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30 May 2013

The Food and Wine of the Hills of Langhe and Roero in Piedmont, Italy

Before joining the Enogastronomic Press Tour of the Piedmont Tourism Board, I barely had knowledge about the Langhe and Roero Hills.  It only took three important words that clicked in place and made me understand what this area stands for.  Barolo wines, tartufi (truffles) and nocciole (hazelnuts). These three are integral contributions to the importance of the enogastronomy of Italy.  And what makes the Langhe and Roero Hills special is that they have all three plus a lot more in their land. These hills are also candidates for recognition as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Piemonte (Piedmont) is a region that I never had a chance to explore because of its distance from Rome.  When I go with my family to the north, we always veer to the right, towards Alto Adige, where the Dolomite mountains are.  Piedmont is towards the west and it remained a region that I had hoped to visit one day for a very long time and I had the chance to do so a few days ago.

This trip had educated me in profound ways. The history, the wines, the food, the culture and the people are different yet familiar and they grip you to give your full attention.  A lot of the best Italian wines are produced here like:  Barolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Arneis, Barbaresco, Moscato and Nebbiolo.  There are also the hazelnuts of Piedmont which have the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status given by the European Union.  Ferrero, maker of Nutella, is based here.  Then there are the world renowned and highly esteemed tartufi bianchi (white truffles) of Alba.  In summer, the black truffles come out instead, not as valuable as the white ones but also has its own importance.

I had the opportunity to go truffle hunting with an expert truffle hunter, Ezio and his sniffing dog, Jolly.  Along with this unique experience, I also had a crash course about truffles. Let me recount to you how my truffle hunting went and what I have learned. 

Ezio, along with his wife Clelia are the owners of the bed & breakfast called Tra Arte & Querce where I had the pleasure to settle as a guest for a couple of nights. We dedicated about an hour one morning to go truffle hunting with Ezio & Jolly.  There was no promise that we will find something but just the same, it was going to be a unique experience for me and my companions.  Instead, as soon as we started, our little heroine Jolly sniffed something in the ground and started digging.  There, embedded on the ground was our first among 4 black truffles of the morning, all done in an hour. 

Black and white truffles never grow together because they have different spores.  There are specific trees where they grow.  Blacks grow under oak and hazelnut trees whereas white truffles grow under oak trees, poplars and lime trees.  The truffles only start growing when the oaks are 15 years old while for the poplars, when they reach 5 - 6 years of life.  The area of trees where white truffles grow are considered very precious and are inconspicuously guarded by video surveillance cameras right in the middle of the woods.  So when you see a sign saying that the area is private, don't go further anymore.  You might be lurking around a white truffle area. 

Veal tartare, a Piedmontese specialty of raw veal meat with shavings of black truffles, prepared by Chef Clelia of Tra Arte e Querce.
Dogs are trained starting at 7 months old and onwards.  They start with simple exercises by locating truffles hidden in the garden by the owner.  Not all dogs pass the training and become sniff dogs.  The best dogs are the ones without a breed or a cross-breed between hunting dogs.  Since Jolly is already 9-years old, Ezio has started to train 2 other young dogs. What warmed my heart is the unexplainable connection of trust and loyalty between dog and master.  Being a dog lover myself, I know those eyes that Jolly was giving Ezio.  It was unconditional love and loyalty. In simple translation:  Give me my dog treats and I'll give you truffles.   

Alba.  This is one of the three towns we visited in the tour and it is the capital of the Langhe area. There are two levels in the town. Underground and ground level.  Underground Alba or Alba Pompeia as it is properly called is from the ancient Roman times.  The succession of the city to medieval and modern times were built on these ruins.  It's a city on top of an ancient city.  If you are in town and have an hour and a half to spare, go explore what is underneath the town and discover this ancient base of Alba.  For information, click on this link.  

The 12th century duomo (cathedral) of Alba.
Inside the duomo (cathedral) of Alba.
On ground level, Alba also has an interesting aspect of its own.  Clean, beautiful, lively and overflowing with quality food shops and restaurants.  You don't need to guess that a lot of these restaurants have some of the best chefs working in the kitchen. 

We were guests at the local restaurant called Ristorante La Piola located at Piazza Duomo, the main piazza (square), where 3-Michelin starred chef Enrico Crippa creates exceptional food for La Piola and the other restaurant on the second floor which is Ristorante Piazza Duomo.  Both restaurants are owned by the Ceretto family, well-known for their Piedmontese wines.

Our dinner at Ristorante La Piola.

Around Alba.
Cherasco.  I don't have much to say about this town because we just set foot on it for less than an hour to unite our group again.  I had to include this here because their delectable specialty called Baci di Cherasco (Kisses of Cherasco) made of dark chocolate and toasted chopped round Piedmontese hazelnuts are not to be missed.  They were created by Marco Barbero at the end of the 19th century.  They are seriously good. I am thinking of restraining my daughter's hands because she cannot stop fishing for one from the bag I took home everytime she is in the kitchen. 

