A taste of Piedmont
From wine and ice cream to cheese and chocolate, lovers of fine food should head for Piedmont in northern Italy, says Sarah Wilson. You won’t be disappointed…
Italy’s mountainous north-west often gets overlooked as the crowds rush to more well-known areas in the south, but it is a great gourmet destination with a new gastronomical delight around every corner. The region is celebrated for its wine, cheese and meat, as well as specialities such as white truffles and arborio rice. It’s the home of risotto and there’s even a variation made with Barolo wine and Castelmagno cheese, both specialities of this area. Cinzano, Martini, grissini and porcini mushrooms are all local too. It’s also something of a chocolate capital, the birthplace of Nutella, foil-wrapped pralines and the gourmet mix of nuts and chocolate known as Gianduiotto, as well as the luscious treat bicerin – a layered drink made of chocolate, espresso and cream served in a glass. No wonder there’s a University of Gastronomic Sciences here. What’s not to like?
1. Visit medieval Saluzzo: this ancient walled city with its cobbled streets, ochre-washed buildings and sleepy piazzas makes the perfect base for day trips out exploring the region’s extensive foodie delights. Make an early start at the farmers market, which features speciality produce from the local Cuneo mountain area. Stalls are piled high with treats such as wild boar salami, freshly picked walnuts, mountain honey, fresh ricotta and handmade pasta, as well as wooden boxes of ripe and colourful fruit and vegetables. Then take breakfast at Pasticceria Testa Agostino (Via Spielberg, 65/67). This tiny cake shop has every kind of sweet-baked goods imaginable and serves the best coffee and croissants around. Don’t miss the Gothic cathedral with its ornate vaulted interior and faded frescoes if you need to walk off your breakfast (Piazza Garibaldi, 1).
2. The countryside in Piedmont is stunning. Try out the local ‘agriturismo’ at Ciabot dei Bucanevi (Via Creusa 94, Manta). Nestled in the hills outside Saluzzo, follow the track through the woods to arrive at a rustic farmhouse specialising in local food cooked the traditional way over fire and wine by the barrel (yes, on tap!). If the weather is fine, dine out beneath the stars or if there’s a chill in the air get toasty next to one of the huge roaring log fires inside. The menu changes daily according to what’s in season, but dinner always finishes with a good selection of local cheeses and a ‘digestivi’, one of the local liqueurs made of a mix of herbs, roots, barks, berries, spices, flowers and citrus peels, such as Genziana
3. Visit Turin: sample the baroque architectural delights and history of this city, once home to Savoy royalty. With its wide avenues, grand squares, and dramatic backdrop of the Alps, Turin is the star of the Piedmont show. Life follows a leisurely place here, and much of it is centred around the rituals of food and drink. The daily market at Porta Palatina, is packed with locals jostling to get the pick of the cheese, salami, wild porcini mushrooms and white truffles from the nearby town of Alba, plus the freshest fruit and vegetables possible to delight the eye. There’s a shrine to coffee on every street corner but if you fancy something more indulgent, take a glass of bicerin at Caffè Fiorio (Via Po 8, caffefiorio.it).
4. Get an aperitivo habit. Enjoy a Campari or Martini-based aperitivo such as a Negroni and feast on the array of complimentary appetisers that come as standard. A daily event from 6-9pm, start your evening at one of the ornate bars such as Caffè San Carlo, all opulent chandeliers, plush velvet and marble floors (Piazza San Carlo, 156), or with a Spritz, Aperol or otherwise, at super slick Zucca (Via Antonio Gramsci 10, barzucca.it).Wherever you decide, the appetisers (or ‘stuzzichini’ – finger food) willconsist of a spread of delights such as dainty triangles of sandwich or toast called tramezzini, tiny pizzette, plates of thinly sliced prosciutto crudo, smoked sausage, cheeses, local speciality bagna cauda (a dip served with raw vegetables), or super-garlicky tomato bruschetta.Saluti!
5. Celebrate the chocolate culture. Turin was the chocolate capital of Europe from the 18thcentury, and is rightly famous for its multitude of artisan chocolate makers selling beautiful individually wrapped pralines. Most famous are the gold ingots known as Gianduiotto, containing a lush combination of chocolate and roasted hazelnuts from the hills of the Alta Langhe, the southern region of Piedmont.
6. Visit the royal house of Savoy. The Palazzo Reale may not look impressive from the outside but has an unmissable selection of paintings, gilded wooden ceilings, rich tapestries and delicate porcelain to marvel over. It adjoins the chapel where the Holy Shroud is kept, although it seldom sees the light of day.
7. Sample the wine. One of the great wine-producing areas in Italy, Piedmont’s idyllic vineyard landscapes are magical to drive through. The most famous wines from the region are the great reds Barolo and Barbaresco, produced in the Langhe’s rolling hills. They are both made from the Nebbiolo grape. Visitors can turn up to taste the wine, often without an appointment, and will be offered platters of cheese and salami to complement the tasting. You may even get an impromptu tour of the cellars if you’re lucky. And don’t forget another of Piedmont’s famous wines of course – sweet, sparkling Asti Spumante.
Weather: Spring comes early to Piedmont so you can expect sunshine and blue skies with temperatures of 18°C from as early as late March. Temperatures rise to 30°C+ in July and cool slight to 28°C in August before going back to 18°C for September and October. Getting there: Ryanair fly from London Stansted to Turin. Flights start from £40 return, and the flight takes two hours (for more information, visit ryanair.com). It takes one and a half hours by car from Turin Airport to the Saluzzo area of Piedmont.
Where to stay: a former monastery, the quiet and elegant San Giovanni Relais overlooks the ancient Convent of St Giovanni, with views over the city of Saluzzo and beyond to the Alps. There are 13 beautifully furnished rooms, all located on the first floor of the building (Via S. Giovanni, 9, sangiovanni-relais.com, from £120 per night).
Try Piedmont cuisine in the UK at London restaurant TOZI, tozirestaurant.co.uk