like Barolo, Barbaresco has only certain plots within the DOC.   There are only five compared to Barolo’s eleven.    We visited a charming family winery, Ca’del Baio.  In addition to their flagship Barbaresco, this winery also produced a few other local grape varieties: Dolcetto, Barbera d’Alba, and a Nebbiolo without DOC designation (outside the borders).

The hubby, checking out the family’s photo collection.

Barbaresco town is beautiful yet still much smaller than Barolo.   It is situated on the top of one of Piedmont’s rolling hills.

Town of Barbaresco, as seen from a neighboring hill

Like Barolo, you can taste in the many tasting rooms of Barbaresco.  Our guide told us about one tasting room that is a converted church.  We didn’t visit the Sunday morning we were there, but you can see it in the below photo as the central building.  Barbaresco also has a charming Sunday market.

Sunday morning market in Barbaresco. We purchased some nocciola creme and olive oil.

Finally, an explanation on Barbera.   As mentioned above, Barbera is the name of a grape, not a town.    So, it came come from different areas, generally designated on the label.

Barolos are the most expensive, ranging from 30 – 50 euros a bottle.  Barbarescos are a better bargain at 20 – 25 euro bottles.  Barberas are 6 – 12 euros.

While I like Barolos and Barbarescos, my wallet keeps me a bigger fan of Barbera.

The Piedmont: Italy’s Best Region for Food & Wine

I first discovered Piedmont wines through a restaurant in Charlotte called Vivace.  Always an early bird, I would sit at the bar to wait for the friends I was meeting.   One time, the bartender recommended a Barbera wine from Italy called Fontanafredda – Briccotondo.   I enjoyed it and let him know that he’d made a great selection.   He tipped me in on a secret….the local Charlotte gem Common Market was the only place to stock it in town and the bottle sold for as much as what a glass in the restaurant ran.

My first taste of Piedmont

I picked up a few bottles and it became a favorite.

Fast-forward a few years and we are in Geneva.  We attended an expat fair which was very boring but what made the visit worthwhile was a food & wine booth run by a Swiss man and his wife.   They were selling Piedmont products and couldn’t have been more passionate.  They said after a visit, they’d fallen in love with the area and bought a house.   They then started a business selling Piedmont products in Switzerland.

Image courtesy of e-rcps

They graciously offered us tastes of all their foods and wine.  We expressed interest, but our regret that we had not enough francs to buy wine.  The gentleman assured us he’d ship us a case and invoice us later.  Still new to Switzerland, we were baffled that someone would ship us wine before we paid for it.   We were a little skeptical but gave our address.

And, one week later, our wine showed up.  We loved it.  As time passed, we’ve learned even more about the products from the Piedmont region.  It is in my opinion, Italy’s overall best region for food and wine.    Here is a run-down of what Piedmont is known for:

The Slow Food Movement.   The Piedmont is the birthplace of this movement, which was started to counteract the fast food movement.  Basically, the theory is that food sourced locally and prepared mindfully is better for the body & spirit.    It’s thinking about how the choices you make in food affects the world.

Street vendor selling locally made items

Truffles.    Truffles are basically very rare mushrooms.      I love dishes with truffle flavorings….they are aromatic and add a special flavor to dishes.  While there are many parts of Europe that produce black truffles, the Piedmont is known for its white truffle.    Due to their rarity, they are very valuable.  In fact, the world’s most expensive truffle ever sold for $330,000.

A line-up of truffles for sale at the International Truffle Festival in Alba

Risotto.    Made with a special short grain rice, Italian risottos are cooked until creamy.   I like making mushroom risotto as well as green garden risotto.   The best risotto I ever had was truffle risotto at Les Sesflo in Geneva.

I bought three types of Piedmont rice from this guy at the Alba farmers market.

We happened upon a risotto exposition and decided to get our lunch there.  I wasn’t able to express the kind I wanted in Italian, so they gave us ‘risotto spumante’.   It is risotto with Asti champagne.

Don’t eat so much, Gabe! You have to drive!

Hazelnuts.    The Piedmont is a prime hazelnut producing area.    In fact, Nutella was invented in Piedmont!

