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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.

The usual New Year’s Eve dilemma … what to do!

December 26, 2011 1 comment

Left your New Year’s preparation plans till the last minute again? Paid an arm and a leg for a New Year’s celebration weekend abroad last year in a hotel that didn’t match your expectations and your budget? Bored of ‘to-ing’ and ‘fro-ing’ between friends’ house parties every New Year’s Eve?

Probably you thought about sweeping your special one away – or being swept away – for a cosy weekend in an exotic location or vibrant city. Or maybe you’re just one of those people who hates New Year’s Eve and all the fuss it brings and have resigned yourself to sitting on the sofa watching the celebrations on TV. If you’re a frequent business traveler, probably the thought of a stiff set menu in a decorated conference room at a hotel reminds you just a bit too much of that December office party or a formal business event. But you’re in a bit of dilemma. You don’t want to go away and you don’t want to sit home or go to a house party. And you don’t want to cook or hang out with a bunch of strangers. Maybe you’re in the mood for getting dressed up and spending but looking for that something special to splash out on.

Almost every hotel and top-notch restaurant offers a ‘special’ New Year’s Eve menu … ‘special’ in so far that they can justify a pretty steep set price because it is New Year’s Eve and because their staff have to sweat hard indoors instead of joining in the celebrations outside. Last week I struggled looking for a suitable New Year’s Eve dinner venue for myself and my husband. And that’s quite a bit of research as they are umpteen restaurants and hotels in Malta to choose from. Many menus looked great, some were new places I hadn’t been to and were on my “to see” list … but in the end, we settled on an ‘old’ favorite which holds special memories for us as it is where we got engaged, where the food and service is always good, and where we have spent many lovely evenings together – Grill 3301 at the Corinthia in St. George’s Bay, Malta.

Interior of Grill 3301: romantic atmosphere and stunning views.

My rationale: Why risk paying the same price somewhere else when you know what you’re getting. The menu at Grill 3301 with its focus on fresh and seasonal ingredients sucked us in like a magnet, combined with its large glass windows with panoramic sea views and professional service. The seven-course menu together with drinks for two people will set us back around EUR 180 – less than the price of a night in a good hotel in London for New Year’s Eve or a flight within Europe for one person. It’s not cheap but for a pleasant, hassle-free evening, it’s a good investment! I’m a sucker for the Grill’s beef steaks which are served on iron plates and accompanied with little saucepans for the side orders and a ‘soup ladle’ for your choice of sauce. There’s just about everything from the Kobe beef steak which will set you back around EUR 60 or, if your budget doesn’t stretch that far, there are simple pasta dishes for around EUR 10. Unfortunately, if you want to try their a la carte menu, you’ll have to go back another time because they have a seven-course set menu for New Year’s Eve, but one which is already making my mouth water.

“If you’re looking for a romantic dinner with exquisite food and unique atmosphere … and to give yourself and your loved ones a special treat for New Year’s Eve, come and celebrate with us,” says Antoine Zammit, restaurant manager, who’s going to be ringing in his fourth new year at Grill 3301.

New Years’ Eve at The Grill 3301 kicks off at 8 pm with a cauliflower puree served with mushroom salad and truffle oil. Next up is a seafood mélange with an interesting combination of limoncello jelly and caviar dressing, followed by wild mushroom risotto with grilled quail. For your main course, it’s going to be a tough choice between the Scottish Aberdeen Angus beef fillet or the red snapper/grouper plate. And, if you have a sweet tooth, you’ll be in heaven when you see there is a pre-dessert teaser, before the real dessert, which is not just one but an assortment of three – coconut cheese cake, passion fruit mousse and mango ice cream. All topped off with coffee and petits fours.

That’s bound to bring us up to midnight by which time, we’ll either be ready to hit the sack or jump on our scooter to finish off the night with a bottle of champagne on the bastions of Valletta, before hopping into bed and waking up in 2012.

More information on New Year’s Eve at Grill 3301, click here.

More than just rabbits and rocks

April 28, 2010 2 comments

Seafood Towers, local Maltese wines, restaurants carved into rocks, English breakfasts and steaks for 60 Euros – just some of my gourmet adventures on a recent trip to Malta, renowned for its rabbit stews, rocky cliffs and British colonial history.

