CW Travelogue

A Tasting Menu for Piedmont, Italy
Taste of Place | By Rich Bettinger, Apr 9, 2014 08:56 am

A Tasting Menu for Piedmont, Italy

As someone who spent 20 years working in restaurants before “graduating” to travel, I find food to be very near and dear to my heart. Having married a caterer and cooking instructor, I’ve spent more hours than I care to calculate sampling Moscatos, savoring pork tenderloins, and slicing into freshly baked brioches. So I was more than a little bit excited when I got the opportunity to travel to Piedmont, Italy this past fall. For years, the region has been virtually synonymous with unparalleled artisanal foods, world-class wines, and once-in-a-lifetime restaurants. When I arrived, I discovered a feast beyond my imagining—a seven course adventure through one of Italy’s most delectable regions.

Aperitivo

On my first night in Bra, we previewed the week’s itinerary in a way I could get used to...through wine. In the vaulted cellar of the historic Albergo dell’Agenzia (our hotel), we sampled wines from around Piedmont, including many from towns we were soon to visit. This was no ordinary tasting: Bra is ground zero for the Slow Food movement and our hotel housed the University of Gastronomic Sciences—the official culinary school of this international initiative focused on local ingredients, traditional cooking techniques, and the pleasures of leisurely meals. As such, it left us perfectly positioned to preview the region’s many culinary pleasures.

The wines didn’t disappoint. The Marsaglia “Brich d’America” had a sweetness and body that hinted at the delicate white cliffs of Roero which we would soon hike beside. The majestic 1999 Cabutto Tenuta La Volta Barolo Vigna La Volta, Barolo DOCG (phew...what a mouthful), had an aplomb that spoke to the stately rows of lavender Nebbiolo grapes we’d walk through in Novello (where many Barolo wines are produced). It was a tremendous way to get excited for the week’s activities.

Antipasto

Nothing whets your appetite quite so much as spending active time outside, so our walks in Piedmont were the perfect way to prime ourselves for the next meal. Near the small hamlet of Montemarino, we hiked along quiet dirt roads through the high, rugged hills of the Alta Langa. Passing fields of Dolcetto grapes, pastureland, and hazelnut groves, we climbed to forests of oak, chestnut, and pino silvestre to arrive at a broad, open meadow with a sweeping view of the valley below.

This, I think, is the secret corollary of the Slow Food lifestyle. When everything is locally grown using traditional techniques, you get a landscape of small farms, hidden groves, and open pastures—it's an aesthetic of eating that actually beautifies the world around you.

Threading our way along a ridgetop trail, we passed bushes of fragrant rosemary and wild thyme. In the distance, I could see Borgomale Castle and the Belbo valley, an unfurled patchwork of vineyards, olive groves, and pastures of grazing sheep. We followed the road down to a renovated farmhouse—it was time for lunch.

Primo

With all of the spectacular food surrounding us, it seemed only natural to take some time learning to make some ourselves. We enjoyed a hands on cooking class at Il Mongalletto, a farmhouse and restaurant in Roero on a hill overlooking yet another castle and the town of Castellinaldo. Under the guidance of Angelo the restaurant’s head chef, we learned to make pasta from scratch, using techniques handed down to him from his grandmother. In their state-of-the-art kitchen, it was enchanting to hear him describe his fond memories of watching her beat eggs into a mound of flour on Sunday mornings, just as we were about to do. Of course, we had a powered sheeter to help form the pasta.

It was a pleasure eating a meal that I helped create on the broad, covered veranda of their restaurant. Along with our homemade pasta, we enjoyed guinea hen (from their own fields), fresh vegetables, and dessert. What a tremendous way to live the local culture. And, of course, unlike the vineyards and pastures, this was an experience I could take home with me.

Secondo

One experience I will have to, sadly, leave in Italy was the superb dinner we enjoyed at the Osteria del Boccondivino in Bra. With a menu consisting of vitello tonnato (locally raised veal with tuna sauce), agnolotti del plin al burry e rosmarino, tortino di verdure con fonduta al Raschera, brasato de vitello al Barolo, and a dessert of semifreddo al croccante e pistaccio verde de Bronte, it’s a meal I’ll remember for the rest of my life. My fellow Country Walkers guests and I took full advantage of the leisurely “Slow Food” pace, savoring lively conversations and local wines (born less than 10 miles away) as the waiters brought out each course like a new chapter in an epic book. The food was extremely fresh, local, and prepared with care. There was nothing fancy or overly ornate; the chefs allowed each ingredient to speak for itself. And given a chance to shine, they spoke volumes.

Contorno/Insalata

It was so wonderful to see these ingredients being produced. At the Agriturismo Casa Scaparone in Alba, we explored a self-sufficient farm full of fruit orchards, vineyards, and vegetable gardens. While there, we enjoyed a family-style vegetarian feast in their rustic dining room. Beneath rows of exposed beams, we sampled their produce in a range of salads, soups, and frittatas. Everything was fresh, organic, and delicious.

I was struck by how fully this care for the natural world permeated life in Piedmont. The day before, we’d walked through groves of poplar trees in Borgomale. They had an incredibly uniform appearance, all growing in evenly spaced rows, that was quite striking. When I asked our guide why they’d been planted that way, he told me that they were there to preserve the soil. The entire region was on a floodplain, so to protect the region from the erosion and washouts that occur during 100-year flood cycles, the municipality had thought ahead and planted these large plots of trees. Using natural beauty to take care of the environment—it really struck home for me.

Formaggi

One of the greatest pleasures of exploring Piedmont was meeting local farmers, craftsmen, and artisans along the way. On the same day we hiked through the hills about Motemarino, we visited a local cheesemaker named Silvio Pistone. He invited us right into his house, where we sat on his couch and talked about cheesemaking. He has a spread of 30 Lange sheep, of which there are about 600 left in the world. These he cares for like his own children, cleaning, grooming, feeding, and talking to them on a daily basis. If you don’t start with healthy and happy sheep, he told us, the discord will show up in the cheese you make. Sampling his wares, along with loaves of his fresh-baked bread, I could genuinely taste that positive outlook.

Dolce

Another fantastic opportunity to visit with the locals came when we stopped by a local beekeeper’s residence. In the Rocche region, apiarists Patrizia and Antonio still use natural methods to make honey, collecting the hives by hand and extracting the golden nectar using hand-cranked centrifuges. We sampled their wares—chestnut-infused honey, cherry-infused honey, and many others. As they demonstrated their craft to us, I was struck again by the sustainable philosophy of Piedmont: take care of what you have, respect it, nurture it, harvest it, use all of it, return to the earth what you are not able to use, and pass this on to those that follow you. Is there a simpler recipe than that?