Passing the factory where Nutella was made.

Passing Italian hazelnut fields

The company who produces Nutella, Ferrero, also produces Ferrero Rocher, the yummy hazelnut truffle candies.    However, we did learn that modern day Nutella production uses Brazilian hazelnuts because they are cheaper.

All of these things are made in Piedmont, Italy

A very interested customer.  Doesn’t everyone need a jar of Nutella the size of your head?

If you are into local types, artisanal hazelnut creme (nocciola) is sold in droves.

I decided that I needed to research these artisanal types….you know, for the benefit of the blog.

Hazelnuts are also made into delicious cakes and flours.

An offering of hazelnuts at the Alba farmers market

The hazelnut cake lady at the Truffle Festival

Wine.   Piedmont produces a few types of notorious red wines:  Barolo, Barbaraesco, and Barbera.  As I mentioned, the Barbera was my gateway wine.  The Barolo is most often named as Italy’s best wine.     Also, Asti is famous for its sparkling white wine.   As it is sweet, and it isn’t our preference, we didn’t stop in Asti this trip.

A few late bloomers….Barolo vineyards after harvest

What’s not to love in Piedmont??

Gratitude Friday: Thanksgiving

We weren’t able to make it home this year for Thanksgiving.   It is the first time for both of us not seeing family during at least one to two days over the long weekend.  To boot, Gabe doesn’t get Thanksgiving off as he is on the European system.

Instead of being sad, we decided to infuse Thanksgiving into Geneva by hosting a traditional dinner at our flat.   Our group was comprised of 5 from the United States, 1 from Ireland, 1 from Finland, and 1 from Germany.  Oh, and a Swiss dog!   It was our first International Thanksgiving.

Those of us from the US made some traditional dishes –  green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, stuffing, and cranberry sauce.   It was my first attempt at making turkey and we used the recipe from this site.      Many thanks to the friends and family who sent me recipes over email since I was nervous.

My “Virginia biscuits” didn’t turn out so hot, due to the fact they don’t have self rising flour here.  Oopsie.    The pumpkin pie had a crater, but oh well. It still tasted like a piece of home, and was fun to share an ‘authentic’ Thanksgiving with our friends from other countries.

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While we miss our family and friends back home, we feel fortunate to have been surrounded by wonderful friends and good and plentiful food.

Bon weekend everyone!

Reims: Not just a Champagne town

During our stay in Champagne, we selected a hotel in the city of Reims (Rheims in French). Before our arrival, we had no clue how historically significant the town was.

Main square in Reims

Our first night in Reims, with Marty & Jennifer McFly, all we knew of Reims was champagne….

However, as I stated on last week’s Gratitude Friday post, our champagne guide was a bit of a history expert.   While exploring the rolling hills of the Champagne region, we also had the benefit of a history lesson.   We learned that the tribe of Remi founded Reims.  Caesar invaded the Gauls and in 51BC conquered it with the help of the tribe of Remi, whom he rewarded for their help.

Image courtesy of peperonity.com

From then, It was a Roman city.  They built the triumphal arch in 200AD, largest arch outside of Rome.

Roman arch in Reims

In the 5th century, Clovis became the first king to reunite all the territories within France.   He was baptized at the site of the current Basilica St Remi in Reims.  His armies converted to Catholic Christianity in the same way Clovis did, per the traditions of the time for soldiers to follow their leader.  From that point on, Reims became the religious center of the region.

Basilica St Remi

Inside the basilica, with Sunday services in the front

From then on, all kings were coronated in Reims.   Most occurred in the Cathedrale Notre Dame.   Most famously, Joan of arc stood by King Charles XII during his coronation ceremony after her vision to help him become monarch and overthrow Britain’s control.

Cathedrale Notre Dame in Reims

Visitors are able to see the structure on Sundays, but just not the back where the service takes place

Inside of the cathedral with its’ magnificent stain glass windows

Soon, Paris overtook Reims in size and became the most prominent city in France. However, this change didn’t keep Reims safe in WWI when it was seen as a symbol of France’s rich history and bombed 1051 consecutive days in a row, destroying over 90% of it.  This was known as the ‘crime of Reims’.   Since, they have repaired and rebuilt, but the impact was devastating.
As discussed last Friday, also in WWI, Reims saw the 1st battle of the Marne and advent of trench warfare.   Sadly, Reims and the surrounding countryside has seen more than its fair share of bloodshed.
WWII treaty was also signed in Reims after the German surrender.

