Piedmontese food: once tasted never forgotten

February 11, 2014 Leave a comment

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The food from Piedmont is all about fresh seasonal produce and a diverse range of dishes delighting everyone from vegetarians to meat-lovers.

 

Surrounded by the Alps and with the mighty Po river running through it, Piedmontese cuisine has been heavily influenced by its mountainous landscape, proximity to France and Switzerland and the diverse tribes that have inhabited this region through the centuries. Often overshadowed by other parts of Italy, Piedmont is not only a mecca for the exotic white truffle and world-class wines like Barolo and Asti, it’s also the home of Nutella, the world’s favorite chocolate spread, Lavazza coffee and Martini.

Piedmont (Piemonte in Italian) is the second largest region in Italy; in Italian, its name means ‘at the foot of the mountain’. Surrounded on three sides by the Alps, over half of this region is mountainous or hilly, with the exception of the fertile agricultural plains along the river Po, one of Italy’s largest rivers.

This north-western Italian region was originally inhabited by Celtic tribes who were driven out by the Romans. When Hannibal destroyed the Celtic capital, Taurasia, the Romans rebuilt it in the same location; today this city is Turin, the capital of Piedmont. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Piedmont was invaded several times and was occupied the French family of Savoy on and off until the unification of Italy in 1859-1861. 

Even though the region is home to some of Italy’s largest companies – think global brands like Martini, Lavazza, Ferrero and FIAT – and is the heart of the Italian automotive industry, Piedmont is an important agricultural and wine growing region in Italy. Often in the shadow of popular regions like Tuscany, this understated region is fast becoming recognized – both within Italy and abroad – as one of the country’s most interesting gourmet experiences.

Fresh seasonal food
Without a doubt it is Piedmont’s hilly terrain, its climate with four distinctive seasons and proximity to Switzerland and France which are reflected in Piedmontese cuisine. Many say that autumn is the best time to visit – that’s when some of the best-loved ingredients for its regional dishes – an array of mushrooms, root vegetables, nuts, truffles and grapes are gathered. The beauty of this region’s cuisine is that, because the dishes are seasonal, you can try out different delights at different times of the year. That just about sums up the Piedmontese kitchen:  it’s all about fresh locally sourced ingredients, quality and variety.

So what can you expect to eat in Piedmont? Often on the menu you’ll find agnolotti (pasta with a roast beef and vegetable stuffing), panissa (a risotto-like dish made from beans, onion, Barbera wine, lard and salami) and bagna cauda (a sauce of garlic, anchovies, olive oil and butter). When it comes to meat, you’ll see plenty of beef on the menu in the shape of carpaccio, brasato al vino (a stew made from wine and marinated beef) and boiled beef dishes.

Risotto dishes are also popular, hence, the rice fields along the Po river valley in Novara and Vercelli.

Another favorite is the semi-hard cow’s-milk Castelmagno cheese often used in fondues or served with pasta, polenta, grilled vegetables or raw beef. It’s also popular with honey dribbled over it. And, then there are the famous Piedmontese chestnuts and hazelnuts (after all the region is where the popular chocolate spread Nutella comes from), not to mention the seasonal fruits which are served up in heaps of creative ways.

A typical dinner in the Piedmont region starts with antipasti which includes anchovies, salami, vitello tonnato (veal with tuna fish sauce), raw cured meats and bagna cauda. Next up is the prima piatti – normally pasta, soup or risotto. The secondi is meat, fish or seasonal vegetables; veal, beef, lamb, pork, chicken and wild boar are popular. Desserts are often ‘chocolatey’ or with hazel nuts, fresh fruits or gelato (ice cream).

Italy’s white diamond
Without a doubt, the region’s crown jewel is ‘Italy’s white diamond’ – the elusive white truffle from Alba – a kilo which can sell for up to EUR 10,000. Every autumn, around midnight, when the smell is strongest, truffle pigs and dogs snuffle around searching under the soil for this prized funghi which lurks amongst the roots of certain trees. Pigs – especially sows – are naturally drawn to a compound within truffles which smells like a pheromone produced by boars. Famed for its sensual aroma and flavour, the Alba white truffle makes the more common – and much cheaper – black truffle pale into insignificance. If you’re a truffle-lover, you’ll probably want to pencil the annual White Truffle Festival in Alba into your calendar. 

Wines fit for a king
If we move on to wines, there’s no shortage of world-class names on the local wine list. The most famous wines are the Barolo, Barbera and Barbaresco produced from the Nebbiolo grape – its name comes from the Italian word nebbia meaning ‘fog’, a reference to the heavy morning fog and related humidity that blankets this region in September – and then there are the sparkling wines from Asti and Franciacorta. In Piedmont, it’s not about mass industrial-produced wines, many of the wines come from small family estates.

