Festa di San Martino

Mario and Luisa Fontana with balthazar of Barbera d'Alba and plate of tartufi d'Alba

Exeter Devon November 15, 2004 The heady, pungent, almost overpowering aroma of tartufo bianco filled the dining room of Michael Caines at the Royal Clarence on a cold and wintery Monday evening. The tables were beautifully laid with the classic Michael Caines touches, the lighting discreet, and the simple but special table decorations by Karen of Trugs. Hundreds of glasses were arranged in readiness on a side table and Steve Edwards was busy opening and tasting every bottle of wine to ensure that they were all in perfect condition for the night. In the kitchen, head chef Simon Dow and his team were preparing in readiness for a very special meal. Meanwhile Michael himself, in his chef whites, was in and out of the kitchen, checking things in the dining room, then greeting guests, welcoming us all warmly into his restaurant.This was our Ride for Life 'Festa di San Martino' with our great friends winemakers Mario and Luisa Fontana of Cascina Fontana over from their home in the Barolo hills of the Langhe for an evening of stunning wines and foods and above all friendship.

Luca Carachini, Restaurant Manager, putting the final touches to the beautiful tables

San Martino is an important annual event especially for the agricoltori of the Langhe, explained Mario. For the winegrowers, the grapes - in Mario's case, first Dolcetto, then Barbera, and finally the aristocratic but temperamental late-ripening Nebbiolo - have been harvested and the wines have been made and rest now in fermentation vat or barrel. For other agricultural workers, the main crops have been harvested. The year's contract traditionally ends on San Martino, so the workers have been paid. It's the season of game, mushrooms and truffles, traditionally a time of plenty, a time to give thanks, to relax after the rigours of the harvest, to eat and drink and celebrate with family and friends. And that is exactly what we were here to do ourselves, about 60 of us, many close friends from Topsham and from further afield.
It is some years since we had last celebrated San Martino. It was always one of Nello's favourite Italian traditions, and we used to gather together each year in the private upstairs sala of his wonderful Topsham restaurant to enjoy a rustic meal of usually polenta, funghi, and some sort of game, slow-cooked in vino rosso, all washed down with Mario's exquisite house Barbera d'Alba. One year we happened to be in the Langhe around this time, and I remember standing around with Nello and Mario, outside on a cold and frosty evening, surrounded by the vineyards of Barolo, roasting castagne, chestnuts, over an open fire, to be peeled with the fingers and eaten piping hot with tumblers of mosto - partially fermented Nebbiolo wine - drawn foaming into a jug direct from the wooden botte out of Mario's cantina. San Martino was the sort of occasion that Nello liked best, just as he liked nothing more than sitting around a table together after he'd finished service for the evening, Michael sometimes driving out from Gidleigh to join us, all of us just hanging out, sharing and talking about the things we liked best: food and wine, mainly.
Our Festa di San Martino, then, was this year being revived and undertaken in unspoken spirit as a tribute to an inspirational friendship that continues to enrich our lives. As with all our Ride for Life events, all proceeds for the evening will be going towards the Ride for Life/FORCE Cancer Support Centre Appeal which we've been involved with for the past several years.
The evening began in the Champagne Bar with flutes of Michael's elegant Blanc des Blancs N/V accompanied by delicious canapés, smoked salmon terrine, a morsel of mozzarella and sun-dried tomato, a stuffed quail's egg, a breaded mushroom stuffed with pâté, and other such finger foods.
The meal itself was absolutely stunning, brilliantly and imaginatively conceived by head chef Simon Dow in consultation with Steve Edwards, director of service, who looks after the wine.
The first course was risotto nero, deep black from the squid ink, cooked perfectly al dente, topped with rings of grilled squid and surrounded by a light, foamy white wine sauce. This was accompanied by Mario's new white wine Gavi 2003, a full, well structured white with a rich, minerally character and a dry flinty finish that the Italians call sapidità. It's a big white wine and it went particularly well with the squid.
A highlight of the evening for many was the chance to sample the rare tartufo bianco di Alba, the fabled and mythical white truffle of Alba. Mario, through his friend Alessandro Bonino of Tartufi Morra in Alba, had managed to procure for us about 200g of fresh-out-of-the-ground tartufi that he and Luisa brought out to us carefully wrapped in dry ice. This amounted to six truffles, a couple that were real beauties, about 70g each, and the others small, irregular, ranging from walnut to marble size. The white truffle of Alba, a mysterious tuber that grows apparently at random under certain trees in the Langhe, unearthed by trained truffle dogs who sniff the tuber out, is a purely natural wonder, humble and literally down-to-earth yet incredibly rare, prestigious, and yes, one of the most outrageously expensive foods on earth (market price at the moment is somewhere around 3000 euros per kilo; however just a few weeks ago at the famous truffle auction in Alba, a NY restaurateur paid, gulp, $41,000 for a single kilo-sized truffle). The tartufi that Mario brought out for our evening, generously sponsored by Geoff Bowen of Pebblebed Vineyard, presented us all with a rare chance to experience this amazing and incredibly unique food.
The trifolau, truffle hunters of Alba, themselves say that the best way to enjoy the tartufo in its fullest glory is simply, either grated over a plate of fried eggs, or grated over a plate of homemade tajarin noodles. Chef Simon produced a sensational interpretation, handmade tagliolini egg pasta, dressed simply in a foaming butter sauce infused with the tartufi as well as a little rosemary, with more fresh tartufi grated at the last moment over the top of the noodles. The aroma of the tartufi wafting up from the plates of hot pasta was just mind-boggling, the pasta perfectly cooked, with the rosemary infusion lending a flavour of the Mediterranean that was intriguing. The wines? Well, it is debateable whether white or red goes best with tartufi, so we had both: Geoff's Pebblebed 2003 English white, made from Seyval and Madeleine Angevin grapes grown at Ebford, and Mario's Dolcetto d'Alba 2001. I think perhaps the reason why it's difficult to decide what wine might go best is because the white truffle is paradoxically at once indescribably delicate and ethereal and yet also intensely pungent and earthy. The former qualities were enhanced by Geoff's English white, delicate, almost floral aromas with a finish that is quite cleansing. Mario's Dolcetto, which had benefitted from a few years age in bottle, is a deeply flavoured red that is soft and richly rustic and it definitely enhanced the earthy, pungent qualities of the tartufo.
Mario's most serious wines are made from the aristocratic but temperamental Nebbiolo grape. Nebbiolo delle Langhe comes from the cru vineyard Vigneto del Castello at Signa. The king of Italian wines of course is Barolo, from Nebbiolo grapes grown on the Valero vineyard at Castiglione Falleto. These are big wines that are able achieve the rare combination of power and elegance. To accompany the Nebbiolo, we enjoyed a main course of roast saddle of venison with braised cabbage, smoked bacon, roasted fig and a chestnut purée. The venison had been marinading for a few days, and it was flavourful yet tender, an intriguing mix of tastes and aromas with the autumnal tones of the chestnut combining with the smoked bacon, the sweetness of the fig and the rich flavour of the meat. The dish worked perfectly, matching the elegant and feminine warmth of Mario's Nebbiolo delle Langhe 1999. The highlight of the evening from a wine point of view was the chance to taste Mario's Barolo 2000. This was served simply on its own with a piece of farmhouse cheddar and some homemade fig bread. The Barolo is already deliciously forward, with a luscious richness and fruit underlying a backbone of grippy tannins that will allow this great wine to age and improve over the course of many years. Stunning now, but will only get better!
After this extended and delicious feast of great foods and wines, Simon's pudding, a ginger pannacotta with poached apple and a green apple sorbet, was light, zingy and refreshing, perfect as a finish to the meal. It was accompanied by Mario's Moscato Piemonte 2004, from this year's harvest, bottled just a few weeks ago, intensely fresh and grapy, low in alcohol, foamingly vivid and cleansing. An absolutely delightful finish to the evening!
After head chef Simon and his team came out to huge cheers, Meriel of FORCE, with whom we have enjoyed working closely for many years now, spoke movingly about the work of Chris Rowland, the brilliant consultant oncologist around whom FORCE was created, who was with us for the evening, and above all about Chris's philosophy that living with cancer is all about quality of life, in short about continue to live, as well and as fully as possible. Indeed this is what FORCE is aiming to continue to help people to do through its far-reaching work at the newly opened, brilliantly designed FORCE Cancer Support Centre here in Exeter. Michael then spoke of his close friendship with Nello and of the bonds that came from that inspirational relationship.
Finally we finished with a draw for a most wondrous prize: an enormous balthazar of Mario's Barbera d'Alba 2001, containing no less than 12 litres or the equivalent of 16 normal 75cl bottles. Mario inscription on the label summed up the evening:

