A feast of flavours in Italy

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

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

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Life and Style
A binge is classed as four or more alcoholic drinks for women and five or more for men, consumed over a roughly two-hour period
tech
News
Detail of the dress made entirely of loom bands
news
Life and Style
More than half of young adults have engaged in 'unwanted but consensual sexting with a committed partner,' according to research
techResearchers recover 100s of nude photos from second-hand smartphones
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice