The truffles were displayed like jewels!

Driving through Piedmont, the countryside in late October is gloriously Autumnal. This is Barolo and Barbaresco region, most of the grapes have already been picked and the leaves on the vines are turning a variety of orange and burnished red, rust and gold. The vineyards are interspersed with hazelnut groves – this is nougat, giandujotte and Nutella country.
Every bar and enoteca (wine bar) serves Torta di Nocciole. I’ve just eaten a delicious slice topped with zabione in a little café in Monteforte de Alba. The grumpy landlord refused to give me a plate of Vitello Tonnato – too late for lunch, so I succumbed to the temptation which I fear will be forever on my hips.
During the truffle season Tartufo are Piedmont’s greatest gastronomic treasure, aficionados come from all over the world during the truffle season to savour this earthy delicacy. This precious fungus looks like a knobbly potato and grows 4-6 inches below the ground in parasitical symbiosis with the roots of oak walnut, chestnut, hazelnut, and willow trees.

An old truffle hunter explained to me that the harder the wood of the tree the more intense the truffle’s perfume. Some are as tiny as marbles but in rare cases they can be as big as your fist. Two types are found in Italy, the Tuber melansporum – a black truffle with little flavour in season from November to March all over Italy. Tuber magnatum – the white truffle on the other hand is highly scented and exquisitely flavoured and excruciatingly expensive. We visited the truffle market in Alba held on Saturday morning from September through January. There were about twelve farmers in winceyette check shirts and dungarees each sitting on stools watching protectively over their little cache.
The truffles were displayed like jewels in covered cases and as one passed by the proud owner would lift the cover slightly to allow a tantalising waft of aroma to escape. I was longing to buy a truffle but wasn’t sure what to look out for or how to judge a really good one, particularly when my pitiful Italian made it impossible to ask the questions I so badly needed answers to. I watched the other truffle hunters going about their purchase, each one sniffed the truffles individually and then felt, so I gathered that apart from the aroma, it was important that the truffle was firm, not soft or spongy. Then I realised that there was a truffle inspector available to customers so I carefully made my purchase from a local farmer. I was mightily relieved when after much sniffing and feeling it was endorsed by the inspector.

I’ve always longed to link up with a farmer to go truffle hunting but the search involves much stealth and secrecy. Selectively bred pigs or more usually nowadays hounds, help their masters to find the truffles, sometimes several kilos, in an evening. This harvest is sold furtively by the gram in early morning markets, cash only, no cameras allowed, transactions conducted in a local dialect. Unscrupulous vendors have a myriad of ways to piece together a broken truffle or fill wormholes with clay to add extra weight. Consequently its better for the inexperienced buyer to head for markets in Alba or Asti.

Few cookbooks tell you what to do with a precious truffle if you should decide to purchase one. Use it soon. Its best shaved over an omelette or simply fried or scrambled eggs. Its also divine with fresh pasta, tossed in a simple sauce of cream and parmesan. At about €3 a gram you’re unlikely to have large quantities to worry about.
Chestnuts are another speciality of the Piedmont region, they are preserved in syrup and sold as marrons glacés, a local speciality despite its French name.
Grissini or bread sticks are another speciality of the area – up to a yard long, the best are hand rolled and slightly knobbly and bear little resemblance to the boring packaged commercial grissini.

This area is full of surprises, it wasn’t until we passed through the little village of Arboria that I realised that Piedmont is also an important rice growing region. The flat fields are flooded to grow Arboria, Canaroli and Vilano Nano rice for risottos. I’ve always loved the food in this region of Italy, less well known than Tuscany and for my palate much more varied.
We ate wonderful Bagna Cauda – raw seasonal vegetables dipped in a hot bath of olive oil, garlic and anchovies. I also adore Vitello Tonnato, wafer thin slices of roast veal with a tuna flavoured mayo. Almost every meal starts with a salumi course followed by an antipasto, Primo is the pasta course, perhaps plump agnolotti filled with chopped roast meat or tajarin, thin shoelace homemade egg pasta with various sauces. We also enjoyed potato gnocchi and of course Fonduta with shavings of truffle. Next comes the main course – Seconda. One mustn’t miss Bollito misto, a mixture of boiled meat including tongue, served with salsa verde or rossa.

