Slow ride through Slow Food country
For all the times I’ve visited Italy, I’ve never been in Piedmont until now, except once, to visit Torino. On that trip, I had a meal that seemed heavy and dull for Italian food, and based on that scant evidence, I decided I didn’t really like Piemontese cuisine.
Spending more time in Piedmont, I realize I couldn’t have been more wrong. I’ve had the opportunity to spend three days bicycling around Piedmont, which is the best way to see this region of Italy (which is actually the second biggest, after Sicily). While Tuscany and Umbria are packed with tourists this time of year, Piedmont is calm and cooler than the rest of Italy. It’s one of those regions—like Puglia—that is often overlooked by tourists, and feels like a much more authentically Italian part of Italy, with its rolling vineyards, medieval towns, and hilltop castles (last time I was in Tuscany, it seemed like I only heard English, and I had a terrible meal at a café I loved 15 years ago right in front of Santo Spirito in Firenze). Here in Piedmont, you don’t see menus translated into English as often and people aren’t so tourist-weary that they’ve stopped saying “Buon giorno.”
I hopped on a (super-light, carbon frame) bicycle with DuVine Adventures, a bicycling company that specializes in what could be a fairly complete philosophy of life: “Bike, eat, drink sleep.” Unlike at many other tour companies, one of our guides was a local—which makes all the difference.
Guide Rappeti is an avid cyclist and racer, as well as a member of a family that has been making wine since the time of Napolean. He was born in Acqui Terme, where we started our trip, and knows everything about the local history, wine, and cycling routes in Monferrato. He explained the first thing I wanted to know, for instance, which is why Piemontese cuisine relies so heavily on anchovies when it is far from the sea. Turns out that they used to tax salt when it came from Liguria unless it was packed in fish. Voila!
We took a quick spin the first day, about 13 miles, and got a sense of the terrain, which is hilly, with wide vistas of grape fields and small towns in the valleys and ridges. It was immediately clear that the Piemontese are used to cyclists, because they give you wide berth, are polite, and offer a friendly toot on the horn to let you know when they are approaching.
One of the wonderful things about bicycling on vacation, especially in Italy, is that you have a big, honest appetite for the wonderful food (which you burn off). We didn’t go to a fancy restaurant the first night, but an old noble house in the country where one of Guido’s friends, Graziella Priarone, makes Villa Delfini wine, near the town of Morsasco. We toured around the old estate, which included a vast Grotto which was either a refuge during war, or a place for monks; its use lost in history except for speculation. We settled in to an intimate dinner in a stone cellar.
We started with a dry sparkling wine, and Guido gave us a rundown of the main wines of Piedmont and how they are made. “In Piedmont, the winemaker has to respect the grape, and the history,” he said. “Tuscan wine is more geared to the market, but here it is geared to tradition and taste.” Piedmont, he explained, has a long tradition of dry wine. Barolo is the most elegant and aristocratic, and Barbera and Dolcetto are more for every day (and let me tell you, I’d love to have a Barbera or Dolcetto every day). Barbera, in his estimation, generally offers the best balance of price and quality. Guido is quite opinionated about wine, but his opinions are driven by tradition. When I asked about screwtops, he said screwtops are fine—just don’t call what’s inside “wine.” Wine has to breathe, he said.
Our dinner was paired with the wines, which were exceptional. All of the food was simple with beautiful ingredients. For antipasti, we had an Insalata Russa, which is not a “Russian” salad, but dialect for “red.” It was a rice and egg salad with peas, celery, carrot, and tuna—very fresh. We drank a chardonnay spumante (a sparkling wine fermented in the tank, not riddled and in the bottle like those in the champagne method). We also had some prosciutto and salami, home-made foccacia. We had carpione—delicately fried eggplant and chicken. For primi, we had malanzane plin. Plin are what the Piemontese call very small ravioli; these were filled with eggplant. The tomato sauce was from tomatoes picked at the absolute perfect moment in the summer, bursting with flavor.
As we moved on to a Dolcetto, I asked Graziela about the Slow Food movement, which started nearby, in Bra, which is known for its cheese. Carlo Patrini wrote a manifesto against the first McDonald’s in Italy, near the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. Since then, it has become a worldwide movement (I wrote one of the first American stories about Slow Food in the New York Times magazine sometime in the 90s).
“It’s complicated,” Graziela said. The general idea of Slow Food, as a way of promoting and preserving artisanal foods, is wonderful. But basically she said that in the course of becoming ever more popular, it has become a brand, which recognizes other big brands. So you rarely see really small producers in a place like Eataly, or in the Slow Food books.
