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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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