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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.

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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.

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.

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

Slinging it in Singapore

The spectacular Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore has become one of the city's landmarks. The KuDeTa bar at the top is one of the best places to enjoy dizzying views and a Singapore Sling.

The spectacular Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore has become one of the city’s landmarks. The KuDeTa bar at the top is one of the best places to enjoy dizzying views and a Singapore Sling.

Clinging to the southern tip of the Malaysian peninsula, the island nation of Singapore is probably most famous for its signature cocktail – the Singapore Sling.

It is also where passengers stop over to stretch their legs on the ‘Kangaroo Route’ flight between Europe and Australia. And the name Singapore (a.k.a The Lion City) conjures up images of towering skyscrapers and an ultra-modern city.

Read the full article by Alannah Eames, published in The Sunday Times, May 12, 2013.

 

The charm of Italy’s powerhouse

February 6, 2013 Leave a comment
Panorama of Turin: piazzas and historic buildings lie against the backdrop of the Alps.

Panorama of Turin: piazzas and historic buildings lie against the backdrop of the Alps.

Home to one of Italy’s most popular football clubs, host of the 2006 Winter Olympics, and the headquarters of big Italian brands like Lavazza, Ferrero, Martini, Fiat, Lancia and Alfa Romeo, the North Italian city of Turin is surprisingly down-to-earth with a friendly laid-back charm and vibe.

If you’re thinking of a city break to Italy, you’ll probably consider Milan or Rome before Turin (Torino) would spring to mind. Yet, this North Italian city, tucked into the base of the Alps, is well worth a visit, at any time of the year.

Beating the winter blues
It’s January and the trees are bare; the locals – people and dogs alike – are stuffed into thick winter jackets, and everyone’s knocking back espresso shots or enjoying a hearty Piedmontese dish with friends or family. Fiat 500s are parked everywhere, even across zebra crossings. On the horizon loom the Italian Alps.
The first thing you’ll notice approaching Turin is that it’s not as flashy, brash, expensive or fast-paced as Milan; and nowhere near as touristic as Rome. The architecture’s also different. It’s a pot-pourri of baroque, rococo, neo-classical and Art Nouveau buildings with plenty of piazzas and monuments bearing witness to the city’s rich aristocratic heritage thrown in for good measure.

The Taurini, an ancient Celto-Ligurian Alpine people, were the first residents of this strategic city. Located on the River Po, in the region of Piedmont, Turin was under Roman and Charlemagne rule before Emmanuel Philibert (aka Iron Head) made it the seat of the Duchy of Savoy in 1563. Turin was part of the French Empire for several years and, when Italy was reunified, became its first capital city from 1861 until 1865 when the capital was moved to Florence and then to Rome. During the industrialisation epoch, Turin grew rapidly, before the impact and aftermath of two world wars put the brakes on its development. It was heavily bombed during the Second World War as its automotive industry was churning out defense vehicles instead of passenger cars. After the war, the city and its automotive industry were rebuilt and, today, Turin forms part of Italy’s most important industrial triangle which covers Milan, Turin and Genoa; its population has grown to around two million, half of which live within the city limits.

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With all its piazzas, Turin can give the likes of Rome and Milan a run for their money.

Like other Italian cities, Turin boasts its fair share of piazzas, each individual yet all with stunning architecture, cosy cafes and steeped in history. Piazza Vittorio Veneto is the largest baroque square in Europe and there you’ll find Porto di Savona, a local restaurant with Piedmontese specialities. Make sure you try bagna càuda, a local hot dip which is a bit like fondue but made from garlic, olive oil, anchovies and butter, spread over roasted vegetables such as peppers or artichoke, and some local dishes with chestnuts or truffle, both popular ingredients in this region. Together with the bars and clubs dotted along the River Po, the Piazza Vittorio, as the locals call it, is supposedly the mecca of Turin nightlife.

Bagna càuda, a local hot dip which is a bit like fondue but made from garlic, olive oil, anchovies and butter, spread over roasted vegetables.

Bagna càuda, a local hot dip which is a bit like fondue but made from garlic, olive oil, anchovies and butter, spread over roasted vegetables.

Breeding ground for aristocracy and great minds alike
During the days when Turin was home to the House of Savoy, Italy’s royal family, it flourished as a cultural centre, attracting many famous Italian writers, poets and thinkers. Not surprisingly, today it hosts some of Italy’s best and oldest universities; more surprising is the fact that its Museo Egizio has one of the largest collections of Egyptian artifacts outside of Cairo while the Museum of Oriental Art houses one of the most important Asian art collections in Italy. If it’s local history you’re after, check out the Royal Library, Valentino Castle, or the Palatine Towers which are among the best preserved Roman remains in northern Italy. The Mole Antonelliana, which was originally designed to be a Jewish synagogue, now houses the National Museum of Cinema, believed to be the tallest museum in the world at 167 metres; it’s also one of the most popular museums in the city. Turin is often considered the birthplace of Italian cinema; the first Italian screening took place in the city in 1896.

Hotbed for footie and wheels
Cars and football are both synonymous with Turin, often called “the Detroit of Italy” and even if you’re not a motor junkie or a football freak, you can’t miss two of the best tourist attractions in the city: the Museo dell’ Automobilia and the new Juventus stadium. (By the way, the locals tend to support Torino F.C. while Juventus is a bigger hit elsewhere in Italy.)

The Automobile Museum is housed in a stunning modern building and contains beautifully restored vintage cars (also from other European car producers), Formula One racing cars including Ferraris (of course, we’re in Italy!) and much-loved classics like the original Fiat 500 and Fiat 600. You’ll get a great insight into how cars adapted to societal and cultural developments.