And, on the subject of alcohol, vermouth was first created by Benedetto Carpano in his wine shop near the Turin Stock Exchange. Martini is still based in Turin today.

A bit closer to home
If you don’t have the time – or the budget – to splash out on a trip to Piedmont, the good news is that you don’t need to venture too far from home to get a taste of it. In Malta alone there have been several Piedmontese-themed evenings in recent months. One was conjured up at the Grill 3301 at the Corinthia Hotel St. George’s Bay in January by Maltese chef Kevin Arpa, a huge fan of Italian cooking.

On January 31, for almost 100 guests, he prepared zuppa del contadino – an Italian peasant-style soup with vegetables, cabbage, beans and cheese accompanied, followed by a mouth-watering risotto of Barbera wine and black truffle, a prune sorbet, braised veal osso buco with parsley, garlic and lemon gremolata and wrapping up with a dessert of poached pears in moscato wine with ice cream and macaroons from Gavi. Each course was accompanied by a Braida wine to draw out the true flavours of the food. Leaving Grill 3301– and combined with my previous visits to Turin, Valle d’Aosta and Franciacorta, and being a fan of chestnuts, truffle and Barolo, I feel like I’ve just touched the tip of the iceberg of this region’s amazing food culture.

Don’t miss:
Explore the culinary delights of Tuscany at “The Tuscany Evening” at Grill 3301: March 14, 2014

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Chef Kevin Arpa serves up braised veal osso buco with parsley, garlic and lemon gremolata at the Grill 3301 in St. George’s Bay, Malta.

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Each course during the themed Piedmont evening at the Grill 3301 was accompanied with a wine from the small Braida vineyard in Piedmont.

Discovering the French-Swiss Alps

February 6, 2014 Leave a comment
The Portes du Soleil ski area is also home to the Chavanette or the Swiss Wall, a one-kilometre ‘orange’ (more difficult than black) ski run with a vertical drop of 331 metres starting at 2,151 metres above sea level.

The Portes du Soleil ski area is also home to the Chavanette or the Swiss Wall, a one-kilometre ‘orange’ (more difficult than black) ski run with a vertical drop of 331 metres starting at 2,151 metres above sea level.

This area of the French-Swiss Alps, was once undiscovered. Today, it’s part of the massive Portes du Soleil skiing area, which combines parts of France and Switzerland and, yes, like its name suggests, it’s sunny.

Click here to read the full article published in the Sunday Times, February 9, 2014.

Berlin: the European chameleon

January 21, 2014 Leave a comment
The Berlin skyline from the InterContinental Hotel. Photo: Thomas Volz

The Berlin skyline from the InterContinental Hotel.

Berlin has something for everyone. From its sophisticated cocktail bars for the urban elite and edgy bohemian hangouts for artists to attractions for the young and old and everything in between, you’ll never get bored. Even if you’ve been there ten times, there’s always a new exhibition in town, a new museum or monument just opened, or scores of new trendy restaurants and bars to discover. The beauty of Berlin is that it’s still affordable compared to other European capitals like Paris or London.

I worked in Berlin in 2000 when the Potsdamer Platz was still a pile of rubble dotted with construction cranes and I have returned six times since then. Even though the general cityscape remains the same, I never tire of rediscovering the city. I’ve stayed in several hotels in different parts of the city, but my favorite is my ‘old home’ the InterContinental at the Tiergarten where I spent two months overlooking the zoo’s elephant house. It’s perfectly located in the heart of the city, a stone’s throw from the Kurfürstendamm (aka Ku’damm) shopping street in a green belt (the Tiergarten) close to the embassy quarter and German Parliament (Reichstag). If your room is on one of the upper floors, you can see as far as the TV Tower at Alexander Platz and the Sony Center at Potsdamer Platz. But, while the hotel still is as familiar as ever to me when I walk through the door, it’s good to see that time has not stood completely still – the rooms have been completely renovated as has the pool and top floor restaurant.

The "Party Mile" with the Brandenburg Gate in the background. Photo: Thomas Volz

The “Party Mile” with the Brandenburg Gate in the background.