Look out for Finanziana also – a stew of cocks combs, chicken livers, sweet breads and other exciting variety meats. Fritto misto turns out to be a huge platter of deep fried foods, lamb chops, chicken, zucchini and their blossom, aubergine, mushrooms, cauliflowers, fried cream and sometimes peaches and amaretto biscuits.
If you’ve got any room left you can tuck into Formaggio (local cheese), followed by Dolce (dessert). I always seek out Castelmagno, a terrifying looking, rare and pungent cow’s milk cheese with a cult following. Its certainly not for the faint hearted, there’s also Gorgonzola, Bra, Tom and many many others that live on in one’s memory.
Desserts are for me least memorable, I am still mystified by people’s attachment to Bonet -a trifle like pudding with chocolate, rum and amaretti, Pere al barola – pears slow cooked in the lovely Barola wine, can be delicious with a wobbly Pannacotta and one must taste a foamy zabaione at least once. Aer Lingus flies into Milan from Dublin daily, also Al Italia, and from Cork the direct service from Milan ran from April to the end of October twice weekly, so its easy to get to this area. My advice is to quickly head for Turin and then meander through the countryside, truly a food and wine lover’s paradise.

Fried Eggs with White Truffles from Piedmont

Truffles, a rare treat, have a natural affinity with eggs, this is a favourite way to enjoy them in Alba.
Serves 2

4 fresh free range eggs, preferably organic
extra virgin olive oil
1 small white truffle
salt and freshly ground pepper
crusty white bread

Heat a little oil in a frying pan, add the eggs (you’ll need to cook them in batches). Fry the eggs gently. When the white is set but the yolk still soft, transfer 2 eggs to a warm plate. Top with slivers of truffle.
Serve immediately and enjoy every mouthful.

Breadsticks – Grissini

Crusty breadsticks are all the rage now. The more rustic looking the better, great with soups, salads or just to nibble. Remember they will double in size, so roll very thinly.
Ballymaloe White Yeast Bread dough (see recipe)

Sea salt, chopped rosemary, crushed cumin seeds, sesame seeds, poppy seeds, ground black pepper, chilli flakes, grated Parmesan cheese…..
When the dough has been ‘knocked back’, preheat the oven to 220C/425F/gas mark 7. Sprinkle the work surface with coarse sea salt or chosen flavouring.
Pull off small pieces of dough, 15-25g (½-1oz). Roll into very thin, medium or fat breadsticks with your hands. Roll in chosen ‘sprinkle’ (you may need to brush lightly with cold water first). Place on a baking sheet. Repeat this process until all the dough has been used.
Bake in a preheated oven for 8-15 minutes depending on size until golden brown and crisp. Cool on a wire rack.
Note: Breadsticks are usually baked without a final rising but for a slightly, lighter result let the shaped dough rise for about 10 minutes before baking.
Wiggly Worm: Shape a very thin breadstick which has been rolled in finely grated Parmesan cheese into a wiggly worm. Serve with Kinoith Garden Salad.
Bread sticks wrapped in a slice of Parma or Serrano ham make a delicious nibble to serve with an aperitif.

Ballymaloe White Yeast Bread

This loaf is always served in a traditional plait shape in Ballymaloe but it can be shaped in many forms, from rolls to loaves or even in to animal shapes! It is a traditional white yeast bread and once you have mastered this basic techinique the sky is the limit.
Makes 2 x 1 lb (450g) loaves
20g (¾oz) fresh yeast
425ml (15 floz) water
30g (1oz) butter
2 teaspoons salt
15g ( ½ oz) sugar
675g (1½ lbs) strong white flour
Poppy seeds or Sesame seeds for topping – optional
2 x loaf tins 13 x 20cms 5” x 8” 

Sponge the yeast in 150ml (5fl oz) of tepid water, leave in a warm place for about five minutes.
In a large wide mixing bowl sieve the flour, salt and sugar. Rub in the butter, make a well in the centre.
Pour in the sponged yeast and most of the remaining lukewarm water. Mix to a loose dough adding the remaining liquid or a little extra flour if needed
Turn the dough onto a lightly floured work surface, cover and leave to relax for 5 minutes approximately. 

Then knead for about 10 minutes or until smooth, springy and elastic (if kneading in a food mixer with a dough hook, 5 minutes is usually long enough).
Put the dough in a large delph bowl. Cover the top tightly with cling film (yeast dough rises best in a warm moist atmosphere).
When the dough has more than doubled in size, 1½ - 2 hours, knock back and knead again for about 2 to 3 minutes. Leave to relax again for 10 minutes.
Shape the bread into loaves, plaits or rolls, transfer to a baking sheet and cover with a light tea towel. Allow to rise again in a warm place, until the shaped dough has again doubled in size. 

