There are many reasons to visit Italy. A melting pot of culture, art, and history, Italy is an engrossing country you’ll fall in love with time and time again. From internationally acclaimed galleries and centuries-old ruins to multi-colored villages, golden sandy beaches, and mountains for skiing and hiking, Italy has a little bit of everything. Been there, done that, and now….its all about the food and wine.
For us, Italy is synonymous with the Piedmont or Piemonte region (after all, we’ve been there 27 times!). Tucked up in the northwest of Italy on the border of France and Switzerland, it has a royal heritage. With a reputation for some of the finest food and wine in Europe, it is a veritable epicurean paradise.
Birthplace of the Slow Food movement and home of the renowned white truffle, it is also a land rich in walnuts, chestnuts and hazelnuts, cheeses, delicious veal, beef, wild boar, and incredible vegetables. You can find wild porcini mushrooms in the Fall unlike any local porcini. With their strong nutty flavor and earthy aroma, I prefer them to the famous Alba white truffle. But my very favorite mushroom, a rare mushroom, oval in shape, deep golden in color, and very limited in quantity is the ovoli. We were fortunate to have them once while on this trip. Piemonte is also known for its high quality chocolate – but who has room for dessert?
Although the number of pasta recipes in Piemonte is fewer in number than in many of the other Italian regions, it doesn’t matter because they are so deliciously special you want to eat them over and over. The pasta from this area is always rolled super thin and has a very fine and silky texture. In this region, tajarin (tie-yah-REEN) reigns as the most popular pasta. The word tajarin is Piemontese dialect for tagliatelle (or it’s narrower version, tagliolini). It is made fresh by area cooks who use a higher proportion of egg yolks than found in pastas from other regions. Tajarin can contain up to 40 egg yolks per kilogram (2.2 pounds) of pasta dough. During truffle season, this is the pasta you will most often find with shaved truffles over the top. For a delicious and authentic taste of Piemonte, Spinasse Restaurant in Seattle is the best place to eat this special pasta locally.
Another iconic pasta of the region is the delicious Agnolotti Del Plin, a small, filled pasta. The name for this specialty comes from the regional dialect where plin literally translates to “pinch”, describing the technique used to make this pasta. The sheets of pasta are pinched together to form small pouches of agnolotti. The dough is rolled very thinly, so that the pouches are almost transparent, ensuring the delicate flavors of the filling shine through. Agnolotti is a larger version of the pasta. The filling is usually braised meat, rabbit or guinea fowl. Plin is served simply. In Italian cooking, when you have filled pasta of any type, the filling is the star. The sauce plays backup. That’s why you see brown butter and sage a lot. The Piemontese love their butter. It is also often served with a reduction of the braising juices the meat was cooked in.
We don’t think of Italy as a rice-growing nation, but it’s Europe’s largest producer, with most fields concentrated in Piemonte in the north, where they’re fed by snow runoff from the nearby Alps. The Piemontese eat more rice than anybody else in Italy. While risotto is typically made with white wine, the Piemontese version is often made with Barolo wine. The risotto is made with butter, chopped onions, rice, stock, and of course, Barolo wine, which gives it an intense pink color. Risotto al Barolo arguably captures the essence of Piedmont’s agriculture in a single dish. And of course, Risotto ai Funghi or Tartufi are very popular during mushroom season.
Gnocchi (pronounced N’YOW-kee) originated in Northern Italy, where the colder climate was better for growing potatoes than grain. Not many potatoes are actually grown in Piemonte but are imported from other parts of Italy. The gnocchi from this region are light, fluffy and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. I prefer them with a simple sauce, but in Piemonte, the most popular Gnocchi di Patate recipe features Castelmagno Cheese Fondue for a very rich, tasty sauce.
Piemontese beef is a distinct breed from Italy’s Piedmont region that contains less marbling, fat and connective tissue than most beef. It produces a lean, tender, intensely flavorful beef that local’s treasure for carne cruda, the Italian version of steak tartare. In this tartare, the meat is the star. No fussy condiments need apply. Lemon juice enhances the natural beef flavor while simultaneously acting as an antioxidant so the meat retains its attractive pink color.
Piemontese cheeses are a revelation. Every town and mountain hamlet in this northern Italian region produces their own fantastic, fermented milk specialty. Italy, as a whole, is recognized for many superstars like Parmigiano Reggiano, mozzarella, gorgonzola, and provolone. But for variety and quantity of high quality cheeses, Piemonte may be the region that takes the blue ribbon with favorites like Castelmagno, Robiola, Rashcera, Tomino, and the familiar Gorgonzola.
Andre Simon (food and wine writer) once wisely said, “Wine makes every meal an occasion, every table more elegant, every day more civilized”. Piemonte is among the world’s very finest wine regions. It is the home of more DOCG wines than any other Italian region, among them such well-known and respected names as Barolo, Barbaresco, and Barbera. Barolo is also known as “the king of wines”. Piemonte boasts more rolling hills covered in vineyards than Tuscany and yet produces five times less Barolo than Tuscany produces Chianti. This is because the Barolo DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita) is the highest classification for Italian wines and denotes specific production methods and a quality guarantee. Wines from the Barolo DOCG must be 100% Nebbiolo and aged at least 38 months, 18 of those in wood barrels. The term “Riserva” can be used on the label when the wine has been cellared for at least five years.
But Piemonte also has some great white wines such as Arneis, Gavi and Timorasso. In Italy, one always begins the meal with an aperitivo which is often a glass of Spumante Metodo Classico – the champagne of the Langhe – and ends with a Moscato di Asti or a wonderful Amaro after the meal.
I hope I have tickled your taste buds and temped you to join me on this culinary/pictorial visit to one of the most special places in the world. Allora, andiamo in Piemonte!! (So, let’s go to Piedmont!) Click the links below for pictures.