Wednesday, January 18, 2006

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)


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