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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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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.

Palazzo-Reale_Veronica-Rossi

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.

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