It might cost EUR 18 to take a tour of the Juventus Stadium and Museum, but this state-of-the-art stadium which opened in 2011 is worth every penny of it. So, if there are no live matches playing during your visit, at least take the tour to capture some Italian football fever.

Turin is Italy's chocolate paradise: home to chocoholic giants like Ferrero.

Turin is Italy’s chocolate paradise: home to chocoholic giants like Ferrero.

And, if you are a chocoholic, don’t miss the CioccolaTò, a two-week chocolate festival in March run by some of the large Piedmontese chocolate producers like Caffarel, Streglio and Venchi. After overdosing on chocolate, head into the Alps, less than an hour away for some hiking or skiing, depending on the season.
So, don’t brush Turin off as an industrial powerhouse, far off the beaten tourist track. Yes, it’s one of Italy’s most important economic centres, home to some of the country’s best known companies, but, trust me, 48 hours in Turin in January is not enough, I’m heading back in the spring for another heady dose of Piedmontese culture and cuisine. It’s a city which is relatively good value for money, where locals are friendly and welcoming to tourists and which still somehow seems slightly ‘undiscovered’.

Not to be missed

Historical tram 7: ride an 8-km, one-hour circuit around the city in this vintage tram. There’s no commentary but during the EUR 1.50 ride you can get a taste of the city’s architecture.
Museo dell’automobile de Torino: to get to grips with Italy’s automotive history.
Juventus Stadium: discover just why this is one of Italy’s most loved football clubs.
Museo Egizio: if you’ve never made it to Cairo, this is the largest collection of Egyptian art and history outside of Egypt.
Floris House: quaint aristocratic ambiance in this store/villa/dining room on Via Cavour for afternoon tea or a late lunch
Piedmontese cuisine: mix with the locals at Porto di Savona on the Piazza Vittorio.
Italian dinner: at Ristorante Giovanni on Via Gioberti where you can enjoy regional and national cuisine served up in an intimate romantic atmosphere with great Italian hospitality.
Shaken not stirred: enjoy a martini in one of the city’s grand bars. After all, this is where the glamorous drink originated.

Wine and dine your way around Europe with Eurail

October 7, 2012 Leave a comment

Wine and dine your way around Europe from Portugal through Spain and France.

Start in Lisbon
Often called “City of the Explorers”, flanked by the Atlantic Ocean and one of the world’s most historic cities, Lisbon is the perfect gateway to Portugal. And there’s no better place than the Bairro Alto old district to sample freshly caught bacalhau (cod). Salted, smoked or grilled, it’s often said that the Portuguese can serve their favorite fish in more than 365 ways, one for each day of the year.

Seafood has been a staple of Portuguese cuisine for centuries. Often simply served with olive oil and white wine vinegar, they sometimes fire shrimp or chicken  up with spices like peri peri (small chilli peppers). Wash down fresh sardines, octopus, lobster or sea bass with delicious local wines in the lively Docas area at the Santo Amaro docks.

North to Porto
From Lisbon head north to Porto, Portugal’s second city, world-renowned for its port wine and UNESCO-protected old town. After trying out the port wine cellars on the Gaia hilltop, head downtown for a traditional dish of tripas à moda do Porto (tripe with white beans). This has been an important local dish since the 14th century when the locals had little else to eat. After a stroll along the beach in the Foz district, try Porto’s most popular ‘sandwich’ snack, a Francesinha (Frenchie).

If time permits, take the train from Porto’s old São Bento station to Pocinho which passes through the spectacular Douro Valley, complete with vineyards, tunnels and bridges. Don’t miss Régua’s old station, once the most important in the region.

Wake up in Madrid
Head back to Lisbon and hop on the overnight train to Madrid. Around ten hours later, wake up refreshed to explore the Spanish capital, as famous for its history, culture and architecture as its food. The city attracts people from all over Spain, so it’s a good place to try out Spanish dishes from the Basque, Andalusian and Galician regions. Besides its traditional meat stews, Madrid is also the place to try the popular tortilla de patatas (potato omelette). Leave some space for churros dipped in hot chocolate sauce.

Tapas in Barcelona
Two and a half hours later disembark the AVE high-speed train in the vibrant city of Barcelona. Perched between the mountains and sea, and home to Gaudi’s architectural masterpieces, Barcelona is a cultural hotbed. Get a taste of its heady nightlife and trendy restaurant scene by taking a tapas tour or visiting the city’s cava (sparkling wine) bars.

French cuisine
Trace the Mediterranean coast around to France, and you’ll come to the unpretentious town of Sète. One of the country’s major fishing ports and home to mussel and oyster fields, try local specialities like moules farcies (stuffed mussels) at one of the restaurants on the Canal Royal.

A stone’s throw from Sète lies Montpellier, fast becoming one of the most popular cities in France for visitors. Spend a day at a cooking school learning how to prepare local dishes like bouillabaisse (fish soup), washed down with some local wines.

The two-hour TGV train journey from Montpellier winds through the Rhône valley, one of France’s most famous wine-growing regions, before reaching Lyon, France’s third largest city. An old Roman city, Lyon has been put on the world cuisine map thanks to Paul Bocuse after whom the prestigious Bocuse d’Or award is named and its proximity to the Beaujolais and the Côtes du Rhône wine regions. Enjoy a hearty Lyonnais meal with delicacies like tête de veau (calf head) and andouillette (intestines) in a local bistro (bouchon) on the touristic Rue Mercière.

En route to Paris, stop off in Dijon, the heart of France’s mustard industry, and capital of the Burgundy region. Once you arrive in the French capital, grab a bottle of champagne and watch the sunset from the Sacré-Coeur hilltop.

Text Alannah Eames Published on The Local on behalf of Eurail.

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