Thursday, January 19, 2006

Changing Times in the Piemonte

The Slow Food movement has been heartily embraced by the Piemonte region. I am sure that has something to do with the fact that Slow Food is based in Bra and is the brainchild of a Piemontese. Being a new pilgrim to the Piemonte it is difficult for me to say exactly how much change has occurred over the last 20 years but evidence is everywhere. That little snail pops-up in the darnedest places! But it is not just about a concept it’s about a mindset. As I speak to the winemakers and the butchers and the ladies at the Pasticceria I begin to realize that they are not just doing this for extra profit, they are just so proud of their craft and want to share it with us. As you know, Italy is not the richest country in Europe and the exotic material possessions we find everywhere in the US are often simply not available, even if the money was available to purchase them. Consequently, less emphasis is placed on material possessions and more value is ascribed to things like food and wine. In Italy if you want respect all you have to do is provide a perfect bon-bon or the finest cuts of meat, or maybe a bottle of perfect Barolo. This will ensure your place in the community and keep you continually surrounded with admiring customers. Great butchers walk a few inches off the ground in the Piemonte and rightly so too!

As mentioned, I can really only take a “time-slice” of current events and I can’t speak with much authority about the way things “used to be” or exactly what has brought on the change, but I do know change is happening. For example; I have a favorite wine here and it is called Barbera. I have asked a few questions about its history and it seems that Barbera was once a wine that was mass-produced and cheap, consequently it was considered plonk and rightfully avoided by anyone with a palate. But gradually things changed and the Barbera growers began to trim back their vines and tend them more selectively and with some careful vinification the results can be staggering. We are seeing Barberas spending time in oak, and some is even blended with Nebbiolo and other grapes to make some tremendously complex cuvees. Today the best Barberas bring top-money and are worth every penny.

Grignolino has a similar story. In many cases it is often almost a rosé, but now a few producers are producing stellar Grignolino. We are even seeing alcohol levels in excess of 14% and they are starting to garner some international recognition, not to mention multiple-cups in Gambero Rosso. In spite of all that, Grignolino is not widely grown here. I believe the problem is that most people don’t understand the wine outside of the region. Grignolino is a wine that was made to be enjoyed with cured meats, especially the fattier salumi like coppa and salami. It cuts right through the fat and the flavor of the Grignolino blends perfectly with the sweet nuttiness of the meats. Once you have a Grignolino with a good local salami you will be hooked for good. Just a word of caution: don’t be tempted to judge this wine at a wine tasting… as with many Italian wines, it will not fare well without the food it was intended for.

But it is not only wine that is changing. In the Piemonte every village is known to produce something special. It might be a type of cake, or perhaps there is a butcher there that makes a special sausage, or it might even just be a certain dish that that town is famous for. There is a constant stream of new creations from the village shops. All of this creates a very completive spirit in the food and wine world and when you combine all of that with a public that is devoted to the table from the moment they learn to walk, some very magical things happen!
This is the glory of the Piemonte!

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Continued Cooking and Eating in the Piemonte

