On the drive from Turin airport to Bra I feel like I’m in the wrong country. Billboards for the Bistro Mont Blanc and Hotel Des Alpes remind me this is ski country, with the French resorts of Tignes and Val d’Isère, less than 50 miles away, while the rolling landscape, ribbed with row upon row of vines, could be Bordeaux.
Linguistically, too, I am in a no-man’s land where Piedmont (the French) and Piemonte (the Italian) are interchangeable and equally understood. Whatever the language, the word means ‘foot of the mountain’ — and the cuisinereflects that. Produce from the mountains in the north is combined with the bounty of the south — Nebbiolo grapes (from which Barolo and Barbaresco wines are made), white truffles, fungi, pheasant and wild boar from the hilly Langhe district; and seafood, herbs and vegetables from the Mediterranean coast.
The Gallic influence is strong, with rane (frogs) and lumache (snails) popular on menus. In the classic cookbook Il Grande Libro della Cucina Albese, there are recipes for lumache fritte (fried snails), lumache al barbera (in Barbera wine) and lumache alla barolese (Barolo-style), containing chopped chicken livers, mashed hard-boiled egg yolks, garlic, parsley and basil but, oddly, no Barolo.
Given all this, it’s doubly significant that the snail is the symbol of the Slow Food Movement. It signifies not only a languid, time-rich approach to food but a deep connection with Piemonte and, in particular, Bra, where the movement’s founder, Carlo Petrini, was born. As a left-wing activist, he campaigned throughout the 1980s on issues ranging from the merits of Barolo and the deplorable state of food in workmen’s cafes to the evils of the ‘fast life virus’, culminating in a protest outside Italy’s first McDonald’s, near the Spanish Steps in Rome in 1986.
From that small uprising sprang the Slow Food Manifesto and the global organisation that still has its headquarters in Bra, at Via della Mendicità Istruita 14. The offices are nothing to write home about, but in the same building is Osteria del Boccondivino, one of four Slow Food restaurants in Bra — the others are Badellino, Ristorante Battaglino and Osteria Murivecchi. In nearby Alba, Osteria dell’Arco (another Slow Food icon) serves homely food cooked in the time-honoured way, as does Osteria La Torre, in Cherasco, a quiet medieval town of cobbled streets, pale ochre facades and bell towers.
It was here I stumbled across Osteria della Rosa Rossa — a family-run restaurant that has no official Slow Food connection but is proof you can take pot luck in Piemonte and be rewarded with an exceptional meal. First came salami with lardo (shavings of pure white pork fat), then pâté with lamb’s lettuce, followed by cardo (cardoon — like a cross between artichoke and celery) and coarse pork sausages in a cheese sauce. Chargrilled peppers followed, with cauda (a creamy sauce of anchovies and nuts), then risotto in Barolo, and finally potato gnocchi. Our ‘quick lunch’ took nearly three hours.
Rustic Piemontese food is not for the faint-hearted, or for vegetarians. The regional dish is bollito misto (boiled mixed meats), traditionally made with seven varieties of flesh — beef, veal, pork, chicken, calf’s head, zampone (stuffed pig’s trotter) and cotechino (sausage) — seven vegetables and seven condiments. Even at more refined restaurants, you can expect visceral fare.
In Pollenzo, about three miles south of Bra, the University of Gastronomic Sciences — founded by Carlo Petrini in 2004 to teach new approaches to food and farming — has an on-site restaurant, Guido Ristorante Pollenzo, where the medieval brick columns and cloisters remind you the campus was once a royal palace. Among the dishes are carne cruda (chopped raw beef), warm veal tongue in a bagnet verde (parsley, garlic, anchovies, capers, pine nuts) and vitello tonnato — Piemontese antipasto of thinly sliced veal in tuna sauce.
Aromatic white truffles are another local delicacy, dug up at night by the trifulau (truffle hunters) and their dogs in the woods of the Langhe, and sold at the truffle fair and auction held in Alba each autumn. In a London restaurant, a shaving of white truffle will triple the price of a pasta dish, and connoisseurs will bid £1,600 a kilo for the earthy, gnarled tubers.
More affordable is the farmers’ market in Alba, held in the shadow of Il Duomo, the 15th-century cathedral of San Lorenzo. Stalls heave with seasonal vegetables, herbs, honeys and local cheeses (Bra, Toma Piemontese and Raschera), not to mention Barolo. Brick-red or garnet in colour, the ‘king of wines’ is best sampled at Enoteca Castello di Grinzane, a ‘wine library’ in a hilltop castle which just happens to have a Michelin-starred restaurant.