Traces of Berlin’s military history still loom; this piece of equipment is filled with Gluhwein (hot mulled wine). /caption]

This time, I decided to celebrate New Year’s Eve in Berlin, under the Brandenburg Gate, along with over a million other visitors and locals. Berlin’s Street Party – held along a two-kilometer stretch from the Brandenburg Gate along the Strasse des 17. Juni to the Victory Column – is considered one of the largest New Year’s Eve Open Air events in the world. But Berlin being Berlin and embracing its love for everything that’s different, don’t expect a stiff organized German affair, it’s an international and relaxed affair. The “Party Mile” as it is called is lined with kiosks selling everything from local Berliner Currywursts (sausage with ketchup and curry powder) and beer to Glühwein. For every German sausage stand, there’s one selling Hungarian lángos, baked potatoes, vegetarian, crepes, Asian and even garlic (Knoblauch) specialities.

Once the bells have struck midnight, the skies over Berlin light up. Forget an organized to perfection firework display, it’s time for all the locals to let their crackers off too. For every perfect firework formation, there’ll be a splattering of adhoc crackers going off next to it. (This is the one time in the year when it’s possible to buy fireworks in the supermarkets and let them off in public places.) Tip: From the 12th or 14th floor of the InterContinental Hotel, you get a magnificent view of all the action.

[caption id="attachment_942" align="alignleft" width="297"] Multicultural Berlin is full of foreigners; it’s said to be home to the largest Turkish population outside of Turkey. caption]

This trip, I also decided to explore the Kreuzberg area, home to many of Berlin’s immigrants (the majority of which are Turkish). Formerly in West Berlin, Kreuzberg was once enclosed on three sides by the Berlin Wall. It’s always been a magnet for hippies, artists. Today it’s got more of an upmarket feel to it, but it still retains its hippy-ish roots with trendy restaurants and quirky cafes and boutiques. It’s also home to the former Templehof Airport which has now been converted into a park called the Templehofer Freiheit Park.

Wandering through the grounds of the former Templehof Airport, my mind drifts back to my first time I landed in Templehof, on a Brussels Airlines flight back in 2000, shortly before it closed. Not only did it feel like we were landing on the rooftops of the houses by the airport, the arrivals hall was more like a giant train station than an airport terminal. Then there was the single lane (not carousel) luggage belt and I can remember the struggle to lug my 30-kilo suitcase up a flight of concrete steps as there was no lift. Today, the former airport has been converted into a massive park for skateboarding, jogging, cycling and other outdoor activities. Aviation enthusiasts can still take a tour of the former airport which is steeped in history when the city was divided between East and West; the main building is considered one of the largest listed monuments in Europe. Like many of Berlin’s attractions, the airport park is achingly simple and completely unique.

Regardless of whatever’s new in Berlin, there are a few haunts that never change and are always worth going back to. I always make time for a browse around the KaDeWe, one of the largest and oldest department stores in the city, located on the retail paradise of the Ku’damm finishing off with a glass of Prosecco or coffee on its exclusive top-floor ‘food hall’.  And I never miss a lunch of grilled tiger prawns soaked in garlic at Sylt on the Ku’damm. And, nobody can leave Berlin without a Currywurst and glass of champagne from one of the street kiosks.

Sausage served street-style with a glass of champagne on the side. That pretty much sums up Berlin and the Berliners attitude to life: full of surprises and a laid-back coolness and individuality that you won’t find in many other European cities.

[caption id="attachment_943" align="aligncenter" width="595"] Berlin’s New Year’s Eve (Silvester) party is one of the world’s largest open air new year celebrations.

On top of the world

January 13, 2014 Leave a comment

The only way to Hotel Plein Ciel in winter is via cable car and then through the snow on foot or by ski.

The only way to Hotel Plein Ciel in winter is via cable car and then through the snow on foot or by ski.

Perched high up at 1,800 meters in the Chablais Alps, lounging on a deck chair soaking up the sun’s rays with 360-degree panoramic views of the Dents du Midi (Teeth of the South) and Dents Blanches (White Teeth), it’s easy to understand why Hitler built his Eagle’s Nest high in the peaks above Berchtesgaden, Germany, and why Bavaria’s ‘mad’ König Ludwig had ambitious plans to build his last residence at Falkenstein.

In the Alps it’s all about the feeling of being on top of the world and far away from cellphones, wifi and civilization. I feel completely removed from the outside world bar the occasional jet stream overhead reminding me that I’m just a stone’s throw away from Geneva’s international airport as the crow flies. Besides the occasional jet engine, there’s little sound apart from the circles of ravens and the odd eagle gliding effortlessly above and the dim sound of a ski lift and a whish of skis. The only way for humans to get here in winter is by cable car from Champéry.

