Land of plenty: harvest time in Piedmont, Italy
Land of plenty: harvest time in Piedmont, Italy The Observer Italy holidays Land of plenty: harvest time in Piedmont, Italy
A trip to Piedmont, famous for its truffles, cheese and fine wine, is a robust test of anyoneâs appetite â" especially a vegan like our writer
If you venture out on to the cobbled streets of Acqui Terme between the hours of one and three in the afternoon, youâd be forgiven for thinking the town had been evacuated due to some dreadful contag ious disease. The Roman spa town is unnervingly still, the only sound coming from the sulphur spring that gushes out of a fountain in the piazza in little puffs of steam, exuding the faintest whiff of rotten eggs. The town folk have not been wiped out by an unprecedented bout of bubonic plague. They are, in fact, eating lunch. And lunch is not an activity the Piedmontese take lightly. Here at the foot of the Alps, where Italy kisses France and Switzerland, meal times wait for no one.
Piedmont is a province of northwest Italy that remains relatively unknown, despite a rich and important history. It played a key role in the Napoleonic wars and later in the countryâs unification, which saw Turin become Italyâs first capital city. Unlike flamboyant Venice or Florence, Piedmontâs capital Turin â" home to Fiat, Italyâs first cinema and most notably Nutella â" is known more for its industrious spirit. Nutella, one of Italyâs most beloved exports, was created accidentally by Piedmontese pastry maker Pietro Ferrero in 1946. Owing to cocoa shortages following the war, Ferrero supplemented cocoa with hazelnuts, forming a precursor to the sweet, nutty spread we know today. The Ferrero factory in Alba is notoriously secretive about its headquarters, but itâs said that the aroma of chocolate can be smelled from over a mile away. Turin and its chocolate history is worth exploring, but hire a car to uncover Piedmontâs real hidden treasures â" most of them edible.
We flew to Milan and hired a Fiat Punto , naturally, to drive to the tiny village of Cortemilia, stopping in Acqui Terme for a coffee to break up the three-hour journey. Once you get off the autostrada the hills open up into a panoply of vineyards and verdant stretches of rolling, gold-flecked countryside responsible for some of Italyâs finest wines â" Barbaresco, Barolo and Moscato dâAsti, to name a few.
Autumn is when Piedmont comes to life â" the sun is still warm and chestnut groves and pumpkin crops adorn the fields so they look like patchwork quilts of bronze and orange. Occasionally youâll pass a procession of white-truffle hunters hot on the trail of a gigantic pig snuffling the ground in search of the prized tubers.
We arrive in Cortemilia, self-styled capital of hazelnuts, and head straight to La Corte di Canobbio, a boutique hotel and purveyor of all things sweet and nutty. The place is run by Giuseppe Canobbio, a local baking celebrity who, legend has it, turned down an invitation to cook for the Queen after discovering it was a group invitation and not a one-to-one audience with Her Majesty. When we arrive, the patriarch is nowhere to be seen, but his three daughters serve us a selection of nut meringues, caramelised hazelnuts and hazelnut ice cream, with their signature moist hazelnut cake in a doggy bag for later.
Thereâs not much time to digest so, still stuffed full of nuts, we bundle back into the car and head to Osteria Del Brutto Anatroccolo, or the Ugly Duckling as it is known to English ex-pats. This local gastronomic haunt is tucked away on a side street in the village of Pezzolo Valle Uzzone, which has two post offices and not much else. It is not somewhere to come on a full stomach. Piedmontese food, heavier than in the south, is often rich with butter, cheese and meat. I recently became vegan â" not a dietary choice that goes down particularly well in these parts â" so after a few weak protestations I am coerced into eating five courses of buttery local delicacies, rounded off with a goatâs cheese platter. Veganism will have to wait until Iâm back on British soil.
Between each course we are joined by the restaurantâs owners, Carla Gallo and her husband Giovanni, the state vet. Carla is a pioneer of the slow food movement that originated in Piedmont and is now championed by the likes of Jamie Oliver and Raymond Blanc. Giovanniâs passion, however, is wine. With each course he presents us with a new bottle of full-bodied red, popping each cork with a theatrical flourish, which he follows with a good deal of gesticulating, sniffing and finally â" inevitably â" a swig from a glass. He assures us this is to check the wineâs âqualityâ, although I remain unconvinced.
Giovanni owns his own vineyard and the following day is his annual grape harvest, which he invites me to come and observe. We arrive at the crack of dawn and are immediately handed a pair of secateurs and ordered to get to work. Having geared myself up for more of a bystander role, it dawns on me that I have no idea what Iâm doing, so I find the furthermost vine and lurk around eating my body weight in grapes. Throughout the morning truckloads of chattering locals and family members pitch up to help with the harvest while Giovanni zips around the maze of vines on a dinky tractor, picking up the full grape buckets and depositing them at the bottom the hill.
We are finished in under an hour and the atmosphere is festive. The harvesters congregate on the veranda for a bracing mug of âteaâ â" which is, in fact, extremely diluted coffee and half a pot of sugar. The Italians may be connoisseurs of many things, but tea is a concept they have yet to grasp. Grape picking is followed by a traditional harvestersâ lunch at Giovanniâs home which, predictably, consists entirely of meat. No one apart from Carla can speak English, and I can only tell Iâm bei ng addressed when I hear âla veganoâ shouted in my direction followed by loud tutting. We eventually leave as the sun goes down, exhausted and stuffed full of food and Giovanniâs homegrown wine.
Our last day is baking hot so we decide to drive to Noli, a picturesque village on the Ligurian riviera. It takes just over an hour to get there from Cortemilia and if you leave early you can spend the whole day at the beach. As you drive down from the hills wading through clouds and eventually scudding to a halt at the sea front itâs as if youâve entered a different co untry. Unlike the stone buildings of the hilly Langhe, Noliâs promenade is lined with peach-coloured baroque houses nestled against a medieval wall â" and as you walk along the promenade the air is thick with the smell of calamari.
The August crowds have dispersed and the beach is gloriously empty apart from local families having Sunday lunch picnics. The seawater, I soon discover, is teeth-chatteringly cold, but the colour is an astonishing cobalt blue, crystal clear on the surface and as you dive under and open your eyes it softens to a light turquoise. And yes, I am that person who brings goggles to the beach. Just as Iâm about to doze off for a late afternoon nap the heavens open and as hot rain begins to fall thick and fast we run for cover into the old town and wolf down one final ice cream before the long journey back to Milan.
That is the beauty of Piedmont; it is myriad holidays in one. Depending on your mood or predilection, you can drive to Lake Maggior e for a picnic, learn about wine in Barolo, or eat truffles in Alba. And you can go to the beach in Finale Ligure in the morning and ski in Sestriere in the afternoon â" perhaps not the same afternoon, but you get my drift. Thereâs a richness that underpins this entire region â" whether in culture, natural beauty, hospitality and, certainly, food â" that will cling to your soul long after you leave. And, judging from my now too-small jeans, your waistline, too.
Way to go
Fly to Turin, Milan or Genoa with flights from Easyjet, Ryanair and British Airways. Car hire from Europcar costs from Â£37 for two days. In Turin, stay at Terres dâAventure Suites (Â£79 pn), a minimalist bed and breakfast moments away from the historic old town. Step back in time at Rotarius (Â£158 pn) in Asti and spend the night in the tower of the medieval Roero di Monteu Palace. For a bit of luxury head to Fossano and the Palazzo Righini (Â£125 pn)
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