Champagne: Lessons behind the Bubbly

“Come quickly, I am tasting the stars!”
Alleged quote by Dom Pérignon, instrumental wine maker of from Abbey St. Vanne, later found to be created by the ad industry

Did you even know Dom Pérignon was a 17th Century monk?   I sure didn’t know this before we visited the infamous wine region in France.  Below we have 12 other lessons learned on our tour:

Champagne Lesson #1 – Champagne can only come from Champagne, France.   All other must be called sparkling wine.   There are strict regulations around production and the wine cops come do checks to ensure the product is 100% Champagne AOC.    This, however, is not an indication of quality.

It wasn’t the grower, but the ‘Champagne police’ were the ones who put the wax on these bottles. It is part of their routine check ups to ensure the protection of the AOC.

Champagne Lesson #2 – The land in the Champagne region has a chalk base, much like England’s White Cliffs of Dover. The chalk not only retains heat but moisture.   We’ve seen similar theories of superior wine due to the unique ground:   Switzerland Lavaux has the terraced walls that use the sun off Lake Geneva to heat the soil, as well as Chateauneuf-du-Pape claims its rocky basin of the former Rhône river.

The exposure white cliff beside the house gives an indication what the soil is like under the vines : pure chalk

Champagne Lesson # 3 – Champagne is just as confusing with designations as many other French wines are:  Grand Cru, Premier Cru, and village level.  Again, this isn’t a guarantee of quality, just the designation of the land is supposed to be higher in Grand Cru.

Enjoying a taste at a Grand Cru Champagne house. Oooo la la.

Champagne Lesson #4 – Champagne likes to get sideways. While the region itself is huge, AOC Champagne grapes only take up a portion of it because only the vines grown on hills are used for wine.  The flat lands are used for other crops.   In terms of wine producing hectacres, our guide explained it in terms of American-isms….the wine-producing hectares occupy the size of 34,000 football fields or 280,000 tennis courts.

The hilly landscape in Champagne

Champagne Lesson #5 – Champagne likes to get around. Unlike Bordeaux, there are no chateaus surrounded by all their vineyards….just champagne houses that blend from various grapes/plots collected from all over the region. So many big houses are actually located in the city center of Reims, with the grapes coming from the countryside.

These grapes will likely be blended with other grapes from non-adjacent plots. Burgundy would have a fit!

Champagne Lesson #6 – Champagne is a family business. 90% of the land is family owned. It takes 2.5 hectacres, or 15 tennis courts,  for an individual to make a living. However, land isn’t easy to get: 1 hectacre goes for 1.5 million euros.  It generally requires two generations to see a return.   Most families sell a portion of their yield to the big houses.

This plot is likely owned by a family. It’s much better to think of the purchase of each bottle of Champagne as putting food into someone’s mouth 🙂

Champagne Lesson #7 – Champagne can be made from both red and white grapes!  The reds just dont keep continual contact with the skins.  There are actually 3 types of grapes in the Champagne AOC: Chardonnay, Red Pinor Noir and Black Pinot Meunier.

The juice inside every grape is clear – it is just the juice is fermented – with our without skins that determines the color

Champagne Lesson #8 –  No &*^ in the Champagne Room.   It rains 200 days out of the year in Champagne.  The rainy temps leave the mildew and catepillars.  The wind has to help with the mildew, but to avoid the use of pesticides to ward against the creatures, growers use a technique called confusion sexual.  Pods are filled with female butterfly pheromones to distract and confuse the male caterpillars so they can’t find an egg to fertilize. Each dual-pod costs 1 euro and they are placed every 2-3 meters on the vines.

A cruel joke to the male caterpillar. But if it means more Champagne for the world, I’m game!