Guido gave the example that someone from Slow Food tasted his wines and awarded them a very fine rating. But when Guido said his family makes only 10,000 bottles, it was deemed too small for Slow Food. I said I thought that was contrary to the whole point of promoting and preserving small, artisanal producers like Guido and Graziela.
Added to that, Graziela pointed out, precious few women are listed in Slow Food. The movement is slow about a lot of things.
Graziela was incredibly passionate about food. Ingredients, she says, are 90% of any dish. The preparation is simple, and only 10% of the result. The same, she said, can be said about wine. It’s all about the sun, earth, and grapes. It certainly tasted that way.
On our second day, we took a 25-mile ride out of Aqui Terme in a lovely loop passing wineries. We started on a big hill and ended up on a ridge with spectacular views on both sides. I’m a slow rider—especially on the uphill—and my group was filled with super-fit cyclists (which is not always the case), but everyone was patient and friendly. We ended up at Graziela’s again for lunch, this time on an outside terrace, which was wonderful. Guido remarked about how many people have enjoyed lunch in this place through the centuries. It was everything you could want in a lunch—three different wines, prosciutto, salami, chickpea salad (with goat cheese), foccacia, chicken salad, mozzarella and tomatoes, finished off with some amazing mint/lemon sorbet. I wasn’t all that eager to get back on the bike and ride to the hotel in Aqui Terme, but it was a beautiful day. Later in the day, we tried some local moscatos sitting by the big pool in Aqui Terme.
Dinner on the second day was memorable. We went to Guido’s family’s farmhouse, which was where the family fled when Napoleon came and his army took over his family’s land in the flat part of Aqui Terme (when Guido’s ancestor protested, they cut off an ear). The family moved to the top of a hill, where the house is invisible from the town and main road. The view is amazing of grapes running up and down hills in all directions. The family has turned part of the house into an agriturismo, Cascina Marcantonio, done with spare modern lines inside and using historic materials: gorgeous. Upstairs are a few rooms where you can stay.
We helped Guido’s mother, Clara, and his father, Franco, with the dinner. At least we tried to help. She had made a number of traditional Piemontese dishes. We chopped nuts for hazelnut cake, patted out foccacia, spread sauce on eggplant slices and rolled them up, and made whole-wheat tagliatelle. It was really fun to get our hands into the pasta and help. While we were cooking, we had a glass of their spumante, and some grissini with a bagnetto verde sauce. Grissini are breadsticks that are from Piedmont, and they are not like the cardboard breadsticks you get in an American Italian restaurant. These, which Franco made, were delicate, crispy on the outside, and just soft inside. We dipped them in the bagnetto verde, which I am going to run home and make. This is an amazing savory green sauce, and as far as I could tell, the recipe goes like this:
100 g parsley
2 hard-boiled eggs
6 anchovies, deboned
A handful of capers (500 g)
One panino soaked in vinegar
You chop up the parsley fine, like pesto, as well as the other ingredients so that the sauce is smooth. You can add garlic if you like, but Clara didn’t. You can put this sauce on meat, fish, just about anything.
Our dinner, seated near giant windows with a sweeping view where we could watch the sky grow pink, was one of the best I’ve ever had, particularly because it was made with such care from such lovely people who are so proud of where they live and the wine and food that their family has made since forever. Guido brought out bottle after bottle of his beautiful Barbera (the vineyard is MarcAntonio). We had:
Involtini di melanzane (eggplant roll-up)
Zucchini-filled crepe with local cheese
Vitello tonnato—thinly sliced veal with a sauce with mayonnaise, capers, anchovies,a nd tuna
Tagliatelle with aromatic herbs (marjoram, basil, thyme, etc.)
Incredibly tender boiled meat with some tomatoes and green sauce
Finally: the hazelnut cake.
We all thought the hazelnut cake was the most splendid dessert we’ve ever had. It was light, with a slightly crunchy texture, and not too sweet.
Clara’s Hazelnut Cake:
Mix: 300 grams ground hazelnuts
1 T sugar
Separate 4 eggs (Clara only uses her neighbor’s eggs, because she says they are far superior for baking than the ones you buy at the market). Put 130 grams of sugar in with the yolks and a teaspoon of vanilla.
Whip the egg whites with a tablespoon of powdered sugar
Add 120 grams of softened butter to the egg mixture. Add the hazelnuts, then fold in the egg whites.
Bake at 150 degrees centigrade for 30 minutes.
It was an incredible evening where we all became friends and had the warm glow of a wonderful meal and wine, with an amazing view, a moment out of history, a moment to savor for a long time.
On the third day, we took the hardest ride. After one particularly difficult hill, Giovanni, our other guide, offered up a leftover slice of that hazelnut cake. It may have tasted even better then.
Thanks to super-cyclist, aptly-named Linda Crank for her photos!