Sunday, November 06, 2005

A Trip to the Piedmont

Heading down:
We set out on a foggy Monday morning for Italy, specifically we were headed towards the Piedmont but because we found an interesting Gasthaus for sale on the internet our trip down was slightly a roundabout one, taking us first through Zürich and then down the south-side of the Zürich See and over to the little town of Sattel to have a look at the dying 150 year-old Gasthaus Krone which is now offered for sale. The place was one of those old Grand-dames now long since faded and the price of restoration could easily triple the pruchase price and since the place was positioned between the main road and a railroad track we decided it was not the right place for us to open up a quiet B&B. So after a polite “thank you for your time, but it’s more of a project than we had in mind” we hopped in the car and headed south, skirting around the Vierwaldstattersee towards the Gotthard tunnel. The lake and mountain scenery here are absolutely breathtaking and it was all in prime Fall colors when we drove through. This region is truly the heart of Switzerland. It is the place, where over 700 years ago the forefathers of Switzerland made the pact to swear allegiance to fight together against the Habsburgs for independence, thereby founded the original “Confederation of Switzerland”.

Our goal was pretty simple really. We were headed to the tiny vineyard-town of San Martino Alfieri which is halfway between Asti and Alba in the heart of Piedmont. Ancient and tiny, San Martino has streets barely wide enough for a car to pass. Alfieri is well known for the lovely Alfieri castle, which now produces very fine wines, but it was once famous for producing very aristocratic poets and architects. On Thursday, we will cross its thresholds for the first time because the owner of our casa works there from time to time and has arranged an appointment for us to visit with the wine maker and tour the cellars.

The charming casa at via Roma 4 we have rented is a very successful conversion of an old wine maker’s barn. Downstairs we have a kitchen and dining room, living room and half bath. Upstairs we have two bedrooms with queen-sized beds and a large bath with tub. There is a third floor loft space that looks like it could accommodate half a dozen teenagers with ease. The place is owned by Toni Pierobon, a lively and very helpful American woman who lives just north of Asti. The view was magnificent but unfortunately for us it was often foggy. Oh well, they say the fog is good for the truffles.

Our trip to Asti:
Asti isn’t a huge town, in fact one day is probably all you need to explore most of what it has to offer, but if you did that you really wouldn't get to know it well, for that you need time… in the Italian sense. We have a week, so we are taking our time and savoring it slowly. I figure that we can make three or four trips into Asti, making a half-hearted attempt each time to explore and maybe cover 10 % or 15% of the town with each trip. There is no hurry, we are in Italy, we have plenty of time.
Our first stop was the tourist information office, where a very busy woman gave us a rundown of the city in record time. Fortunately for us we uttered the magic words; truffles, food and wine. I swear she spent twice as much time with us because of those words alone. Her lightning-fast dissertation left my head spinning and the way she pronounced all the Italian village names combined with her thick accent, left me wondering what the heck she was talking about, but she said everything with such a good nature we just stood there nodding, smiling and agreeing with everything she said. I think we gave her the right response because she smiled and seemed very satisfied as she sent us away with a large pack of informative fliers and maps about everything from 12th century churches to medieval tapestries.

As it often happens in Italy, the tourist office is right next to the city market and the city market in Asti is a good one. The building is a mélange of little stalls selling produce, fresh meats and salumi of every kind. Butchers tend to specialize in one animal and you get them all. I saw birds of every kind; chicken, quail, duck (both wild and domestic), turkey, dove, pigeon and so on. There was every cut of beef, veal, pork, horse and even some donkey. Many butchers had a sign displayed announcing that they produce an artisanal salumi but usually they made only one or two and no more. I expected to see more handmade pasta but I suppose it is quite likely that many people make it themselves at home.

We managed to come away from the market with half a dozen bags of things that looked interesting and we very nearly bought a beautiful standing rib roast before Melanie noticed that the butcher was famous for horsemeat… so we asked and sure enough it was Mr. Ed, so we passed. I guess we are really culinary lightweights after all.

