Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

The Italian Tryst Day Five - Thursday 1st November 2018

The Italian Tryst - October and November 2018

Write up of a seven day bus trip across Northern Italy by me and some of my Malaysian Foodie and Winey friends, taking in Lake Como, Bolgheri, Alba and Milan. Dear Leader said we were a Tryst of pilgrims on another wine and restaurant and food adventure, so we became Trystians. Photos mostly by me, though some filched from the Facebook pages of Chan May Peng, Wong Yin-How and David Teh.  

Day Five - Thursday 1st November 2018 - Fontanafredda Estate in Alba - Alba Town - Dinner at Garden Restaurant Albergo dell'Agenzia Hotel

Fontanafredda Estate in Alba

Forest walk
Lazy morning with a late-ish breakfast up a lift to the first floor and about five tables hugging the walls with a central table laden with breads and meats and water and juices. Not large but very tasty and the Cappucino was excellent. Soft rolls with ham and cheese and croissant with butter and jam. Good solid fare to set you up for the day. Lenglui and I normally take advantage of bottled water to fill our bottles for the day - though I was finding the tap water pretty okay. We could see the sun was shining and the skies were blue and someone wondered whether it would be an idea to walk the forest before the off. Today would have been the perfect day, but I decided against due to the following paragraph. This decision would be the death of my beloved boots.

It had somewhere been determined that, since all the Trystians were by the fickle finger of fortune all members of the IWFS Committee, a meeting could be held and consequently negate a need for one back in  Kuala Lumpur. Originally envisaged to get held on the bus, this was naysayed given the engine noise level and someone needing to keep an eye out to marginalise Franco's occasional oops'es. So it was we assembled in the reception area of the winery and parked ourselves around some coffee tables located therein. Very comfortable, excellent natural light, and surrounded by a vast array of epicurean delights available for purchase. Ambient and relaxing - a meeting to totally remember. 

The Lake in Fontanafredda Estate (pic by May)
Committee business was short and quickly concluded and it was back to the rooms to prepare for our off into Alba town. As said earlier, the accommodation was split between different wings with the bulk of us in the building furthest from the entrance. Problem was, the buses all park at the wing nearest to the gate, with the result that most of us had to walk to where Marco the Bus decided to park. And he naturally decided to park at the main entrance building. Of course. Fortunately, the day was dry with promises of fair weather and sunshine so the stroll was a good way to kickstart the body. 

Lenglui dressed for Alba
Everyone seemed quite chipper this morning, perhaps as a result of not feeling their usual damp selves, and the bus felt quite merry as it trundled out of the Estate and onto the road to Alba. Dry weather and blue skies will do that to you. As ever, my Lenglui had brought the sunshine and everyone seemed thankful for it. 

Alba Town

The bus took us on a pretty straight road into Alba town, though we seemed to circle around one section twice - possibly another Marco "oops" - before getting deposited at what looked like a main street with instruction to "please-a you be back here at-a 3.30" for the return to the Estate. Alba is a hugely pretty town, with medieval looking buildings mixed with modern big window shops and most sporting bottles of wine in their displays. And for the public holiday that the day was, most were surprisingly open. We all ambled along what looked like a main street laden with shops, following Dear Leader who looked like he knew where he was going. Lenglui naturally got occasionally diverted and distracted and I played my usual Where The Frick Has She Gone Now and Find the Lenglui game. By this time the sun was blazing and the streets were abuzz with Truffle Vans and outlets selling various snacky delights. Some of the Trystians found themselves unable to resist and tasted their way along the streets. 

One of many Truffle stalls in Alba town
We all somehow ended up at the town's Duomo and then hung left along another shop laden main street to where we stumbled on a Wine and Truffle Festival. Dear Leader had previously advised that this event was taking place and was a natural for us Trystians. He paid our entrance fee and we were off. 

Truffle Festival in Alba
What a magical hour. Tasting various styles of cheese and sampling the occasional artisanal style of wine through four long rows of stalls flogging their Piedmont farmyard and Alba country kitchen style produce to a heaving crowd all eager to spend the public holiday eating and drinking and talking. On recommendation of one of the Trystians, we bought some Cheeses and Porky products for transport home - we are not bigtime afficionado and are happy to mostly follow what the others select - and moved on to more tastings further along the rows. The smell of truffles and salami garlic and stinky cheese was everywhere. The truffles were pretty much on sale at all the stalls, though some were totally dedicated to the fungus. I have no idea how to differentiate in quality terms, and coupled with the fact that I don't appreciate the thing to the salivatory degree of many of my friends, I chose not to buy. Though some did and seemed extremely happy with it and the large prices being charged for it. Heard a story of one foodie back in KL who has his own direct supplier in Alba and gets them airflown in every November. Is a holiday for his supplier and they presumably scarf their way through a kilo or two of truffles. There you go, eh?

