A couple of years ago I lived in Piemonte (Piedmont), Italy, at the foot of the mountains and on top of all my dreams. I worked for a wine company and lived the true vita Italiana. With my kitchen windows that opened out onto miles and miles of lush green vines, I intertwined myself between stunning scenery, a heap of hedonistic gastronomy, and an inevitable amorous liaison. Imaginably so, it was an utterly enigmatic esperienza.
The region itself is best known for the international Fiera del Tartufo Bianco: The White Truffle Fair. Each October, as autumn develops into all its colourful splendour, the small, red-brick, medieval town of Alba in Italy gears up for truffle fanatics from the world over. This, dear gastronomes, is the king of all ingredients, condiments and flavourings. A rare gem (hunted by dedicated truffai or ‘truffle snufflers’), they are the epitome of culinary chic and every ingredient’s idol. The more commonly found black truffles pale into ironic insignificance when greeted by their more robust cousin, the white Tuber magnatum. These mushroom-like specimens fetch some incredible prices – world records have reached upwards of £60,000, meaning that even just a few shavings can suddenly turn the most basic of food into haute cuisine. Take Gordon Ramsay’s infamous £100 truffle-topped pizza as a notable example.
The region’s cuisine is reason alone to come to Piemonte. Delectable dinners, long and languid lunches, quintessential cappu-croissant breakfasts, and of course the highly civilised early evening aperitivo mark Piemonte firmly on every food fanatic’s map. Key local dishes include carne cruda – think steak tartare drizzled with lemon juice, salt, pepper, and a hint of truffle shavings; deliciously cooked tajarin – a thin spaghetti-type pasta, served with a smattering of butter and sage; pumpkin ravioli, stuffed roasted peppers, rabbit terrine, braised beef or veal and rosemary roast potatoes drunk with a rich red wine jus…I could go on. Yet don’t let me lull you into thinking that this heaven is singularly savoury, oh no. Try the budin – a Piemontese delicious chocolate spongy, mousse-like piece of mouth-watering rapture.
Slow Food has its world headquarters based just outside of Alba, which comes as no surprise to a region so replete with gastronomic goodness. Join in the cheese fest held every other year in nearby Bra but, if for nothing else, you must come for the wine. Oh, the wine! This, above all else, is my personal favourite reason for visiting the area. Bedecked with tight terraces of vines, nestled neatly at every angle over the Langhe Hills, Piemonte is truly a wine lover’s paradise and its food would be nothing without the unparalleled grape juice. Home to over 45 different DOC wines, frequent wine fairs boast and host some of the biggest names in the wine world: Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera and Dolcetto – not to mention the white grape Cortese that goes into producing the rather esteemed Gavi di Gavi. The noblest grape of them all is Nebbiolo which goes into making Barolo – King of Wines and Wine of Kings. And the Nebbiolo grapes grown just outside of the tightly classified Barolo zones also produce equally satisfying tipples that’ll wow even the fussiest of palates.
There are some incredible local agriturismi to stay in – think rustic farmhouse meets boutique hotel, all of which will usually offer some sort of truffle-themed delectable menu. The landscape is enchanting – particularly in late autumn when early morning mist drapes itself over the vines like a blanket of snow. Castles and stately homes dot the horizon, along with the bell towers that you’ll find in every Italian town and village. Alba itself is, other than pumped full of chic wine shops, a haven for equally sophisticated clothes boutiques. You’ll find Missoni, countless leather shoe and boots shops, and reams of beautiful people all parading their purchases.
Favourite venues of mine include:
Il Vincafé (Via Vittorio Emanuele, 12, 12051 Alba. Tel: +39 (0)173 36 460): Perfect for breakfast, an aperitivo or a light supper. Set along the main pedestrian street, this place is marvellous for people watching over a glass of chilled Prosecco.
La Tagliata (Via IV Novembre, 45, 12060 Grinzane Cavour. Tel: +39 (0)173 262 692): A carnivore’s heaven. La Tagliata literally means ‘a cut of meat’, and here you’ll have the opportunity to taste all kinds. Pass the Castello di Grinzane Cavour and take a left turn down into the vines; this is a stunning location for some equally dazzling food and wine.
Trattoria del Bivio (Località Cavallotti, 9, 12050 Bivio Albaretto Torre – Cerretto Langhe (Cuneo). Tel: +39 (0)173 520 383): Set up in the Alta Langhe, this trattoria is upmarket yet still exudes its original rustic charm. Try the tasting menu and accompany it with some superb locally-produced wine. Arrive before sunset to marvel at the sweeping views that open out over the valleys below.