A gastronomic treasure hunt in the heart of the Mercato di Alba
September 24, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a two part series. Check back next week to read the second story.
Weekly markets are a ubiquitous part of French and Italian culinary cultures. Food purveyors such as fishmongers, cheese mongers and butchers, to name a few, trade traditional brick and mortar storefronts for ultra-modern vehicles that owners transform into well-stocked shops. They travel from market-to-market, arriving before dawn, rain or shine, to set up for a day’s business.
The list of culinary delights I sorely miss since moving back to the States is quite long. One of my greatest frustrations is finding reasonably priced produce actually grown in dirt — what a concept — and delicacies that comprise so many Piemontese dishes I love to concoct. When I find myself heading to Piemonte, I do all I can to ensure I’ll be in Alba on a Saturday when the Mercato (market) overtakes the ancient town’s old city.
In planning my eight days in Piemonte interviewing wine families across the Langhe and Roero regions last March, I made certain I would be there during a weekend. Saturday is the day to experience all the culinary treasures the region has to offer and to wander through Alba’s narrow streets lined with stalls where sellers hawk everything from pasta makers and kitchen gadgets, to boots and shoes, to baby clothes and toys. It’s an al fresco department store!
Piemonte is a region of agricultural bounty. In autumn, the harvest unleashes a cornucopia of treasures from the Mother Earth’s terrior and forests. It’s the time of year when game is plentiful and, if conditions are right, the vaunted tartufi bianchi d’Alba (Alba white truffles) grow beneath the soil near hazelnut and poplar trees, waiting for a nosy truffle hound to discover them. In autumn, Alba’s Mercato becomes a wonderland of Piemonte’s culinary pleasures.
The Mercato is on the northwest quadrant of Alba’s walled, old city. Except for those few precious hours every Saturday when the market is open, the area under and around the big open-sided shed with a high roof is a mundane parking lot. However, between 9 a.m. and early afternoon each Saturday, the parking lot becomes a giant open-air supermarket.
Given all those delights waiting for us, let’s take a virtual trip to the Alba Mercato to shop for dinner. It’s a gastronomic treasure hunt I’m certain you’ll enjoy. As usual when I go to the Mercato, I won’t bother with a shopping list. We’ll just make it up as we go along and see what’s available. All that’s needed to create a tantalizing meal is a creative spirit, an open mind and a big shopping basket. I know where I’ll find each of my favorite purveyors in the Mercato, so it will be easy to plan our shopping route. Some things never change.
In the Piemontese tradition, our meal will begin with a small antipasti selection. Although “antipasto” means “before the meal,” it can often be a meal in itself. Today, we’ll choose some typical dishes that will stimulate our palates but won’t stuff our tummies. We have several delicious courses to follow.
One of the big vehicles parked along the wall to the north of the Mercato shed offers a mind-blowing selection of salumi tipici Piemontese (typical Piemontese charcuterie) and formaggi (cheese). That’s a great place to start. We’ll save the cheese for later, but I can’t imagine an antipasti selection without salumi. Since it’s autumn, let’s choose salami representative of the season: salame al cinghiale (wild boar) and salame al tartufo. We’ll add to that some prosciutto di Parma, coppa and lardo (cured strips of pork fatback seasoned with rosemary and other spices). Into our shopping basket go those delicacies.
Treasures from the sea
Now we’ll walk across from our salumi purveyor to one of my favorite places in the market, L’Anciue. Here, Maurizio and Nadia Ballauri will help us assemble the rest of our ingredients for our antipasti.
Maurizio and Nadia are from Dogliani, a small town a few kilometers southwest of Alba. Although anciue means “anchovy” in Piemontese dialect, in the small confines of their market stand one can find cured olives, capers (both in salt and brine), marinated vegetables, salt cod, Mediterranean tuna, dried oregano and their namesake item, anchovies. Marizio and Nadia are incredibly animated. By their energy, smiles and willingness to help, I could tell they obviously love what they are doing the first time I met them. That places them in my top-10 favorite purveyors in the world.
Olives are not a Piemontese crop, but they are plentiful throughout Italy and a must for an antipasti selection. I’ll let Nadia assemble a nice selection of olives for our antipasti. We’ll also need some peppers.
Roasted bell peppers are a staple in the Piemontese kitchen and a key ingredient in our peppers stuffed with tuna. Since we don’t have much time today, I’ll buy some roasted red peppers in olive oil.
Canned tuna in America is not often considered a “gourmet” ingredient. Visions of tuna casserole with noodles and canned tuna floating in some sort of nondescript cream sauce come to mind. In Italy, Mediterranean bluefin tuna is anything but pedestrian. The Ballauri have an array of choices of cans and jars of the rose-colored tuna floating in olive oil. For our stuffed peppers, we don’t need more than a small jar. One goes into the basket.
Anchovies, like tuna, are popular ingredients in many Piemontese dishes. There are those for whom caviar is the pre-eminent choice for hors d’oeuvre. For me, when in Piemonte, it’s anchovies. It’s amazing how the tiny fish in any form can delight my salt-loving palate. We’ll make a simple dish of anchovies covered with salsa verde of parsley, basil, garlic and oil.
We can use either anchovy fillets in salt or fillets in oil. Either type works fine, and Maurizio has both. We’ll also need capers for both the salsa verde and stuffed peppers.
To complete our ingredients for the salsa verde, we’ll buy a bunch of fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley, red onions, garlic, eggs and fresh basil. Perhaps the adjective “fresh” is redundant in the Mercato since all of the vegetables, fruits and herbs are fresh and unadulterated. We’ll wander to the other side of the shed to the vast array of fruit and vegetable stands to buy our produce.
The garlic is piled high to an elephant’s eye. OK, a bit of hyperbole, but the garlic is so plentiful that it’s piled up high — at least 3 feet — on a table. We’ll choose a few firm bulbs, grab some nice bunches of parsley and basil and a few onions before heading over to one of the dairy trucks for our eggs. Along the way, we’ll stop at the bakery truck for some fresh grissini. No Piemontese meal is complete without these long, light and airy breadsticks.
Now that we have the makings of our delicious antipasti, we’ll shift our attention to the rest of our meal. Perhaps during the next week you can think of some dishes you would like to include in our virtual Piemontese feast. Such thinking is best done with a glass of Piemontese wine, perhaps a Dolcetto d’Alba, in hand.
Ci vediamo la prossima settimana. See you next week!
Suzanne Hoffman is a freelance writer specializing in food, wine and travel. Her blogs are http://www.suziknowsbest.com and http://www.winefamilies.com. Email comments about this story to email@example.com.