Day Fresh White Truffles - yumyum! (pic by May)
You are-e can buy from meee! No special-e price...
We wound our way around the hall and found the bathrooms and followed some fellow Trystians out of the Festival in a lunch hunt. Dear Leader had made some recommendations but somehow we missed them and found ourselves quite close to the bus rendezvous though with about two hours to spare. We figured we were pretty full from all the tastings and with no real need for big food. So we found a small pizzeria selling wine by the bottle with tables outside and parked ourselves to pass the interim wait. It would prove a hugely pleasant lunch, snacking on various tasties bought at the Festival or from along the street. We got joined by other Trystians making their way back to the bus and suddenly half the group were parked with us around the table and ordering more wine. A sunshine late liquid lunch in Alba with the Trystians - finestkind. 

With about ten minutes before our deadline, we hauled ourselves upright and away from this afternoon bliss and ambled along to a small square at the head of the street. Here, we found most of the other Trystians assembled and spent the remaining wait sharing our shopping exploits with them. Marco the Bus was bang on time at the stop, and we all clambered aboard and straight off for a swift and sleepy trip back to Fontanafredda. I think I took a nap back in the room, again to recharge batteries. 

Trystians Jeremy and Tony enjoying the afternoon wine
Trystians Joe and Brian in sunshine and wine
Dinner at Garden Restaurant Albergo dell'Agenzia di Pollenzo, Bra

I don't remember much about the bus ride to our dinner destination, though I do recall another Oops by Marco. This one seemed quite major and involved quite a long reverse in some pretty dark lighting. But somehow he seemed able to negotiate these things without a scratch. Amazing. Given our trip to date, he has clearly had lots of practice. 

Lenglui with The Money
It had begun to rain by the time we got to the Hotel so umbrellas were needed to get from the bus to the entrance. This was to be another Jacket but no Tie dinner at the Garden Restaurant in the Albergo dell'Agenzia Hotel. 

The very detailed and extremely readable website says that the hotel is "part of the neo-Gothic architectural complex built by Carlo Alberto of Savoy as the hub of agricultural research and production in Piedmont [which] combines refined architecture with landscapes of rare beauty, recognized by UNESCO as a world heritage site deserving of protection for the generations of the future." It offers "elegant ambiences for celebrating special occasions, organizing business events and enjoying long stays or one-day visits."

Lenglui with Marco the Bar
It is also the base for the Slow Food Movement, where its founder Carlo Petrini in 1992 began conversion of the neo-Gothic Agenzia complex into the University of Gastronomic Sciences, Academic Tables and Wine Bank that exists there today.  He "felt a strong need to develop a large, prestigious hub of food and wine culture, which he interprets innovatively as a science. He imagined the place as the cultural powerhouse of a new “eno-gastronomy” based on the quality of food and wine, respectful of biodiversity and the environment, careful to erase any form of workplace exploitation." 

Pumpkin Soup - large and full of taste
Slow Food essentially rails against the standardisation of food. Founded in 1986 as the Arcigola Association and changing its name in 1989, Slow Food now has more than 100,000 members and branches in 130 countries. It organises a "vast array of special initiatives through its local and international associations, known as Convivia" along with the world’s largest food event the Terra Madre/Salone del Gusto held every two years in Turin. 

