Alba, red and white

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Alba Cathedral - Photo by Stefania Spadoni

The town nestled in a bend of the Tanaro definitely has a reputation greater than its size: just thirty thousand inhabitants, like a big living room where everyone knows everyone else, with a mission almost exclusively devoted to the good life and to letting others live well too, at least for a few days. A white city as its name suggests, co-opted by the Romans from the Ligurian / Celtic root alb = water, but so similar to the Latin albus = white (but also whitewashed, propitious, bright, clear) from which one derives the Italian word for the dawn. But it is also a red city, of porphyry, tiles and bricks, so medieval and so Piedmontese. It is inevitable that the son of Alba Fenoglio put this vision into the eyes of Augustine – the poor damned servant - : "I printed in my head the belfries and towers and the thickness of the houses, and then the bridge and the river, the greatest water I had ever seen ... ".
Alba today makes the same impression upon those who descend from the Langhe towards its capital, with its markets, its elegant shops, cafes, bakeries, the bells of the many churches ... because Alba is also white with priests and nuns, with an ancient diocese that stretches out over a thousand hills in a protective embrace (Bishop Luigi Maria Grassi was a hero of the Resistance) but is also red with partisans and thinkers (its gold medal: in 1944 it was liberated for 23 days, as recounted by Beppe Fenoglio, author of Alba, one of whose professors at Govone was Pietro Chiodi). Alba white with snow in the embrace of winter and burning red with each sunset. Alba red and white like its famous wines and – moving to the dining table- red as the raw Fassone veal (beef of the most amazing quality) and white as the tuber magnatum pico, universally known as the White Truffle of Alba, in a marriage of the senses that has no equal. Red and white then, in the proud colours of a free municipality, as in the endless egg yolks laid over a cone of flour to make the richest pasta in Italy.
Yet just a hundred years ago Alba was a large village in the valley floor with the poorest hills of Piedmont, a history of emigration and ruin behind it and – perhaps - no possible future. But a unique generation of tenacious, ambitious and extraordinarily gifted men created a miracle: Giacomo Morra (the inventor of the Truffle Fair), Michele Ferrero (father of Nutella, the man who married capitalism and humanity), the brothers Miroglio (talented people who built a textile empire), the Paolini (publishers of Famiglia Cristiana, amongst other things), the Stroppiana family (whose Mondo brand is seen on athletics tracks at every Olympiad), the pharmacists Luciano De Giacomi (famous for the most beautiful Piedmontese cookbook, of family recipes) and Giacomo Oddero (all the great Langhe DOC wines are his work). And also the writers Beppe Fenoglio and Cesare Pavese, who gave poetry to these hills, and the misunderstood painter and anarchist Pinot Gallizio, now considered a genius of the twentieth century. They, and only they, made it what it is today: one of the places in Italy where people live best. Italy that – in spite of the rating agencies - is always the most beautiful place in the world.
Roman Alba
Alba’s underground tunnels allow one to visit numerous buildings in whose cellars important Roman remains may be found: from the Cathedral to the Tourist Information office, from San Giuseppe to the Banca Regionale Europea, as far as Piazza Pertinace and Piazza Monsignore Grassi. The reconstruction of the map of Alba Pompeia allows you to appreciate the medieval and later modern development of its urban fabric which has essentially remained faithful to the original.

Medieval Alba
The medieval city does not only come alive during the autumnal commemorations but looms over us from the tops of its three high towers and from dozens of smaller towers and porticoes of the late nineteenth century. Above all it is found in the Casa Riva and in the Loggia dei Mercanti (Alba’s oldest building) in Via Cavour, in the Casaforte Marro in Piazza Pertinace, in the Palazzo Comunale, and in the Casa Do in the main street (Via Vittorio Emanuele), where there are many palaces of the noble families of Alba, such as that of the Belli. The courtyard of the Palazzo di Serralunga (on the corner of Via Belli) retains a portico of excellent taste. Remarkable are the religious buildings, in primis the churches of San Domenico (Romanesque-Gothic) and San Giovanni, in addition to the Cathedral (rebuilt at the end of the nineteenth century) with its beautiful Diocesan Museum, the Bishopric, the Seminary and the numerous monasteries.
Baroque Alba
The subsequent decorations are often not just expensive clothes on a solid medieval body. The taste for wonder peeps from Piazza Risorgimento (the piazza of the Duomo), from many houses in Via Cavour and Via Vittorio Emanuele (the main street) and especially from the beautiful facade of the church of La Maddalena, the work of Vittone.

Alba of King Umberto, Liberty and Fascism
Piazza Savona epitomises the Savoy style of the late nineteenth century, of harmony and sobriety. After a time the French liberty style would arrive, bringing sinuous and floral forms to balconies, porches and windows and numerous summerhouses. Fascist architecture can be seen instead in a single house in Piazza Savona, in the large boarding school and in the former Gymnasium of the Cortile della Maddalena.

Eusebio Museum
The museum, housed in a wing of the former convent of the Dominican Sisters, is divided into two sections: that of the natural sciences provides an excellent geological analysis of the evolution of the Alba region over different eras, with its effects on the composition of the soil (so important for wines) as well as a comprehensive collection of flora and fauna. The archaeological section preserves important finds from the Neolithic era to the Roman Empire, of a funerary and lapidary nature and of more everyday and domestic interest.

The great Ferrero factory extends just beyond the walls, in a bend of the Tanaro river. For the people of Alba it is a second mother who, when occasionally distracted, opens the oven and floods the city with toasted hazelnuts; a generous mother who has employed thousands of people without ever uprooting them from their homes, instead using a dedicated network of buses for the whole of Langhe. Ferrero is Alba, Michele Ferrero was a freeman of Alba (where he was born), the Ferrero Foundation offers free admission to national exhibitions, conferences and meetings, the Centro Anziani (Senior Citizens Centre) is like an English country club, a model of how to respect workers when they reach retirement age. No wonder then, that when the floods of 1994 hit this factory, the following day thousands, from executives to warehousemen, spontaneously appeared, equipped with shovels and boots. And Ferrero reopened for production just a month later, in time for Christmas.
The Truffle Fair
In autumn in the Langhe there are always euphoria and business: the fruits of a year’s labour are harvested, hazelnuts, grapes, vegetables and, without work but always with great difficulty ... truffles! The air swells with roasted chestnuts, the eyes with lights and fairground rides, the ears with foreign voices from around the world: it’s Fair time again in Alba! The idea was a work of marketing genius from a man ahead of his time: Giacomo Morra, the son of poor sharecroppers who sent their children to Mass one at a time because they had only one pair of shoes. A tireless worker, with a much longer-term view than the others and who in 1928 understood the potential of the truffle (giving them to the doctor or the restaurateur for their kindness, as a gesture of respect on the part of the farmers). In just 30 years Giacomo brought the truffle to the tables of the world, to the powerful of the world, and to the newspapers of the world, crowning himself King, like a medieval knight at the end of a tournament. Alba owes him much, if not everything. As do all true gourmets all over the world.

Text by ©Pietro Giovannini

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