Occasionally, uninformed tourists simply bump into great things totally by accident….this has happened to us in Venice with Harry’s Bar and the Rialto bridge but I never really expected it in Asti, but luck was on our side and we stumbled across “Pasticceria Giordanino” quite by accident. We were tottering along, window-shopping…speeding up when we came to a clothing shop and slowing down when we hit a shop that had anything to do with food or wine . At first we noticed a window full of bright yellow, red and black packages neatly wrapped and tied with ribbon, each with a little tag that said Polentina delle Mandorle. Then we came to a door plastered with stickers from every coveted food organization in Italy. There were Gambero Rosso stickers dating back several years, Slowfood stickers and on and on. Then… (oh then!) then came the window full of pastries. Chocolates, meringues, gianduja, liquor filled things… all beautifully presented. Well I just had to go in!

Giordanino has been selling Asti’s finest pasteries for nearly 100 years and by the looks of things, they will be around another hundred years from now! Angela is the nice lady behind the counter, she is very helpful and speaks English very well, “call me anytime and I will ship our cakes anywhere in the world” she told me with a big smile. We handed over a €50 note and came away with a big bag of cakes, pastries and liquor filled truffles. We were very happy that this was our vacation and we are allowed to indulge in sweets a little more than normal.

At home we unwrapped our booty and made lunch. To start things off, we each had a shot of ice-cold lemoncello. Our first course was simply salumi, Parmagiano and hand rolled breadsticks but this time we added a couple of extra salamis, I picked a lovely artisanal salami from the market and Melanie picked two "Golfretto" salamis which are large oval shaped salamis that bear a price tag of almost twice the price of regular salami. The difference between the two Golfrettos was pronounced, one seemed to be older and dryer then the other, but both had a lovely mild texture and aroma.

Our main course was Saltimbocca which is local sausage wrapped in veal. I also spent 20 minutes stirring a special mixed grain polenta from the Valtellina called "Il Saraceno Polenta Taragna" that Toni gave us and as an extra side-dish I made an orange bell pepper, onion and garlic compote.

The food was good but quite honestly we were not prepared for the dessert. The little chocolate covered cake with the elaborate decorative topping was as dramatic as any desert in a Fauchon window and the quality of the chocolate and moistness of the white cake filling made it a good choice but the real corker was the meringue. Meringues are a specialty in Switzerland and I have had many that are outstanding so I really was not expecting this Italian version to be anything special…I could not have been more mistaken. The Giordanino meringue must be legendary! It was carefully assembled after we ordered it and we were given special instructions to carry it gently and put it in the fridge as soon as possible. (Which resulted in a greatly shortened first-time visit to Asti) The creation was simply two small delicate meringues sandwiching a big dollop of whipped cream and dusted with small chunks of hazelnut praline. So simple, yet anything but simple. The quality of the ingredients was so high and the whole thing so lightly sweetened and delicate it was an absolute delight and will surely go down in my memory as the finest meringue I have ever had.

Going South:
We decided to head out to Alba and Barolo and make a pilgrimage to Bra, the capitol of the Slowfood movement. We spent the late morning exploring Alba which is a lovely little town with a healthy tourist trade. Shops are brimming with food and wine displays, in fact, it seems that it is almost obligatory to display at least one bottle of wine or grappa no matter what you are selling. Ladies underwear…a bottle of Spumante. Men’s shoes…a grappa in a wooden box. Eyeglasses…Barolo of course! We even saw wine bottles in the children’s clothing shop windows!
During the Fall in Alba it is hard to get away from the ever-present Tartuffe. But then why would you want to? Late October is when the season begins and on the weekends in Alba and the surrounding towns the world famous truffle markets occur. The stores are brimming with the priceless fresh fungi of every kind but the center of the window always contains the white truffles, and at 2700 euros a kilo you understand why they get to be in the front window!

Alba is charming, but quite touristy, we heard as much German, and English as we did Italian and the shops are geared up to cater to their wealthy gastronomic guests. Prices were generally high, but the shops did do a lovely job displaying their wares and there were some pretty original store windows. I really liked the one that combined gourmet food and wine with a bookstore.

After Asti we were bound for Barolo, a very beautiful and sleepy village with a glorious restored 1000 year-old castle perched on the top of a hill. Barolo is a picture-book town, with its narrow cobblestone streets and ancient buildings. The view from the castle walls was a breath-taking one of the surrounding hills covered with vineyards and dotted with ancient buildings. Surely one could spend a good deal of time here and never tire of that view. Unfortunately we arrived in town at the lunch hour, and were unable to taste the wines in the cellars of the castle…that will have to wait for a future visit.

