food

An Epicurean Escape

Text Leigh Robertson Photographs Naashon Zalk A Slow Food gastronomic tour of Italy’s Piedmont is the only way to explore this bountiful region, whatever the season... You can’t be indifferent to food and its profusion of tastes and textures, colours and aromas, let alone be afraid of eating (lots and lots of delicious carbs) with gusto, pretty much all day long, to enjoy a stay in Italy’s Piedmont, for all its fascinating history, grand medieval castles and close proximity to the Alps. For that matter, it would be a sacrilege to be immune to the charms of the region’s famous red wines – the rich, velvety smooth Barolos and Barbarescos – that smell like roses and lend so much romance and dimension to the simplest of pleasurable moments or the most humble, peasant-style meal. The abstemious would die of boredom, and probably bore everyone else to death too. I fell in love with the rolling vineyard-covered hills of Piedmont’s legendary Langhe and Roero areas well before I visited, having devoured the pages of Irish foodie and author (and sister to Daniel) Tamasin Day-Lewis’s Where Shall We Go For Dinner?, in which she rapturously described an early autumn spent exploring small, off-the-beaten track family-run restaurants, discovering local produce, and generally eating and drinking with abandon. I held in my imagination her images of the season’s ‘almost obscene fecundity and excess’ – bursting-with-ripeness tomatoes on the vine, fat peaches and pears, figs and quinces all but lying in wait in sun-drenched fields to be plundered by passers-by. She wrote about chance encounters with steadfast small producers, with dedicated osteria owners, with other people equally passionate (as only Italians can be) about the proud local gastronomic traditions here. She rhapsodised about the white truffles for which Piedmont is especially acclaimed, and about its crumbly raw cheeses, its hazelnuts, its special pinched pasta called plin. I was smitten. I was very hungry. Arriving in a sullen, grey Milan towards the end of their winter, the two-and-a-half hour drive to the tiny village of Pollenzo reveals nothing of those sensual hills of the Langhe, which means ‘the tongues’ and indicates the gently undulating shape of the area (fitting, since taste is everything here). Though obscured by sheets of rain and thick mist, occasionally are revealed faint silhouettes of towers and clusters of rustic houses at the top of the steep slopes with their bare, brown vineyards. We pass denuded hazelnut groves and quietly take in the wintry starkness of it all, which is in its own way breathtakingly beautiful. It’s a region of wondrous contrasts. There can be few more appropriate lodgings for a ‘food tourist’ than Albergo dell’Agenzia, the hotel that forms part of the same dramatic, fort-like complex (established in 1835 and once the summer residence of the Savoys) housing a vast wine bank and the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Who’d have thought you could get a degree in gastronomy? Pollenza, where the architectural traces of its Roman origins are continuously being discovered and preserved, is also just a short bicycle ride away from Bra. This pretty town with its splendid cathedrals and convivial piazzas is where the Slow Food movement not only originated but still has its headquarters, and where the renowned biannual Slow Food International Cheese festival, a celebration of artisanal cheeses, is held (and takes place this September). The agenda is to cover as much of the area as a week will allow, taking in Bra, nearby Alba (where the International Truffle Fair is held each October), and the quaint villages of Barolo and Barbaresco around which the respective wines – both made from Nebbiolo grapes, and essentially the same in style – are produced. Distances are short, and the roads that wind along the sometimes dizzyingly steep contours of the hills offer no end of charming country scenery, which the omnipresent mist makes all the more captivating. The idea is also to visit a selection of wineries and eat our way through as many osterias as possible, getting to grips with the regional cuisine – for as I quickly discover, referring to their food as ‘Italian’ cuisine is near criminal. The diversity is such, even in this corner of northern Italy, that within 50km you’ll experience subtle and not-so-subtle changes in what’s considered regional food. And the food is consistently delectable even if some of the dishes become repetitious – it is winter, after all, and here if it’s not in season, you