Shops Patrito and Marco Barbero selling Baci di Cherasco in Cherasco.
Bra.  Amusing name for the English speakers but a very important enogastronomic place in Piedmont and the rest of Italy. This is the birthplace of the Slow Food movement and home of the first University of Gastronomic Sciences in the world.  In a nutshell, Slow Food was born in 1989 to counter the rise of fast food.  It aims to preserve and promote traditional and regional cuisine using good, quality food.  Now, it has 150 countries that are committed to its cause.  

Around the town of Bra, the red snail logo of Slow Food and the sandwich called Mac 'd Bra.
There is a sandwich that was created in 2010 in Bra that is being promoted by the local tourism board which I find quite interesting.  Mac 'd Bra is comprised of the local raw veal sausage (can also be cooked) with some pork fat, lettuce and bread from the area and the Bra Tenero (D.O.P.) which is a local cheese with the quality assurance label. They come out only during the food and wine festivals like for this coming Cheese in September.

In Bra, we also had the chance to meet Fiorenzo Giolito, owner of Giolito Formaggi (Cheese) and successor of his family's cheese making business for more than 100 years.  Cheese making did grow in him as a real passion, not just because he inherited it from his family.  His vast knowledge and drive to create new inventions paved way to a new and patented delectable cheese which he named Braciuk.  It's a unique version of Bra Tenero (D.O.P.) which are soaked and aged in vinasses of Barbera, Nebbiolo, etc. inside oak barrels between 3 - 4 months until the crust assumes a violet shade and an alcohol content of 0.1%.  It has a particularly captivating taste that I personally liked. 

Monforte d'Alba.  In the middle of the gentle sloping hills of the Barolo vineyards in Langhe, we attended a traditional afternoon Piedmontese meal called Merenda Sinòira at the beautiful garden of Hotel Villa Beccaris.  It started as an ancient tradition among farmers who finish working after sunset.  They organize a rich local spread of cheese, ham and sweets accompanied by good wines.  With the abundance of the food, it already replaces dinner.

The Merenda Sinòira at Hotel Villa Beccaris.
The Merenda Sinòira at Hotel Villa Beccaris not only spotlighted Piedmontese food and wine products but also those of Liguria.  Ligurian products were mostly based on chinotto (bitter or sour oranges) like marmalades, jams, mustards, flavored salt, jelly, beer, honey, etc.  There were also the violet Oneglia shrimp  and the focaccia Ligure. I will tackle this in the next post as I am writing about Liguria next. 

Piedmontese food and wine were present like the raw veal sausage, different kinds of salami and cheese, wines, the Monforte acerba vinegar, gianduiotti, hazelnut cakes, biscuits and nougat and barathier, genepi and serpoul liqueurs.  

It had been an afternoon of full enogastronomic enjoyment with  music provided by musicians with local instruments and festive mood.  A perfect way to conclude our stay in Piedmont.  Piedmont will always stay in my heart as a special place to enjoy very good food and wine and friendly people.

I hope you enjoyed this post.  Have a wonderful week.  Do check out my post about Liguria soon.  I should be able to complete it in a few days.   

Gianduiotti, Confraternità della Nocciola and cakes & biscuits made with Piedmontese hazelnuts.
The barrels of Monforte Acerba vinegar and vegetable appetizers with vinegar.
La Monfortina pasta factory at Villa Beccaris
Chef Clelia preparing the local tagliorini pasta. 
Chef Clelia's preparation of the veal tartare.
Chef Clelia's preparation of the bonèt, a typical Piedmontese dessert.

Links to keep in mind:
Borsa Internazionale del Turismo Enogastronomico (BITEG)
Tourism of the Territories of Alba, Bra, Langhe & Roero
Ristorante La Piola
Truffle Hunting and B&B at Tra Arte e Querce 
Confraternita della Nocciola
Hazelnut Exhibition and Local Alta Langa Products Authority
Gianduiotti of Guido Castagna 
Nougat & Chocolates of D. Barbero 1883 
Briccodolce Artisan Biscuit Factory
Barathier, Genepi & Serpoul Liqueurs of Bernard Elixir
Hotel Villa Beccaris
Slow Food
Giolito Cheese 
Slow Food Cheese 2013 
La Strada di Barolo (Barolo Wine Route)
Typical Products of the Province of Cuneo, Piedmont
Tourism of the City of Bra  
Antica Dispensa Pasta, Vinegar & Biscuits 
Salsiccia di Bra (Sausage of Bra)
Azienda Agricola Rivetto I Grandi Vini di Lirano (Wine Estate and Holiday Farm)
Pecchenino Lorenzo Organic Farm (Wine Estate and Holiday Farm)
Piemonte Italia (A good site for Piedmontese Tourism Needs)