The former cable car station is now the Hotel Plein Ciel, perched on an 1,800-meter-high mountain top overlooking the town of Champéry.

The former cable car station is now the Hotel Plein Ciel, perched on an 1,800-meter-high mountain top overlooking the town of Champéry.

Looking at the old cable car perched on the mountain top outside the Hotel Plein Ciel at Planachaux, 1,924 meters high in the French part of the Swiss Alps, it’s a reminder that getting to the top wasn’t always as easy as today with the super-modern cable car that can carry 125 passengers up in just six minutes. This area of the French Swiss Alps, bordering France, was once undiscovered. Today, it’s part of the massive Portes du Soleil skiing area which combines parts of France and Switzerland and, yes, like its name suggests it’s sunny. This is also home to the Chavanette or the Swiss Wall, a one-kilometer ‘orange’ (more difficult than black) ski run with a vertical drop of 331 meters starting at 2,151 meters above sea level.
The Hotel Plein Ciel is a gem of a find. Many chalets and hotels in the Alps claim to be perched on mountain tops but when you arrive turn out to be in a village with the mountains as a backdrop. This place actually lives up to its website promises.

To get there is a bit of confusion (we are in the French part of Switzerland after all where ‘la confusion’ from its bigger neighbor seems to have flowed across the border!) but once you’ve discovered where to park your car, leave your luggage and rent your skis you can settle down and enjoy a magnificent trip by cable car up the mountain. What makes this place feel like a real adventure is that you can only reach it by cable car and after 5 pm the hotel is completely inaccessible in winter. So, once you’re there for the night, there’s no chance to leave. When you disembark from the cable car, you can either brave the 15-minute trek on foot down to the hotel (as you soak up the views, the chances of slipping are quite high!) or ski your way down in just five minutes.

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Stunning 360-degree views of the Dents du Midi and the Dents Blanches in the French Swiss Alps.

The hotel itself is super-cozy and homely with spectacular views and friendly staff who lend an informal relaxed vibe to the place. In the dining room, there’s a fireplace to gather around and make new friends and plenty of reading material (only in French), board games and a billiards table. If you’ve been out on the slopes all day, you can warm up in the sauna before dinner which is a very laid-back affair. It’s a good idea to take the half-board package which includes a set three-course menu. On the evening we stayed there was tartare of smoked omble chevalier (a local ‘noble’ fish from Lake Geneva), duck and a delicious lemon tart. If you don’t eat anything on the menu, the chef will offer you an alternative. During the day, try Marcel’s cheese fondue or a planchette (wooden board with cheese or meat) on the spectacular rooftop wooden terrace to soak up the mountain views and sun. It’ll be hard to drag yourself back to the ski slopes.

All in all, Hotel Plein Ciel is the perfect get-away-from-it-all weekend escape in the French Swiss Alps, for skiers and non-skiers alike.

In the area:

Les Bains du Val-d’Illiez: large indoor and outdoor thermal bath fed by three springs which are rich in sulphur, calcium and magnesium set in the valley below Champéry and surrounded by the mountains.
Portes du Soleil ski area: covers 12 resorts in Champéry and Les Crosets in Switzerland and Morgins and Champoussin in France.
To get to Hotel Plein Ciel and Planachaux: Access via the cable car to Planachaux at Champéry which is approx one hour from Geneva.

Ireland’s ‘mysterious’ northwest corner

November 20, 2013 Leave a comment
County Donegal covers over 4,000-square kilometers, making it one of Ireland’s largest – and most under-populated - areas, with a population of just over 160,000.

County Donegal covers over 4,000-square kilometers, making it one of Ireland’s largest – and most under-populated – areas, with a population of just over 160,000.

Done the famous tourist route along the west coast of Ireland? And the city break in Dublin? Liked it? Curious to see an ‘undiscovered’ part of the ‘Emerald Isle’? Well, if it is rugged wilderness, deep (and melancholic) history and Irish traditions you are after, head for County Donegal – Ireland’s often ‘forgotten’ county.

Click here to read the full article published in The Sunday Times, November 10, 2013.

For more tips on Donegal and accommodation, click here.

Two of Donegal’s best chill-out spots

November 4, 2013 1 comment

County Donegal – in the northwest of Ireland – was formerly known as Ireland’s ‘forgotten county’. Even though it’s becoming a more popular destination, there’s still not much choice when it comes to accommodation. Here are two of the best bases from which to explore this remote and spectacular part of Ireland.

Base 1: Southern Donegal

Lough Eske Castle, Donegal's only five-star hotel sits on 43 acres of woodland with the Blue Stack mountains in the background.

