As a specialist of food & wine travel to Italy as well as being Italian-born, I am often asked which is my favorite Italian region.
This question is akin to asking a mother which of her children, all with very distinct personalities and characteristics, is her favorite child. Similarly, there are 20 regions that comprise Italy, each one has its own very distinct character, culture, dialect, food and of course wine and they, just like children, are all very special in their own right!
From the far northeastern corner where one finds Friuli Venezia Giulia, to Umbria in the bulls-eye of the country and all the way to the southern-most tip of Calabria from where Sicily is visible across the Strait of Messina, the contrast could not be starker.
Certainly one could write endlessly about Italy and the characteristics of each region but through each future posting, I hope to provide a glimpse of what makes some of the Italian regions so special and why Italy is a country that one could probably never get to know fully even through repeated trips.
It seems fitting then to begin this series with my native Piemonte which for me, as I specialize in wine tours, has the added benefit of being Italy’s undisputed mecca for food & wine and fittingly, it is the region where the world-wide movement Slow Food was born and has its headquarters.
Piemonte (Piedmont) owes its name from its geographical position as it is literally at the foot of the mountains, stretching across valleys, encircled by the French, Italian and Swiss Alps.
The geographical proximity to France on its western border made Piemonte vulnerable to French cultural influence and political dominance throughout the centuries, leaving its mark to some extent in the local cuisine and the Piemontese dialect, many words of which retain their French origin.
Any serious or casual oenophile certainly recognizes Barolo and Barbaresco as the two top, world-class wines of Piemonte, both of which are vinified from the Nebbiolo grape. Another well known wine is Barbera vinified from the homonymous grape and of course Dolcetto-the Piedmontese all-purpose wine. However there are at least 20 indigenous grape varietals in Piemonte alone with names such as Ruche`, Pelaverga andArneis that have emerged as worthy of attention over the last few years.
Amazingly, Italy has at last count about 3,000 indigenous grape varietals most with names too hard to pronounce even for Italians, all of which however with very distinct characteristics as influenced by the climate and soil composition of the region or sub-region in which they are cultivated. It follows then that the food produced in each region carry traces of the same soil from which the vines are cultivated, thus the perfect pairing!
Indeed, the best way to enhance an oenogastronomic experience is to savor specialties from any region paired with the local wines. Imagine then having *peperoni con bagna cauda accompanied by a wonderful Dolcetto or tajarin with butter sauce a generous grating of white truffles followed by agnello da latte al forno con timo e maggiorana all the while sipping a luscious Barolo or cinghiale con polenta, well balanced with a great Barbaresco!
To gain a better understanding and complete overview of the local culture, a visit to any region would not be complete without a visit to its capital city which in Piemonte it is Torino (Turin), this writer’s birth city and the site of the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Torino is surrounded by a crown of snow-peaked mountains and as the first capital of Italy and the former home of the Savoy Royal Family-the last monarchs of Italy; it is a city of palaces, grand boulevards, 12 km of arcaded streets and elegant squares.
However, the reasons to go to Torino extend beyond the magnificent setting. One can look forward to outstanding museums, exquisite baroque architecture, Italy’s best contemporary art, great shopping and of course some of Italy’s best cuisine.
A mere 90 minute drive from Torino is the Langhe, as Piemonte’s main wine producing area is known, and where wine collectors the world over flock for the opportunity to visit top Barolo and Barbaresco estates such as Angelo Gaja, Bartolo Mascarello, Bruno Giacosa, Franco Massolino/Vigna Rionda, Aldo Conterno, Giacomo Conterno, Paolo Scavino and Luciano Sandrone just to name a few. I have had the great privilege to visit all these prestigious estates. Accompanied by my fellow travelers we often share meals with some of the winemakers and learn from them interesting details about the characteristics of the soil, properties of the main grape varietals, vinification processes and whatever secrets they can divulge about the art of winemaking and their own personal winemaking philosophy.
One of the most popular times to visit Piemonte is from October through the beginning of November, which, apart from the spectacular site of the vineyards in full fall foliage regalia, it is also the height of prized white truffles’ season.
As an integral part of the wine, food and cultural appreciation process, Shop Wine and Dine’s programs provide opportunities to experience life as it’s lived and savored by the Italians by incorporating local cultural events upholding centuries’ old traditions and paying homage to the wonderful local wines and food. In the case of Piemonte, the highlight of a fall tour encompasses the National Alba White Truffle Fair during which the historic center of the city of Alba is transformed into a virtual food fair. While strolling through the stands one can purchase every succulent and mouth watering, locally produced specialty such as dried porcini mushrooms, egg pasta or spreads infused with truffles, cheeses, hazelnuts and of course the prized white truffles! But what would a visit to Piemonte in the fall be without an outing with a “Trifulau”? Trifulau in the Piemontese dialect means truffle hunter and along with the aid of especially trained dogs, it is possible to take part in one of the most mysterious and revered activities of the area: hunt for the prized white truffle!
Well then, there is still time to make travel plans to Piemonte for this fall and savor all that this amazing region has to offer!
Saluti a tutti,
- Peperoni con bagna cauda: Peppers with bagna cauda dip, a typical Piedmontese fall dish prepared by slow cooking anchovies, butter and garlic then served with crudités
- Tajarin: Piedmontese word for thin, egg noodles, typically prepared with 24-36 egg yolks, usually served with butter sauce & shavings of white truffles or other sauces in other than fall season
- Agnello da latte al forno con timo e maggiorana: milk-fed lamb, baked with marjoram and thyme
- Cinghiale con polenta: wild boar stew served with corn meal
- Saluti: word whose meaning varies depending on context, in this case it means regards to all