The annual Tripe Festival. Of course! What else would make the already virtually impassable winding mountaintop roads of Barolo, Italy narrow even further with cars parked haphazardly along both sides? On the sunny October Sunday afternoon of our visit to the famed Marchesi di Barolo Winery it was the tripe festival. Who could’ve guessed? We add our van to the line-up, then walk to see what all the fuss is about.
Tripe is popular here, so popular that hundreds of visitors come to quaint Barolo, population 750, to sample Zuppa di Trippa, tripe soup, made with local favorites, Nucetto chickpeas. Or salame ‘d Tripa ‘d Muncalé, Moncalieri’s tripe salame. Still not satisfied? How about Rustia, a tripe spread? Clearly a whole lotta people here love tripe. They amble from table to table, tasting fork in one hand, hunk of crusty bread in the other, jam-packing the narrow lanes of this medieval town perched on a hilltop in the famed Barolo wine producing region of Alba.
Unimpressed by the overhead banner that heralds A Tutta Trippa! (Everything Tripe!), we head straight to the Cantina Marchesi di Barolo, the lure of our private truffle dinner and wine tasting overpowering any other gustatory alternative. Not that tripe even makes our short list. We’re game to try lots of new foods in Italy, and the group has ventured well outside their culinary comfort zone both here and at Salone del Gusto. But tripe? Not so much.
In Italian terms, the Abbona family, who own the Marchesi di Barolo Estate, are practically family. It’s a six degrees of separation kind of thing. My good friends, Josh and Jen Ziskin, owners of Ristorante La Morra in Brookline, MA, used to live in….wait for it…..La Morra, Italy. Josh trained at the well-known Ristorante Belvedere, and learned to make, among other dishes, amazing agnolotti, which are part of the northern Italian menu offered nightly. While there, Jen babysat for Valentina Abbona, daughter of the owners of the winery. Got it? Four degrees of separation later, I’m greeted with kisses on both cheeks when we run into the Abbonas during a night out in Monforte d’Alba.
On Jen’s endorsement alone, the always gracious and equally beautiful Anna Abbona and her staff ensure that our visit to the winery is magical. We begin with a guided tour of the cellars, both old and new. In the private cellar, behind a wrought iron gate, are some of the first Barolos bottled, dating to 1839. Drinkable wines begin with the vintages bottled in the 1920′s. A signed Giuseppe Verdi manuscript is displayed with other Italian memorabilia, while several shallow, faceted sterling silver tasting cups hang at the ready to sample the famed Barolo wines.
It’s October in Alba, and that means truffle season. So when Anna asks, “Would you like the truffle supplement?,” my answer is a resounding yes. Our four-course tasting features many of Piemonte’s heritage dishes: carne crudo, vitello tonnato, and a 14-hour Barolo-braised Fassano beef. But the risotto with fonduta and shaved white truffles steals the show. Rich, creamy, decadent beyond all our expectations and delicious.
Ah, but how are the wines, you ask? We are after all at a legendary winery. Well, even after almost a week of sampling wines at Salone del Gusto, Marchesi di Barolo’s offerings do not disappoint. First up, a delightful Arneis, the classic Piemontese white, whose intense flavors are the perfect complement to the carne crudo (veal tartare, served two ways). From there, a minerally Gavi di Gavi 2013, a lovely complement to the vitello tonnato (veal with tuna sauce) .
Next up, a delicious and fruity Barbera d’Alba Peiragal 2012, which takes its name from the soil composition of the nearby sloping hills. To accompany the brassato, the star of the show: A big, oaky Barolo del Comune de Barolo 2009 made exclusively from a blend of the various Barolos from the historic vineyards at the winery. It’s 100% Nebbiolo and 110% yummy. Finally, for desert, a sweet and fizzy Zagara Moscato d’Asti.
Sated, we stumble out into the street as the bluish-grey light of twilight casts its shadows on a group of men singing lustily near by. They are accompanied by two accordions, a clarinet, and other assorted instruments. Their joy is infectious, and a crowd soon gathers, singing along on the chorus. I wonder if they are singing an homage to tripe. I catch every other word; just enough to recognize a bawdy street song about loose women, the men who love them, and star-crossed romance. Universal themes, even at a tripe festival in a mountaintop town in northern Italy.