Champagne Lesson #9 –  Champagne is under a lot of pressure!    The air inside a bottle of Champagne has pressure 3x that of a tire.   One in 10,000 explodes due to the pressure.  They use horizontal stackers to help reduce the impact to an entire wall.

A Champagne bottle that wanted to join the party a little too early.

Horizontal panes help minimize damage if there is an explosion – at least they all don’t fall vertically downwards.

Champagne Lesson #10 – Champagne is strong!  Since the glass is designed strong to support the special liquid, Champagne bottles are hard to break.  Our guide taught us how to deal with the situation if the event occurs:  leave it, cover it with a blanket a few hours. If you put it down on a counter immediately after, the impact creates a 2nd shock which can cause explosions.   Alternatively, don’t sit it down, open it and drink it.
Champagne Lesson # 11 – The official term for the process is not known as “Champagne-ing”.   I ‘created’ this term after a few glasses while asking a question to our guide.  I never heard the end of it and I can hear him telling future groups, “You’d never believe what this American I had said….”.    Even still, I managed to learn a bit about how a still wine is turned into bubbly:
1 – Fermentation happens like a normal still wine
2 – Blending happens
2- More yeast & sugar is added, a cap affixed, and a second fermentation is done in the bottle
3- Every day, bottles are turned a fraction every so often.
4 -The extra sediment must be removed in a technique called remuage.  This is either done manually, or with today’s technology by freezing the sediment so it pops out easily
5 – The bottle goes to rehab to adjust from the stressful procedure of remuage
6 – The bottle is corked
The process takes several years in order to mature and perfect the contents!

Our guide demonstrating the old school method of turning on a traditional Champagne board

Another method of turning – these barrels are slightly rotated and turned throughout the maturation

Even more current machinery automates this process

A glimpse at the sediment that must be removed before corking

Champagne Lesson #12 – France allows for blending the rules of rosé.  Okay that was a play on words that might be a little cheesy.   Rosé champagne is the only of France’s wines that permits the blending of red juice with white, because of the second fermentation process.  For traditional rosés, this process is scoffed at as cheater.     Even still, many opt for the higher grade technique of satinée, or bleeding, for their rosé champagnes.

Rosé Champagne

If it wasn’t for the pink color, would a Rosé smell as sweet?

Living in Geneva in the summer, most picnic blankets hold at least one bottle of rosé.

Being Americans, to us, pink generally = boxed wine.  So, this prevalence of pink wine was a surprise to us our first summer.   However, it didn’t take long to adapt to the European phenomenon of rosé.

Image courtesy of KitchenRap Blogspot

Far different from its cheap boxed distant cousin, the rosés of France are complex and a national treasure.  We got more of an education during our trips to Southern France, both in les Alpilles and the Tavel region.

R and Mom with some delicious rosé

In fact, Fabrice of Domaine de la Mordorée, in Tavel, told us when wine critic Bob Parker rated their rosé ‘the best in the world,’ he was insulted as it is in his opinion ‘the best in the Universe’.

Domaine de la Mordorée

Rosés are made with red grapes.   There are a few methods of making rosé:

  • Saignée, or bleeding, is achieved when the weight of the grapes do the pressing. The skins are left in only for a brief time.  Because the juices don’t have a lengthy contact with the skins, the result is a light and juicy flavored rosé.
  • Skin contact methods are used when the red skins are used to achieve ideal color, after which, they are removed and the rosé continues to ferment without the skins
  • Blending methods (or run-offs) is when the juice from the red is used, along with the white juice, making a more opaque rosé.  This shortcut technique is practically illegal in France.

The rosés are a French favorite.   Reading Of Wine And War, when I got to the chapter about the Americans and French taking back the French countryside, I couldn’t help but chuckle at this part:

“Their job was vital, said Monsabert of his American allies, “but the vinously minded historian will note that it did not take them near a single vineyard of quality. Now follow the advance of the French army. Swiftly they possessed themselves of Tavel, and after making sure all was well with one of the finest vin rosés in France, struck fiercly for Chateauneuf-du-Pape.

While rosé hasn’t become my favorite French wine, I certainly am glad for getting more exposure to it during our time in Europe.