Day 1 of Cooking in Monforte d’Alba, Italy

See, I told you I’d be back soon! 

Ok–We flew, from JFK International airport and landed in Malpensa, the airport in Milan.  Our first two nights were at Relais San Maurizio, a gorgeous spa/hotel (that is a converted Monastery) that’s in the area of Piedmont –a  2 hour car ride from the airport.  Going to a spa was a great way to soften the effects of jet-lag while also breaking up a long trip from the city to the country side, which is where we would spend most of our trip. 

 

 

Our first dinner in Piedmont was in the hotel–and it was AMAZING. Ristorante di Guido da Costigiole is a wonderful family-owned restaurant, located in the cellar of the hotel and is still used for wine making and ageing. And, it was here that Jon and I, for the first time, got our first real whiff (and taste) of gorgeous white truffles–And trust me, this was the first of many on this yummy trip. 

The next day, with Rudston Steward (our wonderful guide from Trufflepig) we had a tour of the town of Alba, where we got to go to the very famous truffle market. 

 

Here are both white and black truffles, displayed in long rows of glass cases, for people to examine, select, weigh and purchase. 

 

This guy (the big one) had, to me, the best specimens… 

This is me and Rudston (our guide)– 

 

Can you believe the size of these truffles?! 

 

Piedmont (Alba) is also known for Hazelnuts–This is where Nutella was born. 

 

Every place we ate they served a specialty of this part of the world–Tajarin (a thinner version of a tagliatelle) with butter (sometimes sage) and a big fat pile of thinly shaved white truffles. 

 

This pasta dish isn’t just popular in restaurants–Below is a common “Sunday” activity. Pasta making in the town square! 

 

And whenever we ate–whether in a person’s home or in a restaurant, we were always presented with a bowl of white truffles to sniff, choose and have shaved on our pasta. Before you think I’m rolling in money…truffles are a fraction of the cost here–This was at lunch–I think–I actually don’t remember because, although the size of the truffles (and my clothing) varied, this picture could have been me at every meal! 

 

After one night at a hotel in the heart of the city of Alba, the next morning, we drove deep into the countryside, to the heart of Piedmonte, and stayed at a truly magical place, the Villa Beccaris, in Monforte d’Alba. These next three days were so much fun, I could barely catch my breath …and were truly transforming for me as a cook. 

Before leaving for Italy, I had described what I wanted to experience to Rudston (our guide). I said something like this: “I want to be in the kitchen with anyone that really loves and owns the craft of cooking and baking–I didn’t care where. I said “Rudston, please don’t get stuck in “chefdome”–I want to be with mammasitas, balaboostas, grandmas! —Anyone that lives to cook  and bake delicious things!! ” I also said that I want to go truffle hunting. 

Well, to say I hit the “mother load” is quite the understatement. 

Rudston had arranged for us to spend the day cooking (and eating) in the home of Bruna Alessandria, who several years ago was one of the famous “Mothers” at the Restaurant “Le Madri.” She lives in a small farm-house in Monforte d’Alba. Here she is… 

 

And here (below) is Bruna’s mother, Maria, who just turned 90! Bruna lives with her mother in the same house where she was raised. 

 

But that’s not all–Bruna also lives with her two brothers Aldo and Flavio–who are both truffle hunters! Below is a photo of me and Aldo–and he’s holding a photo of one of his beyond amazing truffles!  

  

And, in addition to the the cat and a couple of dogs (and chickens), there was Mickey–an eleven year old Lab. who is their star truffle hunter! 

 

Mickey and Aldo are a great team!….I’ll write more on our truffle hunt in an upcoming blog. 

This day was all about cooking with Bruna. 

The first thing Bruna got started was the Bagna Cauda, a hot, garlicky dip, to serve with raw and cooked vegetables.  

Bruna’s Bagna Cauda starts with A LOT of thinly sliced garlic… 

 

The garlic was covered in water and boiled for 4 minutes, then drained (to remove some of the strong taste–you can see why, when using so much garlic). 

