Manifestatio praecox

14 Oct 2005

Albeit aimed at Slow Food’s Italian readers, Slowfood is a magazine that encompasses the world. Here we offer English-speaking readers a sample article from the latest issue, number 13.

‘… Moving on to concrete proposals, Dr De Giacomi noted that the date is premature, especially in view of the difficulties involved in organizing a display of the prestigious fungus, which in that period is scarce and not yet fully mature.’ The words come from an account of a lecture ‘on a burning issue, the Alba Truffle Fair’ that appeared in the Piedmontese fortnightly magazine La Bilancia on November 25 1967. They are a good example of how history moves in cycles. The speaker Luciano De Giacomi, a pharmacist, vine grower and gourmet, president of both the Famija Albeisa (a local social club) and the ‘Order of the Knights of the Truffle and Wines of Alba’ was one of the most authoritative contributors to the periodical, which openly shared his view. ‘De Giacomi’s lecture was frank and straightforward,’ it wrote, ‘devoid of all conformism, in accordance with the desires of many, us among them.’

So what had the speaker said exactly? That, whereas in the period before the war the Fair had stood out for its love of truffles and gastronomy, after it had become ‘a travesty of a village or country fête, with a ‘central structure of fringe events that have nothing whatsoever to do with typicality’. The Fair ought to have featured ‘conferences, gastronomic displays, wine tastings, and anything else to do with its guiding thread’, including meetings of tourists ‘with wine producers and livestock breeders at their firms and farms to confirm the validity and wholesomeness of raw ingredients’. Events could be ‘organized throughout the year in nearby villages and then converge into the piazzas of Alba at the end of October to form a comprehensive large-scale exhibition of everything produced by the land and the industriousness of the people of the Langa area’.

In his concluding speech towards the end of the evening in question, the mayor of Alba Ettore Paganelli had partly agreed with these criticisms and proposals, launching an appeal ‘to men of goodwill that they do everything within their power to reach a happy solution to the big problem of the truffle fair’. As a result, a few years later the magazine’s editorial board, which had publicized the protest (and had conducted a lively campaign against some aspects of the Salari Law on the gathering of truffles and accepted the mayor’s challenge, was assigned a major role in the Fair’s ‘new deal’, with two of its members, Raoul Molinari and Walter Accigliaro, joining the organizing committee.

These brief historical notes reveal the cyclical nature of criticisms of a Fair that, 75 years on, is still the most important event in the Alba calendar (as well as being one of the longest lasting in Italy), despite occasional and understandable ups and downs. What is surprising is not so much the periodic emergence of criticisms as their almost perfect ‘superimposability’. It’s always argued that, besides taking place too soon, the event has betrayed its original spirit of promotion of the local area through one of its symbolic products, the white trifola Bianca, or white truffle. The belief, which presupposes the existence of a ‘golden age’ for the Fair (which De Giacomi dated between his birth in 1929 and the war), can be justified by virtue of the thoroughly ‘modern’ style of the early years.

Back at the start of the twentieth century, Alba was famous for its Industrial-Agrarian Exhibition, organized in the Cortile della Maddalena courtyard, in 1903 and 1909, which was honored by the visits of King Vittorio Emanuele III. In the late Twenties, fall in Alba was characterized by harvest feasts and popular merrymaking — with parades of allegorical floats, stalls and bands — which attracted thousands of people to the town. Already part of the 1929 program, the ‘exhibition-competition of the renowned truffles of the Langhe’ was repeated the next year with the appointment of a committee chaired by Conte Gastone di Mirafiori, morganatic cousin of the king and a vine grower and wine producer. The real driving force behind the Fair was Giacomo Morra, an ingenious tourist entrepreneur. Born in 1889 into a family of sharecroppers at La Morra, he worked as a peasant until he was twenty. In rapid succession, he then ran a trattoria in Gallo Grinzane, a fabrics shop and the Langhe hotel in Alba. He then moved to Turin, opening a bottle shop in the city’s Via Nizza and discovering all the potential of the wines and foods of his native area. Once back in Alba, he took over the Savona hotel-restaurant in the piazza of the same name, which he refurbished in a manner unusual for the time, installing running water, heating and a telephone in every room.

It’s likely that the bases for the Truffle Fair were laid in the course of a series meetings between the Count of Mirafiori and Morra in one of the rooms the Savona hotel. What is certain is that the Fair was an instant success, with the first two editions, inaugurated respectively on October 26 1929 and November 29 1930 (the date was subsequently fixed at around November 5-6), attracting streams of visitors, some of whom arrived by special train from Turin. Its fame crossed national boundaries right from the outset and, on November 28 1933, after a tasting of typical fare in Piazza Savona The Times of London wrote that the Langhe area produces the most scented and renowned white truffles in the world. It is estimated that 150 kilos, quoted at 200 lire (then the equivalent of the monthly salary of a primary school teacher) a kilo, were exhibited. Few could afford them, not even as a one-off treat, but the organizers were clever enough to reconcile the launch of such an elite product with the popular tone of the show. This has happened ever since, enhanced by the ‘Palio of the asini’, the donkey race invented in1932 by another character, the pharmacist and great painter in the making Pinòt Gallizio.

The poster for the ninth Fair (1937) exemplifies its polyvalent nature. It promises football, pallone elastico (a local sport similar to pelota) and boules matches, ‘fireworks, floats and all sorts of amusements’ to back up products — grapes, hazelnuts, fruit and vegetables, nougat — accessible to a broad public. But it also announces that all the city’s restaurants would serve ‘typical dishes of the Alba area’ and invites punters to visit ‘the main centers of the magnificent Langhe district — ‘La Morra, Bossolasco, Cortemilia’ — for ‘the “grape cure”, enchanting landscapes, quiet and rest’. Before mass holidays, in an era in which food and wine and environmental tourism were unknown concepts and there was still no talk of ‘terroirs’, the organizers of the Truffle Fair were way ahead of their time.

Any betrayal of the event (if betrayal is the right word to use) has consisted not so much in holding it too early as in permitting the product that it ought to celebrate — and that used to be rare but is now virtually unfindable — to almost disappear … and not in the Langhe alone. This is a complaint that has been repeated, again cyclically, since the Sixties. Though the experts at the National Center of Truffle Studies, active in Alba since 1996, are well aware of the fact, the same can’t be said, alas, of the representatives of the categories that have earned profit and fame from the truffle. But how long is it all going to last?

Grazia Novellini, a journalist, works at the Slow Food Editore publishing company

Article adapted into English by John Irving

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