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For many foodies, white truffles might as well be gold. These clumps of fungal fruit grow in the damp crevasses beneath oak trees in only a few places on earth. They are extremely rare and cannot be cultivated. They also stir the hearts of many chefs and can cost a small fortune to purvey. If you want to see for yourself the land of the truffle hunter, then take a plane to the Italian region of Piedmont in the Langhe hills. Alba, a two-hour drive north from Milan, is considered the spiritual city of the treasure, and prime truffle time spans from November to Christmas.
This region isn't the only great truffle turf--white truffles can be found in Croatia's Istria region too. But the Langhe hills have it over Istria in one major respect: they're home to the Nebbiolo grape, which produces some of the best wines to complement your truffles. These red and noble Barolos and Barbarescos match beautifully with the musky truffle. This is a pleasant trip any time of year, but the late fall and early winter are the only times you can experience this gustatory extravagance. Even if you have never eaten a truffle, don't be intimidated. Everyone has a first time. Why not make yours while on vacation in these vineyard-laced hills?
White truffles are foraged by truffle hunters, unearthed by their expensive dogs in the dark predawn hours. By early December the truffles are still in high season. You will see the lovely lumps on the city's main drag, Vittoria Emmanuel, where cheese-shop windows display truffles the way that Harry Winston's shows off jewels--and the truffles are almost as expensive. You probably won't be buying any to take home because they get moldy rather fast. But you are here to eat as many as possible, and Alba is a good first stop.
A convenient place to stay is the Hotel Savona. Though Spartan, it's in the thick of the city. Build up your appetite on Saturday morning walking through the street market that snakes through the town center. Here you will find everything from suits and shoes and leather to sexy wool underwear. While in Alba, you will want to tuck into the most popular wine bar, VinCafe, for lunch or late-afternoon coffee or wine. For a casual truffle dinner, I'm fond of La Liberia, which serves the homey food of the region and is one of the few places in the entire region where you can order a salad as well as typical risotto Piedmontese with a blanket of truffle shavings.
Along the road from Alba to Asti, a must stop is Elena Rovera's organic cooperative, Cascina del Cornale, for lunch or dinner at the restaurant and take-home goodies in the store. The restaurant serves up flavorful cuisine, mostly to locals but also to a few intense food hounds who have somehow heard of Rovera. Everything served is grown, produced or foraged (as with the truffles) by the members of her cooperative. Rovera is also mother hen to many local organic-wine producers who are not well known but top-notch. Ask her to set up some visits for you.