Lough Eske Castle, Donegal’s only five-star hotel sits on 43 acres of woodland with the Blue Stack mountains in the background.

The only five-star hotel in Donegal, Lough Eske Castle outside Donegal Town, combines an antique ambiance with all mod cons; its stunning location and top service have earned it a place in the World’s Best Luxury Country Hotels.

The castle is owned by Pat Doherty – a local Donegal man who purchased the castle ruins in 2007 and spent EUR 40 million restoring it to its former glory – and run by US-based Solis Hotels. Driving up the winding entrance to the castle, it’s hard to believe that, in 2006, the hotel was just a ruin with trees growing through the walls.

Lough Eske Castle is perched close to the shores of Lough Eske – which is not a particularly well-known lake in Ireland but is one of the few places where you can fish for arctic char.

“If you’re lucky enough to make a catch, the hotel’s chef will smoke it for you and you can eat it the next day,” says Mark Knox, Sales Coordinator.

For active visitors, there are plenty of hillwalking trails around the hotel in the Blue Stack mountains and 12 golf courses within a one-hour drive. The famous Slieve League sea cliffs, pretty Donegal Town, dolphin safaris are all within an hour drive.

After a long hike, fishing trip or sightseeing, unwind by the fireplace with an Irish whiskey.

After a long hike, fishing trip or sightseeing, unwind by the fireplace with an Irish whiskey.

To wind down and warm up from the crisp Donegal weather, enjoy the spa with its Ogra products made from peat which has body preserving qualities. Or savour a Connemara peat-smoked whiskey beside the fireplace in one of the castle’s cozy living rooms. Or, enjoy the sumptuous afternoon tea as it were in the old days.

Lough Eske Castle opened at the peak of the Irish recession but according to Knox, business is going up. “Donegal traditionally didn’t get many tourists but this is starting to change, now people are coming again.”

So what makes Lough Eske Castle stand out from any other Irish castle hotel experience? Without a question, it’s the friendliness and professionalism of the staff which is trained to ‘Serve from the heart’

Base 2: Northern Donegal

Once you have discovered the sights of southern Donegal County, it’s time to head to the most northerly part of Ireland.

The cozy family-run Rathmullan House on the shores of Lough Swilly.

The cozy family-run Rathmullan House on the shores of Lough Swilly.

On the banks of Lough Swilly, you’ll find Rathmullan House, a family-run country-style house with landscaped lawns, old world charm and direct access to a long sandy beach.

The property was built in 1820 as a summer residence for Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Knox but was later purchased by a wealthy banking family from Belfast. The current owners – the Wheeler family – bought it in 1962.

Now, your first impression – like ours – might be of disappointment when you step foot inside as the furnishings and décor have not changed much in the past forty years so don’t expect modern or designer-style perfectionism despite the quite pricey room rates. Instead, it’s all about slightly worn wallpaper, antique furniture and creaky floorboards.

However, once you have admired the landscaped lawns, the sun setting over the long golden beach, and enjoyed chatting on a sofa by the fireplace with your fellow guests over a nightcap, you’ll feel the stress lifting and your mood changing.

We met two lovely elderly ladies from Dublin – Maureen and Rosaleen – who have been coming to Rathmullan House every year for the past 25 years since their husbands passed away. They were thrilled to share their memories and give us tips on the local art galleries and sights.

The beauty of Rathmullan House is that time stands still and you can reconnect with yourself and your fellow guests. The location is a fantastic base to explore attractions like the Fanad Head, Glenveagh National Park and Derry City.

After four nights spent enjoying the beach, swimming pool, good massages and tennis court, and exploring the vicinity with long chats in the evening about our adventures, we were ready to venture back into our hectic ‘9-5’ world again.

The Slieve League cliffs in southwestern Donegal are amongst the most spectacular sea cliffs in Europe.

The Slieve League cliffs in southwestern Donegal are amongst the most spectacular sea cliffs in Europe.

Conquer your fear of flying

November 4, 2013 Leave a comment
Fear of flying courses, hynotherapy, red wine and Rescue Remedy are just some of the 'cures' to help anxious passengers.

Fear of flying courses, hypnotherapy, red wine and Rescue Remedy are just some of the ‘cures’ to help anxious passengers.

The doors and seatbelts are fastened. The crew is halfway through the safety demonstration. Do you get an adrenalin rush at the thought of being 10,000 metres high in less than ten minutes? Or, is your heart racing and your palms sweating at the thought of putting your life in the hands of the guys in the cockpit?

Read the full article published in The Sunday Times, October 27, 2013

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