15 November
Festa di San Martino
Dedicated to those who love good food, good wine, and in memory of why we have come together for this wonderful occasion.

A huge thanks to everyone who helped to make this evening such a brilliant success, especially Steve Edwards, Simon Dow, Luca Carachini, Julien Wilkinson and Sonia Lowe and all the teams at Michael Caines. Tutti bravi!
And of course a huge, huge thank you to our wonderful friends Mario and Luisa Fontana and Michael Caines. Getting together around the table for an evening of great foods, great wines and great friends. It's something we have the pleasure to share; it's really what life is all about.


Festa di San Martino Menu

Michael Caines Blanc de Blanc n/v
Risotto nero with grilled squid and white wine sauce
Gavi 2003 DOCG, Cascina Fontana
Tagliolini al tartufo bianco di Alba
Pebblebed 2003, Ebford, England
Dolcetto d'Alba 2001, Cascina Fontana


Roast saddle of venison with braised cabbage, chestnut purée and smoked bacon and roasted fig
Nebbiolo delle Langhe 1999 Vigna del Castello, Cascina Fontana
West Country Farmhouse Cheddar with fig bread
Barolo 2000 DOCG, Cascina Fontana
Ginger pannacotta with poached apple and green apple sorbet
Moscato Piemonte 2004, Cascina Fontana
Coffee and petit fours

For information about Ride for Life contact Marc Millon

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