It has been over a week since we returned to Italy and most of my days have been consumed with planning, cooking and occasionally cleaning-up after nearly a dozen meals. With the exception of one “traditional American fried-chicken lunch” which I cooked for some Piemontese friends (they were very brave and tried everything), all of the meals I have cooked have been versions of traditional Piemontese meals.
Although the Piemontese use garlic, anchovies and tomatoes in their cuisine, it is notably different from the south of Italy; the flavors are more subtle, the garlic clove and the tomato are used rather sparingly. Pasta is often made with only flour and egg yolks. And the tiny ravioli called Plin are often stuffed Castelmagno cheese. Piemontese are great cheese-makers and as in France; a cheese course is a compulsory part of a fine meal.
Olive oil is the one southern ingredient that the Piemonte heartily embraces, excellent olive oil is produced in Liguria, the Piemonte’s neighbor to the south and the typical grocery store in these parts has an entire aisle entirely devoted just to olive oil.
Antipasti in the Piemonte is mostly Salumi. I have yet to be served an olive or a pickled anything as an antipasti. Yesterday we were given some potato chips and a few olives with a Prosecco as an apero but the antipasti course is all about pork. Yesterday, we were fortunate enough to be invited to lunch in the home of a very fine vintner just north of Asti. Being known for his delicious Grignolino, a wine famous for serving with cured meats, he of course had to produce some outstanding salumi to showcase his wine…and he did. There was coppa and salami, tiny cacciatore salami all were excellent but there was one thing that I wasn’t prepared for….sitting in the center of the table was a tight spiral of raw sausage in a casing, just like you might see labeled “Italian sausage” anywhere in the world. “Oh” I thought “ we are going to cook it at the table….perhaps on a hot stone or something“…well, I was wrong…in the Piemonte they eat pork sausage raw! This sausage had not been treated or cured in any way. It was fresh raw pork in a natural intestinal casing.. .at first I was more than a bit hesitant….eating raw pork is contrary to everything I have ever known. “Surely this isn’t safe” I thought… but our host assured us it is produced fresh every day by the butcher in the next village and he is famous for his “Salsiccia”. Reluctantly, I tried a fork-full and I became an immediate convert! Salsiccia is made from very lean, finely ground, tender pork which is then seasoned lightly and stuffed into a casing. The flavor is delicate and delicious…I had four helpings! Later we had some cooked Salsiccia in the potato gnocchi.
It was good, but I prefer my Salsiccia raw thank you!

Returning to Piemonte

I reached the Alps: the soul within me burned
Italia, my Italia, at thy name:
And when from out of the mountain’s heart I came
And saw the land for which my life had yearned.
I laughed as one who some great prize has earned.

Oscar Wilde

Piemonte is slowly becoming mine. I am not only coming to understand the “how” of the Piemonte but I am beginning to appreciate the “why”. The Savoyards are the original people of the Piemonte and it is only in the last 150 years that they have been called Italians…a moniker that quite frankly, I think they would happily and unceremoniously cast off.
Piemontese are infused with a fierce sense of regionalism backed by millenniums of traditions, methods and secrets and if you are lucky enough to have time and look closely, some of it will be happily and proudly revealed to you.
If Rome wasn’t built in a day then surely every aspect of the Piemonte can’t be learned and understood in a lifetime, but what an interesting lifetime it would be to try to un-ravel her tangled secrets and traditions of the land, the people and the food.
On the road between Asti and Alba is a tiny shop housed in an old brick building called “Cascina del Cornale“. There are a few colorful signs to point the way and a small parking lot on the side of the building. Once you enter the courtyard, you notice they are also operating a restaurant and an “Agritourismo” (Italy’s answer to a country inn). My friend Toni tells me they have slowly expanded over the last few years to include the restaurant.
During the last twenty years I have visited hundreds of little gourmet shops littering the country-side around New England and other affluent areas up and down the eastern coast of the US and when I walked into the Cornale I have to admit it was a let down. Where were the expensive German knives? Where was the La Creusette cook wear? I didn’t see any big red tins of Amoretti Biscotti! No aprons that make you look like you have a garter and stockings on….. In short what’s the point of this place! The vegetable stand at the Ipermarket down the street was 20 times bigger. The wine selection was dismal. The only thing that looked promising was the cheese counter and the Salumi selection. “How does they make a living here?” I thought……then… as if my eyes were adjusting to the darkness, I slowly began to understand.
The selection was small because it represented only the very best of 50 local “Azienda Agricole Familiari” (family owned farms) of Piemonte and Liguria. They have sourced their products personally, and what they have assembled is a collection of the rarest and finest examples they have been able to find. There was no filler….there was no second best. There wasn’t much in this shop, but you can bet your life that ANYTHING you buy here will be perfect. The Salumi was all artisanale… in Italy “artisanale” translates to: “like nothing you will ever taste again in your entire life outside of Italy”.The same was true of the cheeses. All were hand-made and local, probably by friends and family. There were AOC dried beans called Gianetto di Nasino, sold in tiny 250 gr. bags tied with ribbon and sporting a hand-written “Carta D’Identita” telling me that they came from the Azienda Agricola “U Luvu” in Nasino, bag number 0182 77138 and that I should consume them by November 2006. There were at least a half-a-dozen different types of honey, but from only one producer…L’Archivolto in Gavi. Fresh brown eggs were sorted and stored in a home crafted chicken-wire cabinet under a halogen spot-light like jewels at Cartier‘s. There were hand-poured chocolates and various other confections, all were hand-made and all local. Again, not a wide selection… but nothing but the very best.
I know what you are thinking….yeah right.. all that’s great if you willing to pay $5 for an apple… but honestly the prices were not bad…not bad at all. I happened to check … a wine that they charged €6.50 for only costs €6 at the winery 20 miles away!
After ten minutes I began to feel ashamed of my first impressions. I began to realize exactly how much time and care must have been involved in the sourcing and assembling the kind of collection this tiny shop had. A new sense of respect flowed through me and I began to realize the difference between this place and the so called “gourmet shops” back in the States. Here before me, was a true gem, a tiny bit of the very finest that our region has to offer, very carefully selected by people who love us. As we left we were almost knocked over with a heavenly aroma coming from the kitchens….I can’t wait to try the restaurant!!!
Cascina del Cornale
Corso Marconi, 64
12050 Magliano Alfieri (CN)