The bread is ready for baking when a small dent remains when the dough is pressed lightly with the finger. Brush with egg wash and sprinkle with poppy or sesame seeds if using them. Or dust lightly with flour for a rustic looking loaf.
Bake in a fully preheated hot oven, 230C/450F/regulo 9 for 25 - 35 minutes depending on size.

The bread should sound hollow when tapped underneath. Cool on a wire rack.
To make a plait-
Take half the quantity of white yeast dough after it has been ‘knocked back’, divide into three equal pieces. With both hands roll each one into a rope, thickness depends on how fat you want the plait. Then pinch the three ends together at the top, bring each outside strand into the center alternatively to form a plait, pinch the ends and tuck in neatly. Transfer onto a baking tray. Allow to double in size. Egg wash or dredge with flour.

Bagna Cauda

This is one of the great specialities of the Piedmont area in Northern Italy.
Serves 4-6

A variety of raw vegetables cut in bite sized pieces eg. peppers, cardoons, celery, carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, fennel
Globe artichoke heart and Jerusalem artichokes
boiled potatoes and beetroot
Lots of crusty bread
6 fl ozs (175ml) olive oil
5 cloves garlic, crushed
14 anchovy fillets, chopped
4 ozs (110g) butter

Heat the oil gently in a small pot, add the garlic and cook until soft but not brown. Add the anchovies and stir over a low heat until dissolved. Add in the butter and serve in the pot, keep warm on a spirit lamp or over a night light. Guests then dip in the vegetables in the Bagna Cauda and eat them immediately.

Torta di Nocciole (Hazelnut Pound Cake)

From ‘Celebrating Italy’ by Carol Field
This hazelnut pound cake is without doubt the dessert of Alba.
Makes 1 pound cake

150g (5oz) unsalted butter, room temperature
250g (9oz) castor sugar
3 eggs, separated, warm room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
120g (4½ oz) hazelnuts, toasted, peeled and finely chopped
250g (9oz) plain flour
1 tablespoon + 1 teaspoon baking powder
pinch salt

9 x 5 inch (23 x 12.5cm) loaf tin, lined with parchment paper.
Preheat the oven to 350F/180c/gas 4

Cream the butter and 225g (8oz) of sugar with a wooden spoon or with the whisk of an electric mixer at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes by hand, or 3-5 minutes by mixer. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, beating thoroughly after each addition. Beat in the vanilla, then the hazelnuts. Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together, then resift them over the batter and gently fold into the batter. In a separate bowl beat the egg whites until fluffy. Add the remaining 25g (1oz) of sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, and continue beating until the mixture is glossy and holds peaks. Change to the paddle attachment on your mixer and on the lowest speed, stir the egg whites into the hazelnut mixture in 3 careful additions.
Pour the batter into the lined tin. Bake in the preheated oven until a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean, 50-60 minutes.

Foolproof Food

Zabaione

This is possibly everyone’s favourite Italian dessert. Marsala is best in it but you can use a mixture of dark rum and sweet sherry instead.
Serves 4

4 egg yolks, preferably free range
4 tablesp. castor sugar
8 tablesp. Marsala
8 - 12 sponge fingers
1 bowl 4 pint (2.3L) capacity

Bring a saucepan of water to the boil. Separate the eggs, put the yolks into the bowl with the castor sugar and whisk for a few seconds until they fluff up. Sit the bowl into a saucepan of simmering water, add the Marsala whisking all the time and continue until the zabaglione is light and fluffy and has increased enormously in volume - about 5-8 minutes with an electric whisk or 15 minutes by hand. Pour at once into warm glasses, put each one on a plate and serve immediately with a few sponge fingers to dunk in the boozy fluff.
Zabaione is also delicious served with fresh summer berries

Hot Tips

Markets News –
Ahascragh Country Market in Co Galway – next market on 20th November 11-1 – will include tastings of Christmas goodies and orders may be placed on the day. Locally produced – Cakes, jams, relishes, vegetables, fruit, crafts and much more.
Birr, Co Offaly – next market also on 20th November.
Cahir Farmers Market – every Saturday 9- 1- the very best of locally produced foods.

Listowel Food Fair – will run from November 4-8th – now celebrating its tenth year the fair is still gathering momentum. Opening by Anne Cassin of RTE and featuring celebrity chef Neven Maguire. www.listowelfoodfair.com  email:listowelfoodfair@eircom.net  Tel. 068-23034.

Retail Foodshow 2004 - City West Dublin– November 7th.This is a one-stop market place which puts food producers and equipment/service suppliers face to face with their customers. Associated Craft Butchers of Ireland, Apollo Business Park, Dundrum Road, Dundrum, Dublin 14 Tel: 01-2961400 info@craftbutchers.ie