We took a day off on a beautiful early October Sunday to go to the truffle festival in Castagnole Monferrato, North East of Asti and the centre of the Ruche wine zone.
Driving through the hilltop town we saw a restaurant with a beautiful courtyard complete with ivy on the walls, a grape arbour, and aromatic herbs in pots, which just whispered for us to try it.
The fair was quite small, lots of stands with the local wine producers offering tastings, but no sign of the advertised pro-loco eating tent, so we slipped back to the restaurant and made a reservation, and went back to the festival in time for the band and the prize awards for the biggest truffles. The winner weighed in at 210 grams, a whopper worth close to 1000 euro on the market. Also impressive was a basket of large (100 gram) truffles weighing around a kilo and a half, worth around 5000 euro and giving off the most pungent aroma. No imported truffles here!
Now famished by the intoxicating smell of the truffles and many sips of Ruche wine we walked back to the restaurant and realized how lucky we had been to get a reservation, as it was completely full, I think having our granddaughter of 9 months helped get the table as this was a real family restaurant, lots of children and family groups enjoying Sunday lunch which naturally featured truffles. The atmosphere was great, everyone ogled the baby and both the settings and the service were impeccable. We were placed on a table next to a toddler of 18 months, and the two bambine got on immediately.
No menu, a completely set lunch, started with a mixed antipasti; Russian salad on a thin piece of toast shaped into rabbits ears; minced carne cruda; prosciutto; a vegetable frittata; and thin slices of roasted beef with mustard sauce, and we elected to start with a sparkling white. The owner bought out several bottles for us to look at and we chose a Frattina Prosecco di Conegliano-Valdobbiadene at 16 euro.
Normally we shun Russian salad as a quick and easy starter; basically chicken salad with veggies and mayonnaise but this one was impeccable. In fact all of the antipasti were just perfect with the exception of the prosciutto, which was a bit fatty for our taste. Tim who is a non meat eater even ate the thin slices of roasted beef and said they melted in his mouth, although he drew the line at the raw meat, so I swapped my frittata for his carne cruda.
Primo piatto was tajarin ai funghi e panna (taglietelle with mushrooms and cream) cooked just right with mushrooms (I couldn’t quite place the type, not your normal champignon) and I would think the pasta was cooked in chicken brodo – buonissimo! An absolutely delicious rendition of a simple and classical Piedmontese dish.
By now we were out of Prosecco, and looked through the very adequate wine list, featuring not only many Ruches, but of course a full selection of local Barbera d’Asti’s and other Piedmont wines, including some excellent Rabaja Barbaresco’s. A few months ago we had had a Ruche wine blind tasting at Villa Sampaguita with 14 different bottles, so we were familiar with all the bottles, and we elected to go with a Montalbore 2008 (15 euro), which had placed second in our tasting over the Sant’Agata Pro-Nobis. The latter wine was on the menu, but I had thought the Montalbore to be a more classic Ruche style, the Pro-Nobis was a bit on the glamorous side, which had attracted the novice drinkers who out-pointed the others.
The secondi piatti was a bowl of agnolloti stuffed with veal, with a wine reduction sauce and shaved truffles. The agnolotti was truly home made, a little thick, but again delicious and the truffle flavour came right through the dish. Even the baby ate 4 pieces of agnolotti.!
Tim asked for a non red-meat second and the owner chef offered him roast young chicken, which came with mashed potatoes and the same sauce as the agnolotti and with shaved truffles. Again a perfect rendition of a simple dish.
To our surprise we were next offered another second each, either the chicken or the agnolotti, but by then we only limited room for dolce!
The dolce plate consisted of 3 classical Piedmontese deserts each perfect: Bunet for a change not boring at all; panna cotta and a homemade nocciolo gelato. All of the slid right down the gullet without any resistance.
This completely unpretentious restaurant restored our faith in simple Piemontese cuisine prepared and presented to perfection. I should mention that of course we were the only foreigners present.
We chatted to Merlo, the owner-chef, who was not even wearing a hat (or is it a cap?). He has been open for around 4 years, and surprisingly is not in any of the local restaurant guidebooks, not even Asti province’s orange book. All of us left feeling wonderful and content.
And the bill, the set menu plates were 29 euro each and after wine, coffee and water the bill for 4 people was 155 euro.
Most definitely this restaurant goes onto our recommended list, especially as it can be combined with a tour of the beautiful tranquil Monferrato country, low rolling hills with mixed vineyards, woodlands, crop fields and pastures studded with hill top towns and castles. Throw in a good Ruche cantina (we visited Cantina Sant’Agata after lunch), and it adds up to a perfect day in Piedmont!
Il Merlone Ghiottone
via Roma 88, Castagnole Monferrato (AT), Piemonte 14030, IT