Monday, January 02, 2006

Grasping Grappa

I would have to admit that I am more of a rhum and cognac man, but in the last 8 or 9 years I have become interested in grappa, mostly because of my discovery of the Italian kitchen.

When we were in the Piemonte in October we had the good fortune to visit a grappa distillery called Vieux Moulin which you can’t miss if you drive along the road from Asti to Alba because there are several large signs pointing the way. The place is pretty unassuming, there is a big dog chained-up in the court yard who heralds your arrival with a never-ending series of barks and the whole place has a pretty home-spun air about it. The distillery is a small enclave of buildings, built one-by-one as needed over the last millennium. We entered the show-room and we were greeted by the attractive young “Elena” who didn’t speak English but her German was pretty good (often the case in the Piemonte) so we were able to communicate. The first question I posed was about the origins of the name Vieux Moulin…was her family French? As it turns out, back in the 20’s when the distillery was founded all things French were considered vogue, so it was decided Vieux Moulin would lend an air of sophistication to their product.

Vieux Moulin is a busy distillery, especially in Autumn. They make perhaps 100 different kinds of grappa in at least another 100 different types of bottles. It is all pretty over-whelming really, but it didn’t take long for us to dismiss the hand-blown, gift-bottles and focus on their very special "Reserva" in the squat little bottle with the hand-written label and the big price tag. For 20 years this grappa has waited patiently in the keeping rooms and I have to say, the result is worth waiting for.
The afternoon that we visited Vieux Moulin, Elena was in the show-room and “Papa” was busy distilling. Grappa making is much simpler than I thought it would be. The skins and seeds that are left behind in the fermenting tanks after the wine juice is transferred to casks to age is called “Vinacce” in Italian. Tons of this stuff is left over after the press every Fall and most of it ends up at the distillery.

Basically, to make grappa you need steam… at Vieux Moulin it came from a large boiler located outside that piped-in large quantities of hot steam. Then there were about 5 or 6 large copper containers (see picture) where the “Vinacce” is kept. The valves are opened and the hot steam runs through the “Vinacce” and the "essence" is extracted. From there, the steam is cooled and the resulting liquid yields a mixture of condensed water, alcohol and methanol. Distillation columns separate the water and the methanol (which will blind you), and the result is “grappa” which is then run through a lead-sealed counter box (courtesy of the alcohol board...see picture) so the production can be tallied and the appropriate taxes levied. The whole process takes just minutes. The resulting grappa is something you could drink but it is much wiser to let is sit for a couple of years (preferably 20) and let it mature.
Grappa varies widely from region to region. Even at Vieux Moulin they use lots of different grape pressings like Arneis, Barbera, Brachetto, Corterse, Dolcetto, Grignolino, Moscato, Nebbiolo, Pinot and Chardonnay. There are even fruit and herb infused grappas. Sometimes they are blended and sometimes from a single grape variety. So now you see how quickly the showroom can become overwhelming.
With a little exposure to grappa and you will quickly develop an appreciation for it's complexities.
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