Well, during a recent vacation in Malta, aside from enjoying an English breakfast or two, some touristy pasta and pizza joints, I found some cozy local restaurants in Malta and enjoyed some great meals with first-class service.

Secluded and romantic

View of the Lupanara wine bistro

The first is a real hidden gem – and when I say hidden, I mean hidden as it’s literally carved into a wall of rock without any sign of a name or menu hanging outside. The only giveaway is a few scattered tables and lounge seats perched on the quayside. To find it, you pass the Birgu waterfront’s marina on the left hand side and the Vittoriosa casino on the right hand side before you reach what seems to be a dead (and dimly lit) end of the street. But venture around the corner and walk around the water’s edge to the other side and you’ll discover the Lupanara (www.lupanarabistro.com) wine bistro. I liked it so much that I’ve been back several times – with friends for a cheese platter and bottle of wine and once for a romantic dinner with my fiancé.

The cuisine at Lupanara is a mix of everything from seafood dishes to cheese and ham platters – modern European food with a local flair – and with a great selection of local and international wines. It’s a classy but understated place where you hear nothing but the quiet murmur of voices around you and the occasional lapping of water, with the rocks illuminated as a backdrop behind you. Prices are very fair – a bottle of wine, two coffees and two main courses will set you back just EUR 46.

Steaks and seafood towers
If you’re after a decent steak or an assortment of seafood, check out the newly opened Grill 3301  at the Corinthia Beach Resort in St. George’s Bay. There’s a pretty nice view over St. George’s Bay and the Dragonara Casino – regardless of whether you are a sun-starved tourist who wants to sit on the rooftop to soak up al-fresco dining or if, like the locals, you prefer to sit indoors in air-conditioning (which might leave you stepping outdoors to warm up!!). No matter where you sit, you’re guaranteed a view!  

Tucking in to the Seafood Tower at Grill 3301

And then there’s Grill 3301’s house speciality, the Seafood Tower – a three tiered mountain of seafood where you’ll have to get off your chair to see what’s on the top. On the bottom there are clams, langoustines, mussels; on the second layer you’ll find shrimps, swordfish carpaccio, octopus and on the top lobsters. It’s perfect as a shared starter or main course and with some champagne. 

Then comes the tough decision of choosing a main course; unless you are like one member of our group who only eats chicken, then your choice is narrowed to the corn-fed chicken. But if you have your eye on a steak, it’ll take a while to decide if you want rib-eye Kobe beef, a fillet of grass-fed Aberdeen Angus, or, what I opted for – the porterhouse 600g Charolais steak. If you think selecting your meat is the toughest choice, then you have to choose between Madagascar peppercorn, organic mustard or Stilton cream sauces which come served in a cute little saucepan with a miniature soup ladle. If you’re neither a steak, seafood nor chicken lover, then there’s plenty of pasta and risotto dishes. As a crème brulée fanatic, I savoured every mouthful of my dessert, finishing up with a coffee and Baileys.

Dinner here can be pricey – a steak can set you back anything between EUR 19 and 60 – but in today’s recession-hit climate, Grill 3301 has been smart enough to also cater for those on a smaller budget. The pasta and risotto dishes start from EUR 8.50; and there are set menus including starter, main course, desert and coffee for around EUR 30 per person all in. This means it pretty much covers everything from a business dinner to a romantic meal to a group get-together … and with impeccable service.  

When in Malta, do as the locals do
If you head further south in Malta, La Favorita in Marsaskala offers great seafood in a relaxed unpretentious atmosphere and is popular with locals. Other locals recommend the waterfront seafood restaurants in Malta’s main fishing village, Marsaxlokk.

So, after a great vacation, my conclusion is that if you are ever in Malta, don’t be put off on your first day by the McDonalds and pizza signs and “so so” pasta dishes in the touristic haunts. Like anywhere, there are plenty of great restaurants around, just be a bit adventurous and get off the beaten tourist track. If you don’t have any locals to ask for advice, check out the survey-based guide called The Definitive(ly) Good Guide to Restaurants in Malta & Gozo which lists the top 150 survey based restaurants in Malta & Gozo.  

 

 

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