simply won’t get it, meaning there’ll be no truffles until summer’s been and gone. So we devour our delicate, meltingly tender gnocchi, our bowls of risotto al Barolo, our vitello tonnato, and salt cod and potatoes with relish, in between grazing on ever-present grissini, the most addictive of breadsticks, served with plump olives and dishes of profoundly tasty Reggiano Parmigiano – the real thing is a far cry from what we ever get at home. Somehow you always find an appetite when you’re convinced you can fit in not a morsel more after that hearty five-course lunch, which followed a handsome breakfast of bright saffron eggs (the chickens eat just as well as the people), heaps of home-cured salami and pale, semi-hard cheeses, glasses of thick pear nectar, and a few killer espressos. I become convinced that it’s the wine that keeps me going, and a few climbs up some very steep hills. One such ascent is to Grinzane Cavour, a monumental castle that houses among its maze of reception rooms and spiral staircases a Michelin-starred restaurant, a vast wine enoteca and a museum dedicated to the hallowed white truffle, il tartufo bianca d’Alba. The sun shyly emerges through the dispersing mist and for the first time I watch the gentle landscape unfurl. We drive to the town of La Morra, which promises one of the best views from its famous belvedere, but the mist has again cloaked everything in its soft, damp embrace. Happily, 5km away is Barolo with its narrow winding walkways, set about an imposing castle, to explore. In Barbaresco, we don’t quite climb the mossy red brick tower, the town’s symbol, that rises up into the sky, but we do get to take in the exquisite vista that stretches all the way to Alba, the capital of the Langhe area. In Bra, we lose ourselves wandering about the lovely streets, and are delighted when we stumble upon a celebrated cheese shop that’s been in the same family for generations. The affable owner, Fiorenzo Giolito, plies us with samples of the glorious Piedmontese Castelmagno while offering glasses of Roera Arneis, a local white wine, and a tour of the cellar, where great wheels of Reggiano Parmigiano and Grana Padana slowly mature. We laugh as he demonstrates some of the locals’ scorn for Silvio Berlusconi as he thumps a round cheese that dangles above the counter and on which he’s pinned a picture of the Italian prime minister’s head, calling it his ‘stress ball’. Seeking a caffé for reviving espressos, we pick one based purely on its warm, lively ambience, its black-and-white floors and glowing chandeliers, and find ourselves drinking Negronis and making friends with the staff and a garrulous Turkish gastronomy student. Time winds down to a perfect snail’s pace as we nibble from the generous antipasti platter placed before us and order another round. Whether it’s slow food or slow drink, it definitely feels right in Piedmont. Slow Food Symbolised by the snail, the Slow Food concept or philosophy is not as simplistic as being the opposite of fast food. The non-profit association founded in Bra in 1989 by Carlo Petrini, now has over 100 000 members worldwide, who work together under the Terra Madre umbrella to create and promote a ‘good, clean and fair’ model of food production and consumption. Slow Food believes in the importance of the pleasure of food and convivial eating, but also responsibility: safeguarding traditional foods and methods of cultivation and production, as well as defending biodiversity. slowfood.it. Getting There HL flew to Italy courtesy of Lufthansa German Airlines (lufthansa.com) on Lufthansa’s new ‘wonderbird’, the A380, in conjunction with MedVacations and leading Italian tour operator, RSI Travel (rsigroup.it). To book your Slow Food tour of Piedmont, including visits to top regional wineries and local attractions, and lunches and dinners at traditional osterias, contact MedVacations, 011-783-5351, info@medvacations.co.za, medvacations.co.za.   STAY Albergo dell’Agenzia, Pollenza, albergoagenzia.it. Villa Tiboldi, Canale, villatiboldi.it.   VISIT Slow Food International Cheese festival, Bra, cheese.slowfood.com. Giolito Cheese, Bra, giolitocheese.it.   EAT Osteria Boccondivino, Bra, boccondivinoslow.it. Antico Caffé Boglione, Bra, caffeboglione.it. Battaglino Ristorante, Bra, ristorantebattaglino.it.   DRINK The Barbaresco Regional Wine Cellar, Barbaresco, enotecadelbarbaresco.it Marchesi di Grésy, Martinenga Estate, Barbaresco, marchesidigresy.com Cordero di Montezemolo, Monfalletto Estate, La Morra, corderodimontezemolo.com Azienda Agricola Brezza, Barolo, brezza.it