Where to begin with an Italian foodie trip? Head north, says Liz Edwards: in pretty Piedmont, it’s all flavour and no pretensions
Goodness, doesn’t Italy make your tummy rumble? Top to toe, it’s so ridiculously mouthwatering that pretty much every region, every town, has its speciality, its own come-hither, nobody-does-it-better thing. There’s Parma with its ham and cheese, Modena with its balsamic vinegar, Naples for pizza, Genoa for pesto. For a couple of Italy ingenues like my husband and me, looking to expand horizons and waistlines, it could have just been a case of sticking a pin in the map. But it’s easy to get a bit chin-strokey and po-faced about all the good stuff — we wanted to have fun with it, too.
And then (after a little Googling) it came to me: some of the lowest-common-denominator names in Italian food began in one region — Piedmont, at the base of the Alps. Sure, it was known for its truffles, its Barolos and its anti-trash Slow Food movement. But it’s also the home of Ferrero Rocher and Nutella. Crucially, like Nigel Slater scoffing a Big Mac, Piedmont seemed to embrace guilty pleasures. Surely it couldn’t take itself that seriously? We could only hope.
Turin was our first stop — we’d city-break for a couple of days before looping southeast out into the Langhe countryside for the rest of the week. And it’s quite a place. The city of the shroud and of Fiat (never mind those Italian Job Minis) was the first capital of unified Italy and has all the grand squares, portico-lined streets and statues of men on horses to prove it. You’d expect its citizens to be well fed even if it weren’t surrounded by food-producing mountains and farmland — but it is, so the markets overflow with bounty, the streets glint with Michelin stars, and mom-and-pop delis sell 17 types of homemade grissini (they were invented in a nearby palace).
Greedy tourists cannot live on breadsticks alone, though, so we bee-lined to 18th-century cafe Al Bicerin for its eponymous elevenses drink: hot chocolate, espresso and cream, as rich a confection as the gilt-and-marble interior of the church next door. Later on, we went a bit more sophisticated, watching people wander through stately Piazza San Carlo over alfresco drinks at city institution Caffè Torino.
The local find that really made me smile, though, was the Pinguino, the pre-Magnum choc-ice-on-a-stick dreamt up by Turin gelateria Pepino in 1939. I mean, yes, the ingredients are quite posh — high-end chocolate, creamy gelato — but eating a choc-ice is essentially a nonserious experience. We scoffed ours (Turin’s hazelnut chocolate gianduja flavour) in lovely riverside Valentino Park, racing to get more in our mouths than on our clothes or the grass we sat on. Fears of food snobbery were further allayed back in town: I spotted a streetside vending machine selling $5 reheated lasagne. There’s nothing like a bit of trash to make the fine food seem finer, and the locals more human. We were going to like it here.
‘Slow Food unites the pleasure of food with responsibility, sustainability and harmony with nature,’ said Carlo Petrin, founder of the organisation that promotes local food and traditional cooking. Admirable? Certainly. Laugh a minute? Maybe not. Still, we couldn’t stay totally straight-faced about its headquarters, where we were off to next: a town called Bra. Obviously I wanted to check that its cafes offered a full range of cup sizes. What we found, among the mountain-backed terracotta roofs, Baroque belltowers and old tannery chimneys, was a place that looked sleepy, but had a youthful energy. Slow Food might have tapped into the town’s existing appreciation of food done well, but the nearby University of Gastronomic Sciences has added student-driven oomph. There were cool delis, trendy gelaterias and, come early evening, a buzzy aperitivo scene — we idled happily over artisan drinks and generous nibbles among the youngsters outside Art Deco Caffè Boglione.
It didn’t mean the oldsters had been kicked out, though. We were too early for September’s biennial international cheese fair, but we could still taste our way into a cheese stupor in Giolito, the brick-ceilinged, local-formaggi-stuffed shop that started 100 years ago with grandma Giolito selling cheese at markets. We bought soft little robiolas to picnic on and a robust chestnut-leaf-wrapped Occelli to take home. And our hotel, Albergo Cantine Ascheri, was family-run and went back 200 years, but it wore a strikingly contemporary face — lots of concrete, pale wood and chrome, with reinforced glass on sections of the reception floor. It worked for me (as did the bucket of Nutella on the breakfast buffet).
‘The hilltop villages help make Piedmont a less touristy, just-as-pretty alternative to Tuscany’
Bra was also a good base for exploring the hilltop villages that make Piedmont a less touristy, just-as-pretty alternative to Tuscany. We wandered the biscuity cobbles of Verduno to find its belvedere — a grassy space helpfully planted with limes and chestnuts so we could admire the view sunburn-free. Fifty shades of green swelled across the slopes below us in tidy patches of vines and hazelnuts (that Nutella doesn’t nuttify itself) — nature at its well-groomed neatest. An inscribed ledge identified other hilltop villages — La Morra, Monforte, Montelupo — for further pootling round postcard-ready panoramas.
Lunch that day was in Cherasco, a Baroque stage-set of a town and scene of our Michelin-starred blowout (we couldn’t not have one). Da Francesco, the restaurant in a 17th-century palazzo, couldn’t have looked more the part, its extravagantly frescoed walls and ceilings suggesting statuary, stucco, marble and gilt. There wasn’t an un-tromped oeil in the house. The food wasn’t bad, either: delicate, modern riffs on local ingredients, including the snails the town’s famous for. Snail risotto came my way, and rather nice it was, too. The very definition of slow food.
It was time to find Piedmont’s underground edible star, the truffle. Natale and Giorgio Romagnolo were our men, Lizzy and Brio their dogs. From the brothers’ scenic family farmhouse between Alba and Asti, we set off into the oak and poplar woods — fungus intel coming thick and fast — in search of black truffles. (White truffles, more delicate, more aromatic, more expensive, only appear from September to January.) And we very rapidly found one. Lizzy caught a scent, started digging, Giorgio loosened the soil with a little knife and there we were: a grey, knobbly truffle the size of a golf ball was ours. Well, theirs really, but back at the farmhouse Natale did shave some slices for us over hunks of local cheese. As the deliciously deep, earthy smell wafted our way, he told us how the pheromones that help the dogs find them also act as an aphrodisiac. ‘They’re natural viagra,’ he said. ‘And they go very well with Andrea Bocelli’s music.’
With only a couple of days left, we’d moved to stay near Neive, a gorgeous village in Barbaresco country and setting for our finest evening of the trip. Sitting in a sunny corner of a garden next to a former primary school, we ate outstanding food — simple, prepared with care and time, a paradigm. Our drinks, made in on-site barrels, revealed similar expertise. Our fellow diners here at CitaBiunda were tattooed and man-bunned, younger and hipper than people we’d encountered elsewhere. Yep, we’d come for hops and pizza. OK, craft hops and 36-hour-proofed pizza dough, so maybe these guys were taking themselves a bit seriously, but it had paid off — and we saw more dogs stroked than chins. This corner of Italy had given us fine fare and it had given us fun and we couldn’t have been happier. Piedmont, with this trip you were really spoiling us.
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