A feast of flavours in Italy

The region of Piedmont is known for fine wines, white truffles... and chocolate spread. Tilly Culme-Seymour takes a taste
Click to follow
The Independent Travel

In Barbaresco, Serralunga d'Alba, Barolo and La Morra, Piedmont's vintners are already tanned from outdoor work. Locals say that the heat is unseasonable. But after a cold winter, during which vines slept under depths of snow, the promise of an intensification in the flavour of the local wine – like the Tuscan cabbage cavolo nero, which improves in quality only after the first frost – is enough to make them complacent about this year's harvest.

My destination is the Relais San Maurizio hotel, in the municipality of Santa Stefano Belbo in Cuneo, two hours' drive from Milan Linate airport. The name comes from the river Belbo, which runs through Piedmont's southern province bordering Liguria. By car, the shifts in the landscape are appreciable. The flat plains beyond the city yield gradually to the undulations of wine country. Soon, houses seem to perch unsteadily on the hillsides and the land drops away steeply from the road.

There was just time for a swim in the hotel pool before heading to the terrace for aperitivo. Plates of raw walnuts, salami and salty sheep's milk cheese took the edge off my hunger in the cooling evening air, while well-heeled Italian couples broke locked hands to sip Moscato and Campari spritz. The hotel has an undeniable romance to it. As little as possible has been done to the original 17th-century monastery building and the grounds yield surprise finds such as an impregnable, thick panelled door with a large, ancient-looking keyhole.

Piedmont is French for "foothills" and the culinary influence is a hangover from the region's former annexation by France in the 19th century. My goal was to discover something about the area's food and wine – but to do so, I would need expert help. James Cannistraro, the half-English, half-Italian food and beverage manager at the hotel, gave me some pointers before I set out.

I should look, he told me, for white Albanese truffles, worth their weight in gold; chocolate, as the region is crowded with award-winning couverturiers; and polenta – ears of corn were drying on balconies to be ground to meal as I passed through the smaller hillside towns. "In Piedmont, we live and breathe all that is local and seasonal," Cannistraro said. "Everything is used according to its time of harvest, any glut preserved with sugar or salt for winter. Only olive oil is brought in."

For supper that night, I was due to meet David Berry Green, a wine-buyer from merchants Berry Bros & Rudd, a short drive away at the Trattoria Centro Storico in Serralunga d'Alba. He had moved to the Langhe area of the region last year. At the Centro Storico, he stacked a table with bottles to begin my introduction to the wines of Piedmont. Our meal provided a chance to eat as the Italians do, so late that all traces of dusk had left the sky and a waxing moon hung above the castle.

From the trattoria kitchen, under direction from the owner's wife and mother-in-law, came plates of early season asparagus with courgette, "surprised" anchovies – "surprise" being the verb properly associated with an ingredient's meeting with sizzling hot fat – and unctuous cow's milk burrata with tomatoes. Next was a dish of fileja – the distinctive coil-shaped pasta that is a regional speciality – with a sauce of sautéed leeks and sausage.

"Clean" is a word that David favours to describe Piedmontese food. To describe the young Nebbiolo-grape wines, Langhe Nebbiolo and Nebbiolo d'Alba, he prefers "pure". He wants to see the wines given proper due on the English market. He argues passionately that the popularity and ubiquity of Barolo and Barbaresco, both made with the Nebbiolo grape, means we are missing out on truly drinkable alternatives.

These high-spirited cousins of the "King" and "Queen" of Italian wine have acidity and masses of ripe fruit, perfect to drink with a scratch lunch of white cheese, good bread and green salad – food pared down to its bare essentials. We drank espresso and crunched through gianduja milk and dark chocolates made with local Tonda Gentile hazelnuts.

It was during rationing in the 1940s that Pietro Ferrero first thought to pair expensive cacao with inexpensive nuts in a thick, praline slab – a treat for families who couldn't afford pure chocolate. Nutella is now arguably Piedmont's favourite export, spread thickly over breakfast bread from the US to Australia. I discovered that the wife of "Slow Food" bread and cheese maker Silvio Pistone, whom I visited the next day, works at the Nutella factory in Turin.

The tension between the artisanal and the commercial is everywhere in the region. It is this, perhaps, that is responsible for the poor communication of the Nebbiolo wines David is championing. The wine-making process is described by producers in esoteric, almost mystical terms. Yields are, however, still low.

Tradition is at the heart of the cultivation process and continuity with the past a matter of pride. But these are considerations often dissociated with widespread market success. Like Garrigue wines, Nebbiolos sing of the terroir. The wine-making process is inseparable from the culture of the region and its acceptance on the world stage is also part of what is a deeply personal agenda.

Supper at Da Guido, the Relais San Maurizio's restaurant, which boasts a Michelin star, is a lavish showcasing of the local cuisine. I began with vitello tonnato, common to both Lombardy and Piedmont. For primi, I was urged to try the agnolotti, pasta dumplings stuffed with minced lamb in a rich meat reduction. Finally, there was a perfectly poached, soft-yolk egg coated in breadcrumbs with griddled asparagus spears and asparagus purée.

From the hotel, the town of Alba, some 25km distant, affords rich visiting. I set off to explore the Romanesque Duomo to learn of the miracles of San Teobaldo, a shoemaker, who in an act of charity gave a sack of flour belonging to his mistress to the poor, then filled the sack with sand at the mill where he had been told to leave it. When his mistress came to find the sack some hours later, it was again filled with flour. I was accosted by the priest who had noticed me hovering by the church confessional, but he gripped my hand warmly when I assured him I had merely come to look around.

Italy is, for the most part, so well-trodden that the discovery of a lesser-known region comes as a surprise and a delight. And Piedmont – compared with, say, Tuscany – does remain relatively undiscovered. If David Berry Green is successful in his mission to convey the generosity of the region's unsung wines, what he describes as their "drinkability", then expect the crowds to converge. Get here soon.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

Relais San Maurizo is located between four airports: Milan Malpensa, Milan Linate, Genoa and Turin, which are served by easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com), Alitalia (08705 448259; www.alitalia.com), Lufthansa (0870 8377 747; www.lufthansa.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com).

Staying there

Relais San Maurizio, Santo Stefano Belbo, Cuneo, Italy (00 39 0141 841900; www.relaissanmaurizio.it). Doubles start at €280 (£245) including breakfast. The Berry Bros & Rudd package starts at €450 per person and includes two nights' accommodation with breakfast, a welcome drink of Moscato, a selection of local wines, one dinner at Da Guido and a visit to a local producer.

Eating and drinking there

Centro Storico, Via Roma 6, Serralunga d'Alba (00 39 01 7361 3203).

More information

Italian State Tourist Board: 020 7408 1254; www.italiantouristboard.co.uk