Shaving the truffle over the Tajarin
We divested coats and brollys on some hangers (I think - though many of the restaurants we visited had cloakrooms and attendants to take our things; they all get a bit mixed up) and edged into the Agenzia bar area to await our welcome aperitif cocktail. This was to be a Negroni specially ordered ahead by Dear Leader. This is a blend of equal parts Gin, Campari, and red Vermouth with a garnish of orange peel. Would be a first time for me. Our cocktail doctor for the night was another Marco. The tumbler glasses filled with ice were lined up on the bar and Marco the Bar started pouring the booze with gusto - two bottles in one hand and the gin in the other and whoosh! filled in less than three seconds and on to the next. Old school. I helped to sweep the completed mixes out of his way and into the clamouring hands of the Trystians before taking a sip of the thing. Wow… it was a strong whack of dark bitter and booze. Got hints of coffee and aniseed, though someone nailed it by getting chicory. Not sure if I liked it, so I had a second and then a third to check - Lenglui was not a fan and sweetly asked Marco the Bar if she could have her Gin with Tonic. Marco obliged and soon he was obliging a number of ladies following the trend set by Lenglui - the Negroni was not a great hit with them. The bitterness feels like an acquired taste, though apparently it is one that many of Italian descent have a predilection for. I think I could get used to it - though if Tonic is available then that would be my first choice with Gin.

There was a lovely homestead ambience feel to this place - all brick and wood and glass doors and a hugely large dining room. There was a reception area so I guess it doubles as a resort of some kind. I remember taking a few trips to the toilet through the night which involved either a lift or a flight of stairs down. Very modern, very swish. I would see lots of clearly well heeled people wandering around the place through the night.  

Tajarin with Alba White Truffle
We were soon being called for dinner which would take place in the very spacious Garden Restaurant. The website notes "at the Albergo dell’Agenzia we interpret this important cultural heritage according to the principles of the Slow Food philosophy. Natural ingredients, Slow Food Presidium food products, a daily supply of the freshest raw materials from the many local markets and producers—all combine to ensure our guests gastronomic experiences of the highest level. You can enjoy our restaurant’s fare while admiring the green meadows and flowerbeds of the park all year round on the climatized glassed veranda. And your meals will be rounded off by wines from our refined selection of more than 300 Piedmontese labels from the Wine Bank next door."

Braised Veal with Roast Potatoes - was excellent
It was a bit dark to enjoy the meadows but we did get stuck into the wines. A fruity dry sparkler to start made way to a brilliantly tasty white, all Chardonnay but with good steel to support the fruit. The three reds are lost in the mists, but hopefully I can steal some notes from Dear Leader - he is more committed and timely in his notes than me. I seem to recall the Barbaresco having a slight edge over the Barolos, though they were both smoothies with good power in their own rights. Foodwise, this was a hugely enjoyable meal. Excellent young rooster (somewhat reminiscent of the Kampong Chicken we get here in Malaysia), wonderfully rich and hearty soup, amazing Tajarin with freshly sliced truffle, one of the most tender veals tasted and a fabulous pannacotta to finish. The veal was a standout here, falling off in layers and with wonderful bite and chew - total contrast to the previous evening at Guido. The truffles were also excellent, having veins not dissimilar to Wagyu meat. Wonder if there is a similar grading for truffles that Wagyu has for marbling? 

Pannacotta with Madagascar Vanilla
Hugely happy that this restaurant was part of our tour, though next time I might perhaps make more time for the grounds. Indeed, it was initially scheduled, but I think it made way to allow more time to chill in Alba, given that the sun was shining. No argument here. Marco the Bus got us all quickly and safely back to the Estate and we made our respective ways to the digs. Seem to recall some problem getting through the door, with a claim that it would not recognise the password the Trystian in question was punching in to the doorpad. After about five minutes punching and repunching and all of us standing in the rain, it was discovered that the wrong buttons were being punched. Of course. Someone delivered the knockout blow and in we piled, saying hasty good nights to neighbours as we dived through the door and straight to the bathroom - enlarged prostate ain't no fun after an evening on the sauce. What to do?

Our Dinner Wines
Garden Restaurant Albergo dell'Agenzia di Pollenzo, Bra
Via Fossano 21 - 12042 Pollenzo - Bra (CN) 
Tel. +39 0172 458600 - Fax +39 0172 458645 

Dinner Menu
Young Rooster Salad with balsamic vinegar
Pumpkin soup
Tajarin with Alba white truffle
Braised fassone veal from "La Granda" with Barolo and baked potatoes
Panna cotta with Madagascar vanilla

Brandini "Alta Langa" Brut DOCG Methode Classico
Derthona "La Colombera" Colli Tortonesi, Timorasso
Ugo L'Equio "Gallina" Barbaresco 2009
Fratelli Alessandria "Monvigliero" Barolo 2011
Domenico Clerico "Pajana" Barolo 2011

Click here for Day Six >>>

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