It is that time of the year—the weather turns cool, leaves turn yellow and red and I turn greedy. Autumn food does that to me—glossy brown chestnuts just waiting to be roasted, fragrant mushrooms screaming to be sliced and sautéed with some garlic and parsley, knobbly truffles ready to infuse their rich, musky aroma to juicy cubes of beef strewn with parmesan flakes. And if the autumnal crop wasn’t enough, there are all the festivals—nearly every Italian village dusts the buntings, clears up the main square and puts up an open air celebration of anything from chocolate, wild boar and wine, to polenta, porcini and pumpkins. Unknown places like Soriano nel Cimino (the backdrop of a chestnut sagra with historic re-enactment between 3 and 19 October), Morbegno (where the Bitto cheese festival has been held for the last two hundred years, with the 101st edition taking place on 17-19 October) and Casola Valsenio (home of the forgotten fruit festival, celebrating quince, jujube and cornel among others on 18-19 October) suddenly loom large on the map of the would be gourmet. It will probably take three lifetimes to visit them all, but rest assured I will try. That said, if you don’t have the time (or the stamina) to hit the sagre every weekend, here are the three food festival you absolutely should not miss.
Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco, Alba, Piedmont
If you love white truffles, Alba is the place to visit. In the cold evenings of autumn and early winter, the woods around the small Langhe town come alive with trifolai — truffle hunters — and their tabui, dogs, who scour the undergrowth for the precious Tuber Magnatum Pico, the world’s most aromatic and expensive truffle. But gourmets with suitably deep pockets have an easier way to lay their hands on the white fungus—they only need to turn up at the Alba Truffle World Market and buy a truffle from a local trader. All the truffles on sale at the aptly named Palatartufo (truffle palace) have been previously analysed and certified by the National Centre for Truffle Studies, and are sold in numbered bags to guarantee complete traceability. Between one truffle and the next, the palace also hosts a food fair celebrating the Langhe terroir, with stands selling cheeses, wines, honey, cold cuts and chocolate, as well as guided wine tastings of ruby Barolo, Barbaresco and Alta Langa Metodo Classico. Truffles, gastronomy and culture also fill Alba outside the palace—from the chocolate exhibition at the Fondazione Ferrero to the street markets full of local products, from the Alba Truffle Award, where some of the world’s greatest chefs will do culinary battle against the majestic backdrop of the Grinzane Cavour castle, to the Truffle Bacchanal medieval games and the Borgo si rievoca, a medieval re-enactment and an opportunity to eat, drink and be merry the Langhe way. And to take in the exhilarating beauty of the Langhe’s villages, woods and vineyards at a glance, a hot air balloon will fly visitors over Alba every day until 9 November.
The 78th Fiera Internazionale del Tartufo Bianco started on 4 October and will continue until 9 November 2008 (although some events will take place later in the year). During that period, the Alba Truffle World Market, at the Palatartufo Giacomo Morra, Piazza Medford 3, Alba, will be open on Saturday and Sunday from 9am to 8pm (tickets €3, children ten years old or younger free). The guided wine tastings will take place at 4pm. The chocolate exhibition at the Fondazione Ferrero, via Vivar 49, will open on 19 October and continue until 18 January (Tuesday to Friday 3pm to 7pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am to 7pm, closed on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day). The street markets will be held on Saturday and Sunday throughout October, while the hot air balloon tours will leave every day from Corso Piave 219, in Loc. San Cassiano, Alba, from 8.30am. The Truffle Bacchanal is on Saturday 18 October from 8.30pm and the Borgo si rievoca on Sunday 19 October from 10am to 6pm. The Alba Truffle Award is on 7 December at 11am. For more information visit www.fieradeltartufo.org.
Salone del Gusto, Torino, Piedmont
It takes place every two years, it is crowded and, hosted as it is at the Lingotto, an exhibition venue in the heart of Turin’s industrial neighbourhood, it is hardly picturesque. But you shouldn’t miss it for the world. Because the Salone del Gusto, Slow Food’s biennial fair, brings together hundreds of top Italian food producers under one roof. It’s like a miniature tour of the very best in Italian gastronomy, where you can take in spicy sopressate and sweet culatelli on the cured meat lane, velvety chocolate and crunchy torrone on the sweets lane, creamy burrate from Puglia and grassy fontine from Valle d’Aosta on the cheese lane. Then there are the Tasting areas to chance upon new foods that may tempt your palate and the Kitchens, where full menus explore the culinary treasures of places such as Tuscany, Umbria, Sicily, Veneto or Liguria. Plus books, wines, beer, tea, coffee, spices and everything that makes Italy a mouth-watering delight.
The Salone del Gusto takes place at the Lingotto exhibition centre, in Via Nizza 280, Turin, from Thursday 23 to Sunday 26 October, from 11am to 11pm, and on Monday 27 from 11am to 8pm. Admission costs €20 , concessions €10-12, children up to ten years old get in free. Tickets can be bought at the gate or online on www.ticketone.it
Volterragusto, Volterra, Tuscany
Eclectic is the word that best defines Volterragusto, a month-long celebration of food that takes place in the Tuscan town. It starts off with a cheese festival featuring anything from public tastings to a Cheese Race where the best ‘shots’ from Volterra’s contrade, or neighbourhoods, will engage in a cheese-rolling contest. It ends with the oil festival, two days packed with guided olive oil tastings, prizes and a healthy oil walk down Volterra’s hill, along Etruscan relics, ancient springs and lush countryside, to reach a local farm and savour the pungent taste of freshly-pressed oil on a slice of country bread. And in between the two festivals—just about everything. A wine and patisserie weekend, where local wines are matched to sweet treats; two white truffle weekends to smell, buy and even hunt the precious fungus—visitors can join the local hunters and their dogs along the roads of the Tuscan countryside and look for truffles and mushrooms; and a chocolate weekend that will entice children (who can draw with chocolate and take part in a treasure hunt) as much as grown-ups (who can go on a yummy guided crawl peppered with wine and chocolate tastings). Plus street jazz, flag-waving, calligraphy, literary prizes and, for the brave, a chance to go paragliding over Volterra.
Volterragusto takes place from 11 October to 23 November. Most of the food events take place in Piazza XX Settembre at the weekend. The Cheese festival is on 11 and 12 October, the Wine and Patisserie weekend on 18 and 19 October, the Truffle weekends on 25, 26 and 31 October and 1 and 2 November, the Chocolate weekend is on 8 and 9 November and the Oil festival on 22 and 23 November. For more details and a full programme, visit www.volterragusto.com.