Piedmont: Taste of the North

The menu in Piedmont differs greatly from that of the rest of Italy - and its famous truffles reign supreme
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The Independent Travel

Piedmont has a cuisine unlike any other Italian region. Olives don't grow well in this climate and so the local cooking relies more on butter and lard, ingredients which lend a silky texture and hearty aroma. The gamey local meats and root vegetables are generally cooked for long periods on a low heat, letting the flavours develop slowly and giving a deliciously rich, tasty character to Piedmontese dishes. Rather than the pizzas and tomato-based pasta sauces familiar from elsewhere in Italy, in Piedmont you're more likely to come across risotto, polenta and even cheese fondue (most of Italy's gorgonzola is still made here).

Traditional Piedmont cuisine relies on rich flavours, full-bodied wines and indulgent desserts, although a new generation of chefs are reinventing the classics in a lighter, fresher way - notably the Stelle del Piemonte group, all of whom own starred restaurants around the region serving the new cuisine.

Any list of the region's culinary specialities is topped by the truffle. This curious fungus - lumpy and unattractive to look at, but highly prized for its unique taste and aroma - comes in two forms. Black truffles are more common, found in France as well as Piedmont and other areas of Italy, whereas white truffles are considerably rarer, harvested from August to January in and around Alba, south-east of Turin. The best way to eat them is as raw shavings added to simple dishes such as plain tagliolini (egg noodles). Should you wish to buy one, you might find a bargain deal of around £1,000 a kilo - but prices can be two or three times that.

Otherwise, Piedmont's specialities cover a broad range of dishes, from local beef to frogs. Polenta is a staple dish, often served with game or pork. The most idiosyncratic Piedmontese meal is the bagna cauda, or hot bath, where crudités - artichokes (or local cardoons), peppers, celery and the like - are dipped into a tangy sauce of butter, oil, garlic and anchovies. Agnolotti are egg pasta parcels with a herby meat filling, often served with sage leaves sautéed in butter, while fritto misto is a classic local main, comprising almost anything - from courgettes to mushrooms, lamb, veal, liver, brains or sweetbreads, through to apples, pears and even sweet amaretti - deep-fried and served together. Vitello tonnato, or veal in a tuna sauce, is another favourite.

WHERE TO EAT WELL

One of Piedmont's most acclaimed new restaurants is Combal Zero, Piazza Mafalda di Savoia in Rivoli, near Turin (00 39 011 956 5225; www.combal.org). Eating here places you as both audience and supporting actor in a culinary performance of style, devised by the Michelin-starred chef Davide Scabin: you might find your meal (of a dozen or more mini-courses) taking three or four hours to consume, as you're presented with a succession of playful, artfully presented dishes offering Scabin's individual interpretation of classic Piedmont flavours.

In Barolo, the Hotel Barolo, Via Lomondo 2 (00 39 0173 56 354; www.hotelbarolo.it), is a classic historic hotel, in the same family for three generations, with a renowned restaurant attached. This is an outstanding place for Langhe cuisine, embellished in autumn with local truffles. The cellar is as impressive as you'd expect for this wine town, with over 70 Barolo labels on offer.

A mainstay of the SlowFood movement - an Italian response to "the aggressive advance of standardization in food and culture" which seeks to encourage local gastronomic methods and ingredients - is the Osteria dell'Arco, Piazza Savona 5 in Alba (00 39 0173 363 974; www.osteriadellarco.it). The chef offers the best of Albese cuisine in a relaxed, easygoing ambience, including excellent tajarin (thin egg tagliatelle) al burro.

On the shores of the tiny Lake Mergozzo, a short drive from Stresa and Verbania, stands the atmospheric Piccolo Lago (00 39 0323 586 792; www.piccololago.it). This is a chic, five-star restaurant recently taken over by chef Marco Sacco and his sommelier brother Carlo. The interior is airy, with picture windows on the water, and service is smooth and discreet. Marco's cuisine combines Piedmontese mountain cooking with the more sophisticated flavours of the lakes - Mergozzo trout, for example, lightly smoked in-house, or a flan of the local Bettelmatt cheese with a pear mustard.

FOOD FESTIVALS

Piedmont's food festivals are headed by the Fiera Nazionale del Tartufo Bianco ( www.fieradeltartufo.org), a vast, colourful event devoted to the white truffle, held in Alba every October. Market stalls are loaded with truffles - the favoured approach is to bargain for one, then take your prize to a local restaurant and ask the chef to add shavings of it to your chosen dish.

Alba is also the setting for Vinum, a wine fair in late April, when the major producers present their new vintages. The "world's best hazelnut" is celebrated in late August at the Sagra della Nocciola Tonda Gentile, in the nut-producing village of Cortemilia near Alba.

Asti has dozens of markets for everything from capons (at Vesime) to the national Douja d'Or wine festival, staged in September. Every October, Cuneo is taken over by the Fiera del Marrone, dedicated to chestnuts in all their varieties.

Don't miss SlowFood's Salone del Gusto this October in Turin, a culinary fair with dinners, lectures and happenings hosted by a stellar array of local and international chefs.

Matthew Teller is co-author of the Rough Guide to the Italian Lakes (£12.99)

BREAD AND WINE

GRISSINI AND GHERSIN

Perhaps the least celebrated of Piedmontese specialities is also the most ubiquitous, found on every restaurant table in Italy: grissini, or breadsticks.

The legend goes that the grissino was invented in 1675 by Antonio Brunero, a baker commissioned by the court physician of the young Duke Vittorio Amedeo II of Savoy, a weak and sickly nine-year-old. The physician - one Don Baldo Pecchio - suspected that the duke was being poisoned by the lumpen, part-baked loaves fashionable at the time and ordered that he instead be fed slender sticks of bread that were well risen, well baked and crisp. Brunero obliged and, needless to say, the duke recovered: he went on to become King of Piedmont in 1713, and ate grissini to the end of his days.

Prosaically, however, it seems more likely that grissini developed under economic hardship in the 14th century, when the local Turin loaf, the "ghersa" - sold, at the time, by piece rather than by weight - was split by bakers into smaller, more affordable portions, resulting in the stick-like "ghersin", or little loaf.

Either way, Napoleon enjoyed "les petites batons de Turin" so much that he established the first rapid postal service between Turin and Paris in order to deliver them to his table daily, thereby securing their fame into the modern age.

RED, WHITE AND VERMOUTH

Piedmont has been producing wine since classical times: Roman historian Livy mentions Barbaresco, while Asti wines are recorded as early as the 13th century.

Piedmont is the birthplace of vermouth, the basis of cocktails such as the Martini, but one of the most highly acclaimed of the region's wines is Barolo, a full-bodied dry red produced from Nebbiolo grapes in the Langhe region, which has been given the prestigious DOCG mark (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). It suits rich meats and powerful cheeses, but is, above all, the choice accompaniment to truffle dishes.

Barbaresco is another DOCG red with a similarly rich, luscious flavour, though more ruby red in colour than the garnet of Barolo and with a more pronounced, tannic acidity. Barbera, once a rustic red, has undergone 10 years' refinement and is now an acclaimed DOC, as is the dry red Dolcetto.

Piedmont's most famous wine is the sparkling white Asti Spumante - sweet, low in alcohol and an unfortunate mainstay of many an office party. However, it too boasts DOCG status and is considerably more sophisticated than its cheap reputation might indicate. Almost 69 million bottles of Asti were sold worldwide in 2005. The related Moscato d'Asti is a still dessert wine - also with the DOCG mark - best sampled alongside the delicious Langhe hazelnut cake and also used locally to make zabaglione, in place of the more usual Sicilian Marsala.

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