Then Bruna covered the garlic with olive oil (pure not extra virgin, which Bruna says is too heavy and strong) and slowly brought it to a simmer, over low heat.  She let this cook approximately 30 minutes, then stirred in some anchovy fillets (only a fraction of the amount of anchovies to garlic.)  

Rudston would translate for me since I don’t speak Italian. 

 

Then, she cooked this very, very gently, stirring frequently so the anchovies and garlic don’t scorch–Stirring was Mama Maria’s job for most of the day–who stayed glued to the best spot in the house (it was a cold, rainy day)–next to the wood burning stove. 

While the bagna cauda simmered–Bruna got started on the carne cruda (raw veal (extremely lean and of high quality) sliced and chopped (by hand!). 

First the meat is sliced 1/3 inch thick. 

 

 

Then the slices are cut into small cubes. 

Then the cubes are chopped (“CHOP, CHOP, CHOP”)– This is not like chopping vegetables where the handle of the knife comes up but the tip of the blade stays down…no, here, the entire knife is lifted up and the heavy blade is dropped down repetitively in one direction, then back to the beginning–to “CHOP, CHOP, CHOP”). She did this (for quite some time) until the meat was chopped small but still had integrity–this is a rhythmical process–the sound was like music (to someone like me, anyway…). 

 

 

Brava, Bruna! 

Then the meat gets chilled–so it can relax–until it gets seasoned and promptly served.  

To season the meat, Bruna added a generous amount of olive oil (again, she used pure oil for it’s neutral taste). She would fork the oil into the meat gently–to keep the texture light–she would squeeze in some fresh lemon–and a little salt–then taste–then add a bit more oil–a bit more lemon–a bit more salt–then fork it in and taste again and finally (when not dry but not wet–when you taste just a bit of lemon–and just the right amount of salt–she deemed the mixture “perfecto!”– 

 

Bruna took a round biscuit cutter and used it to fill with the meat mixture to create uniform servings–actually (since this was the first time I ever had carne cruda and wasn’t sure if I’d like it–I asked for a small portion–So she took out a smaller cutter… 

 

 Mine is the baby in the middle. 

To serve, the meat was showered with shaved truffles. Shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano is what to use when there are no truffles to be had. 

 

Geeze, I could get used to this! I couldn’t believe how delicate the flavors were–and how light and gorgeous the texture. I had seconds! 

Before we ate (while the chopped meat was chilling–Mama Maria continued to stir the bagna cauda (with the cat on her lap)–Flavio was on the couch and Aldo was dealing truffles…) 

Bruna put two large boards over the dining table. She lugged out the pasta machine– 

 

And she went to work on her pasta dough… 

 

 

 

 

She used the machine to cut the dough into tajarin (long, thin, yellow strands), which she served tossed with yummy butter and… (what else?) MORE shaved white truffles! I’ve made this wonderful pasta, and several others, many times since I returned from Italy. I will show you how to do this very soon. 

After we ate the carne cruda, the tajarine w/ tartufo bianco, then Bruna came out with the bagna cauda –hot–accompanied bya big platter of assorted vegetables (raw bell peppers, endive, cooked potatoes, beets and crusty bread)–Grissini (long bread sticks, which are another food native to Piedmont) were also on the table–and were on every table we ate at during our trip–a recipe is coming. 

Then came dessert–Hard winter pears that Bruna poached for hours in Nebbiolo wine with some cloves, a broken cinnamon stick and a little sugar (a grape native to Piedmont). 

 

For me, this was one of the highlights of the meal and, when I got home, I quickly wanted to recreate it–So, tomorrow, I will share a recipe that I adapted, in honor of Bruna. 

What a delicious amazing day! 

 I love you Bruna, Maria, Aldo, Flavio, Mickey and…el ghatto! Grazie mille!! 

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