Bra is not a touristic town by any means. At first it seems to be a working class town, with very little to warrant a trip, but it is the seat of the Slowfood movement and we decided we should have a look just in case. We had stumbled across a mimeographed article from Gourmet magazine at the casa we rented, it was written almost ten years ago by Caroline Bates and she lavishly praised the Osteria del Boccondivino which happens to be next door to the Slowfood office in Bra. Her sterling review was right on target and we enjoyed a lovely lunch there.

The chef himself took our orders, so we decided to let him suggest a Barbera d’Alba for us. He first asked if we liked a lighter style or the heavier.. then he made several selections (none of which were the most expensive examples) and we decided on the 2001 Andrea Oberto Giada at €28... and it was fantastic. Thick and black, it immediately stained our glasses dark red. 14.5% alcohol, this wine is a jammy monster with all of the flavor of the Piedmont hills.

Melanie had a ramekin of white truffled egg, cream and Parmigano for €14 and the Tajarin for €7 which is a fine pasta made with forty egg yolks for one kilo of flour (the amount of yolks varies from recipe to recipe, but according to the article in Gourmet, that is how they make it at that Osteria). Tajarin pasta is available in the shops in Alba and the surrounding area. I had the daily menu, €20 and started with a bowl of very fine pumpkin soup, followed by roasted breast of Guinea hen over a bed of fennel and dessert.

Once again we were caught off guard by the dessert. This time it was called Budino Torrone E Miele, in English it means a delicate pudding drizzled with honey and dusted with broken nougat pieces. (Available for €5 if you don’t get the menu). This is a dessert I could eat everyday for the rest of my life and be very happy indeed! The Osteria del Boccondivino is well worth the trip to Bra and is certainly a restaurant I look forward to visiting again!

Budino Torrone E Miele
(nougat and honey pudding)
From Gourmet Magazine
2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons water
2 large egg yolks
½ cup of sugar
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon whole milk
½ cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy cream
2 ounces firm torrone nougat chopped coarse
¼ cup honey
In a very small bowl sprinkle gelatin and cover with water to soften. In a bowl with an electric mixer beat together yolks and sugar until double in volume.
In a heavy saucepan bring milk, cream, torrone and 1 teaspoon of honey just to a boil, stirring. Add gelatin and egg mixtures and boil, whisking, 3 seconds. Pour mixture into four ¾ cup molds or ramekins and cool completely. Chill desserts and cover until firm, at least 6 hours and up to 2 days.
To un-mold, dip molds, one at a time, into a bowl of hot water for 3 seconds. Run a thin knife around the edges and invert on to 4 plates. Sprinkle edges of the plates with powdered sugar and drizzle with honey and sprinkle with some extra broken nougat.

We headed home very full but very happy and spent the afternoon in the garden with a glass of Barbera d’Alba and enjoyed the mild weather. After five or six hours the effects of our incredible lunch began to wear off so we decided to have a simple one-plate dinner. I roasted a pork standing rib roast and made fried green Roma tomatoes. I honestly can’t remember the last time I made a pork rib-roast but I vow to do it more often from now on. Our roast came from the market in Asti and the quality of the pork was really something special. I simply put salt and pepper on it with a little olive oil and some fresh sage and rosemary and a bay leaf. I put everything in one of those oven bags and popped it in at about 200° C. The result was easily the best pork roast I have ever made. The roast was dripping with juices and there was an absolutely intoxicating roasted sweet aroma to the meat. The fried green tomatoes are very simple, I sliced them on the diagonal and rolled them each in flour then in water then in polenta and cooked them very slowly in olive oil. The result was delicious and very crispy.

The Restaurant Luna:
On Saturday we set out to Alba in search of a specific restaurant that a guide book recommended and as it often happens, we were not able to decipher the complicated directions that seemed to be based half on the road system and half on mystery, or perhaps some information that only locals would understand. Anyway, we drove in circles looking for a restaurant that seems to only exist in theory, so after 30 minutes of chasing false leads we decided that the next restaurant, regardless of what it was called or how it looked, was going to be where we were going to eat our lunch.