The highlight of my trip was dinner at Combal. Zero, a bright modern jewel set in the time-burnished Castello di Rivoli, outside Turin. Davide Scabin distils the essence of Piemontese cuisine in a ‘Piola kit’ of six traditional dishes in small glass jars that fit into a cardboard tray, accompanied by a vial of Barbera and a pack of playing cards. Equally innovative are ‘cyber eggs’ (caviar and a poached egg in a plastic bubble, which diners pierce with a scalpel before slurping the contents), and zuppizza, a liquid pizza with a pool of mozzarella at the bottom, tomato in the middle and toasted bread on top. In this bastion of Slow Food, Scabin is turning tradition on its head.
Five Piemonte food finds
1. Osteria della Rosa Rossa: Modest and reliable family-run restaurant with an annual snail banquet. Via San Pietro 31, Cherasco.
2. Alba International White Truffle Fair: From 6 October to 18 November in the town’s centro storico (historical centre). www.fieradeltartufo.org
3. Enoteca Castello di Grinzane: ‘Wine library’, shop and Michelin-starred Ristorante al Castello in a hilltop castle with fantastic views. www.castellogrinzane.com
4. Barolo Chinato: Quinine-flavoured herbal digestif that’s slightly bitter and perfect with chocolate desserts. Around €25 (£20) from Alba market and regional food shops.
5. Osterie & Locande D’Italia: A Guide to Traditional Places to Eat and Stay in Italy. RRP: £16.
Four places to go for Slow Food
Ranked 28th in the S Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, two-Michelin-starred Combal.Zero is a pricey but unforgettable experience. Within the 17th-century Castello di Ravoli (now a Museum of Contemporary Art), the long, luminous dining space is as unexpected as Davide Scabin’s creations. Pumpkin soup with Robiola di Roccaverano cheese and smoked pork cheek comes with violet potatoes; Cyber Elio Campari, a plastic bag of Campari which you pop in your mouth, dangles from a helium balloon weighted with M&M’s.
■ How much: Á la carte from €125 (£104); tasting menus €110 (£91), €190 (£158). Piazza Mafalda di Savoia I, Rivoli. www.combal.org
2. Guido Ristorante Pollenzo
Michelin-starred Guido is one reason to visit the Agenzia di Pollenzo, the restored Savoy royal estate south of Bra. The turreted quadrangle and cloistered outbuildings also house a wine bank, a hotel and the University of Gastronomic Sciences. Ugo Alciat’s refined versions of Piemontese classics include carne cruda, vitello tonnato, cardo (cardoons) from Nizza Monferrato with pears and anchovies, duck agnolloti (local ravioli) with goose Marsala reduction, and steamed baccalá (salt cod).
■ How much: Á la carte from €80 (£66) (four courses); tasting menu €85 (£70). Via Fossano 19, a Pollenzo. www.guidoristorante.it
3. Osteria Del Boccondivino
The Italian flag flies proudly above this shrine for culinary pilgrims, flanked by the Slow Food bookshop and headquarters. It’s a simple osteria but traditional and authentic. I began with lardo (silky white pork fat), salsiccia di Bra (sausage) and carne cruda (beef tartare), followed by carrot soup, then coniglio grigio di Carmagnola (a Slow Food heritage breed of grey rabbit from Carmagnola) cooked all’Arneis (a Piemontese grape variety)
■ How much: Á la carte from €22 (£18) (three courses); set menus €19 (£15), €21 (£17); tasting menu €29 (£24). Via Mendicità Istruita 14, Bra. www.osteriadellarco.it
4. Ristorante Al Castello
Michelin-starred cuisine is one of many pleasures at the 13th-century Castello di Grinzane, which houses Ristorante al Castello, as well as two museums and the Regional Enoteca (wine library), with Barolos, Barbarescos, Gavis and Asti Spumantes to sample and buy. Culinary history is celebrated with 21st-century flair in terrine of boiled meat with green herb foam (a nod to bollito misto and bagnet verde); saddle of rabbit with fennel, Parmesan and onions cooked in milk; and ricotta pear tart.
■ How much: Á la carte from €45 (£37) (four courses); tasting menu €38 (£31). Via Castello 5, Grinzane Cavour. www.castellodigrinzane.it
Published in the Jul/Aug 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)