By Lynette Chiang
Now he sniffs it. Now he doesn't. The snub-faced, curly-coated almost-poodle, described as a "Lagotto" by your guide, is onto something that puts the kibosh on any congenital bias for bones prior his current night job: master truffle hunter. His high season has just begun. The white truffle, a camera shy, uncultivatable little 'shroom, grows undergeround, deep in the woods of Piedmont, Italy, and fetches (take a deeeeeep sniff) up to $1000 per pound.
"A voluptuous aroma ... the sensation is extraordinary ... receptors I didn't know I had seem to burst into life," writes truffle addict Anthony Capella. Like drug dealers, truffle hunters often have one or two master chefs they supply exclusively. Marilyn Monroe, past presidents, and kings were escorted on exclusive truffle hunting expeditions. Why, there was once even a Truffle Hound University at Roddi near Alba that conferred degrees on promising pups.
Yes, Autumn is a superb time in Italy. Tourist crowds have thinned, flights and hotel prices are falling, and the heat of summer has cooled for more active moving about, including cycling and walking. Fall food festivals, highlighting truffles, wild mushrooms, chocolate, and chestnut, abound all over the country. The Slow Food movement, a nationally sanctioned initiative emphasizing unprocessed, local, seasonal and fresh eating, is de rigueur. Eating in "eataly" shifts from plain old fantastic to sublime!
Here are three wonderful Ciclismo tours for foodies - they're perfect for Fall 2011, or Spring, or Summer! We'll start with an easy one in Puglia, then, as Emeril Lagasse puts it, kick it up a notch in Fruili and Slovenia, and finally, lay on the hot sauce for the heavenly home of the white truffle: Piedmont.
La Bella Puglia: Fresh, striking, coastal
Despite being in the giddy 6" heel (depending on how big your map is) of Italy's famous boot, this sunny, coastal region on the south-easternmost tip is reasonably flat. That means a laid back spin along sandy, dramatic coastlines, lollling at seaside hotels, and marveling at Greek, Norman, and Arab influenced architecture. Like the startling Truilli houses - little conical buildings looking like inverted wine glasses and covered in stone, dotted all over the region. The food is simple and flavorful: from the air, Puglia resembles one immense farm bursting with grain, grapes, artichokes, tomatoes, lettuce, fennel, peppers, onions, and olive oil. With an ocean full of fish nearby and grazing fields of sheep and cattle, the approach is to simply combine superb ingredients - lamb, sheep's milk cheese and Pugliese homemade pasta - and let the dishes create themselves. An easy 6 days of gorgeous cycling - andiamo!
“Thanks for a fabulous trip – you have set the gold standard for all biking trips to come.”
Friuli & Slovenia: Wine, unique landscape, a great boast!
Now let's flex that boot and kick it up a notch: This is Fruili, a tiny, little-visited region at the north easternmost part of Italy, tucked between Slovenia and Austria. A strip of land with Trieste as its capital, it's a heady blend of Venetian, Austrian, and Slavic cultures all in one trip as we zig zag across borders.
There's plenty of bizarre nature too, with a spin through the trippy Carso region, a sculptural landscape dotted with eroded limestone (“karsic”) humps, grottoes, and caverns. We love the triple-walled city of Palmanova, which you enter through four ornate portals, revealing the most unusual hexagonal piazza we've ever seen. When it comes to wine, this region, particular Colio near Slovenia, is becoming the new Tuscany and Piedmont - a perfect siting on southwestern slopes has produced more than 200 varietals in this area alone. We're sure this will become more popular as cyclists discover the perfect warm summers and mild winters thanks to two rivers that hug the region. Best of all, you can be the first of your pals to have visited a whole new world.
"One of my top bike trips great guides, the best cycling, excellent food & wine, and a great cultural experience."
Piedmont: Land of Barolo & Truffles
Now let's kick it up even further and crank to the north west: this opulent food heaven landlocked between the borders of Switzerland and France actually tends to not draw too much attention to itself. It is said the most "French" part of Italy seems to cultivate an unsaid "If you have taste, you know about Piedmont; if you don't, you're not invited." Bontà mia! We've never let them get away with that, having brought foodie cyclists here for more than 20 years.
Apart from spectacular wines (Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera are not Italy's version of "Charlie's Angels" though they could be - they're thrice as seductive) this is the place to find the white truffle with the help of a snuffling Lagotto. A traditionally wealthy and opulent region, its restaurants pile on a dazzling array of antipasti before even getting into the seeming marathon of primi and secondi, washed down with dolci and Moscato dessert wine.
"This is not a bus tour. I loved the interaction with people along the way. The food and wine were incredible! I really got the Italian experience."