What we found was the “Restaurante Luna” at Via Alba 13 in Sinio d’Alba. Now let me explain…you will not find much information about this place on Google nor is it highly acclaimed in the guide books, and you could easily decide that since this is your only visit to the Piedmont it’s probably not worth consideration. But, I promise that you will be “so much the better” if you make a little effort and find this dusty jewel. It looks like many other restaurants from the street. "Nothing rare or special here" you might think…but….Guiseppi Santero and his brother run something special….something very special.
Melanie and I ventured in a little weary from restaurant hunting and thought we would have to sacrifice the lunch of our dreams for a pizza or pasta from this “local” hang out… but if the patron Saint of Italian cooking herself had been watching over us she could not have made our lunch more perfect!
There is nothing about this place that indicates its greatness. It just looks like a simple restaurant that has been there for a number of years. Oh, but we could not be farther from the truth when it comes to the Restaurant Luna!
Luna is the last in a very short line of old-world restaurants still in existence. Giuseppi and his brother both wear tuxedos and glide through the room serving course after course effortlessly and totally without pretense. It’s hard to imagine these two (both easily in their mid 60’s) doing anything else. It’s quite obvious they enjoy what they do and they seem so perfectly suited for the job. It was lovely to just sit there and watch as they fed us with cheerful smiles on their faces and a justifiable pride in their beautiful food. This lunch was a “life experience” as much as it was a gourmet interlude. As I mentioned there was course after course, in fact there were 10 courses in all, not including the grappa in the lounge by the fire afterward.
Here is the line-up:
- Small ham mousse pinwheels served over a bed of mixed lettuce topped with shaved black truffles.
- Vitello tonnato.
- Carpaccio with Parmigiano shavings and black truffles.
- A cheese and fresh porcini quiche.
- Sausages in a barolo sauce.
- A crepe with Castelmagno cheese.
- House-made tajarin noodles with a delicate roasted veal sauce.
- Roasted breast of guinea hen in a light cheese sauce with roasted potatoes.
- Roast beef with a fresh porcini sauce.
- Budino and chocolate-hazelnut tort with a red-berry sauce.
- Coffee.
- Grappa.
Mineral water and bread were included and the whole thing came to a surprisingly affordable, €30 per person. Our wine was Luna’s own label of Dolcetto d’Alba at €8 a bottle.

During the lunch the people at the table behind us started talking to the two men at the table to our left, they began to joke around and before you knew it they were passing each other their wines. I suppose they noticed us smiling so they sent their wine over to us to try. With the aid of Giuseppi who speaks German, we discovered they were wine makers from the neighborhood and so we exchanged cards and vowed to remain in contact. In Piedmont all you have to do is mention food or wine and you hold the key that unlocks the hearts of perhaps the warmest and kindest people in Italy.

The Truffle Market:
We visited the truffle market in Moncalvo on Sunday and we were shocked by the number of people. There is a very large square in the center of Moncalvo and the booths spanned the perimeter. There were artisanal products of every kind. Salumi was by far the most popular, but there were lots of pastry stands and tables packed full of vegetables and cheeses. I would have to guess but I would say there might have been 300 stands in all and the crowd was six people deep in front of most of them. With all of those people, it was a bit difficult to find the truffle hunters booths but then, all of a sudden, I got a whiff of the magical mushroom and I just followed my nose to the action.

Getting to the truffles isn’t easy because of the crush of people and I didn’t feel comfortable about fighting my way up to the front of the line just to take pictures, so unfortunately I have no pictures of the truffles, but I assure you they were there and “wow” there were a lot of them! I managed to shoot through 80 euros in a split second and what I got was two white truffles, each about the size of a hazelnut and two black truffles each about the size of a walnut. But the smell was overpowering and I was dying to get them home and shave them over some fresh home-madepasta.

I also managed to find a two-sided traditional pasta cutter called a “Chitarra” and a heavy copper polenta pot with it’s own special spoon. These are pretty hard to come by outside of Italy and neither of them was expensive so I splurged.

Going home:
We had a lovely week in the Piedmont highlighted by the food and wine but more importantly we discovered a very lovely section of Italy filled with warm people. It was hard to pack-up the car and head for home after such a lovely week of new experiences and in fact we have decided to rent Toni’s casa for six months in 2006 and who knows…maybe we will buy a little pile of rocks down there! Heck anything could happen, but one thing is for sure we are definitely going back!

I hope you have enjoyed reading about our adventures, but even more, I hope you get a chance to visit the Piedmont and experience it yourself! Saluti!


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