Agriturismo Dimora Cortese, Castagnole delle Lanze
Grey clouds blanket the sky and a light mist curls Teo’s wavy fur into damp ringlets. Nose to the ground, he rustles through the wet leaves, pausing to sniff and paw at the earth. He digs some more, takes another whiff and then clearly unsatisfied, trots in another direction. Following closely behind, his owner doles out praise and an occasional doggie biscuit.
It’s the perfect day for a truffle hunt. The first autumn rain has moistened the soil, encouraging the pungent underground fungi to gravitate towards the surface where trained dogs like Teo, an eight-year-old Lagotto Romagnolo, eagerly sniff them out. Today, after several unsuccessful digs and false leads (ploys for another snack), Teo beelines for a line of oak trees.
This time his digging takes on a new fervor and the trifulau (truffle hunter) quickly kneels, grabs a handful of earth and inhales deeply. With a nod of his head, he gently pushes his four-legged cohort aside (eager paws can decimate a truffle). Using his fingers and a slender spade he carefully loosens the soil, revealing their find: his majesty, the white truffle, Tuber magnatum Pico.
The king of all truffles, Tartufo Bianco is Piedmont’s top draw during the fall season. Tourists flock to this northern region of Italy to get their fill while it lasts, despite the hefty price tag. Fresh out of the ground, raw white truffles are shaved over homemade pasta, fried eggs, beef tartare and other local specialties - each precious stroke charged by the gram. Its cousin, the black truffle, is usually cooked to exalt its aroma and flavor. And while feasting on truffles in Italy is certainly an indelible occasion, actually finding one alongside a genuine trifulau and his keen-nosed canine makes for a truly unforgettable experience.
Truffle hunting is just one of the unique activities organized by Agriturismo Dimora Cortese in Piedmont. Located in Castagnole delle Lanze in the province of Asti, the agritourism is also ideally positioned for wine tasting. Owner Francesco Cortese knows the viticultural region like the back of his hand and gladly maps out customized itineraries for guests. Whether your penchant is the tannic reds of Barolo and Barbaresco, fruit-forward Barbera from Asti or Alba, aromatic Moscato frizzante or lesser-known gems like Grignolino, Freisa or Arneis, he knows each varietal, every winery and all the players. His close ties open doors even on the spur of the moment, treating guests to intimate tours and tastings at nearby wineries like Gianni Doglia where the heartfelt welcome is as lovely as the wine.
Tucked into the cobblestone streets of Castagnole delle Lanze, Dimora Cortese is an easy stroll from local eateries and attractions. Visitors can admire the pretty Church of Saint Peter in Chains and climb to the top of the Count of Saint Robert’s panoramic tower which offers sweeping views of the undulating vineyards, majestic Alps and Ligurian Apennines. Close by in Canelli the “Underground Cathedrals”, a series of impressive tunnels and vaults dug into the tufa hillsides, house some of Piedmont’s most precious wines. And on weekends in October and November, Alba hosts the International White Truffle Fair just a scenic drive away.
Guests at Dimora Cortese wake up to abundant continental breakfasts including homemade bread, jams and traditional cakes that Francesco and his partner, Sara, prepare every morning at the crack of dawn. In the evening, exclusive tastings of the agritourism’s Barbera are served upon request in the cozy brick cellar paired with local cheeses, cured meats, and freshly made focaccia. For guests seeking a one-of-a-kind experience, Francesco also offers “lessons in the vineyards” set amidst rows of Barbera and Moscato on his family’s property located over the hill.
While Francesco’s agricultural roots go back generations - both his father and grandfather cultivated grapes and hazelnuts - his foray into hospitality is much more recent. Dimora Cortese opened its doors in 2013 after more than a year of meticulous restoration. A house designer, Francesco planned and oversaw every renovation himself, magically turning the 19th century abandoned structure into the resplendent guesthouse it is today.
His attention to detail and insistence on quality emerges everywhere you turn. From beautifully restored wood beam ceilings and original frescoes to the hand-painted names and seasonal foliage adorning every room. From the carefully preserved bread oven in the sitting room to the old brick well illuminated under a glass panel in the cellar floor. Locally-based artisans handcrafted the chestnut tables, bespoke lighting and wrought iron double beds. Even Dimora Cortese’s more modern amenities, like flat-screen TVs, orthopedic mattresses and keyless entry, are testament to a scrupulous focus on ensuring every comfort.
If you ask Francesco where he got his Midas touch, he’ll flash you a charming smile and give you a modest shrug. “My greatest satisfaction is when my guests are content,” he replies. And somehow, that explains everything.
Dimora Cortese’s Hazelnut Cake
120 gr. butter (softened)
120 gr. sugar
120 gr. flour
50 gr. toasted, chopped hazelnuts
1 tsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
Cream the butter and the sugar. Add the eggs and continue beating until you obtain a consistency similar to whipped cream. Add the flour and mix well for two minutes. Then add the chopped hazelnuts and cocoa powder and stir for two more minutes. Pour the batter into a loaf pan and bake in an oven preheated to 180°C for 30-35 minutes.
© Text, pictures and videos by Adrienne Baumann