A holiday to the beautiful country that is Italy deserves its own dedicated blog post. While I, of course, plan to discuss the fantastic food discovered, the wonderful restaurants eaten in, and the gallons of wine happily quaffed down, I will undoubtedly stray into the territory of a travel blog and wax lyrical about the scenery, the people and the culture. Therefore two posts seemed more appropriate in order to prevent the inevitable boredom often brought about by the dreaded recount of someone’s holiday.
We travelled just south of the northwesterly city of Turin (Turino to give it its proper name), capital of the Piedmont region of Italy, to the small town of Bra, home to the Slow Food movement. As someone who genuinely takes delight in knowing about their food, where it comes from and all those other annoyingly pretentious traits of the so-called foodie, the entire reason for holidaying here was because of this food movement. However, if you are less than familiar with the Slow Food movement, I will try and summarise for you in as short a paragraph as I can manage.
Slow Food is an organisation that promotes local food and producers, along with traditional cooking and farming methods. The idea is to take a step back from the mass globalisation of food and to regain control of local food systems by sourcing from as close to you as possible. The traditional, small-scale farming systems are also viewed to be better than our modern large-scale ones as they are less damaging to the environment, using the knowledge that for centuries enabled civilisations to grow food, eat and survive without the use of our modern technology or by moving food half way across the globe. It is said that one of the catalysts for Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini, was the opening of Italy’s first branch of McDonald’s in Rome in 1986. This introduction of “fast food” to the country inspired Carlo and a group of passionate gastronomes to found the contradictory Slow Food movement.
Having plane-d, train-ed and automobile-d (not necessarily in that order) down to the town of Bra, and in much need of some lunch, we wondered aimlessly from the train station to what looked like it could be the town centre in search of somewhere good to eat. Amazingly, the first place we encountered (that wasn’t a gelateria) was a glorious looking café-come-deli with a blackboard outside listing that days lunch menu (or pranzare if you want to learn some Italian while you’re here). We dragged our suitcases into the quaint café like the thoroughly irritating tourists we are, and took a table in the corner that had a great view of the meat and cheese counter that locals were constantly flocking to.
For context within the realms of this Slow Food trip, I’ll tell you a bit about Local. It’s a food shop and café that was set up by two graduates from the nearby University of Gastronomic Science, based on the concept of having as small a supply chain as possible. This means that not only is the food sourced locally to the town and so the business has a close relationship with its suppliers, but the shop’s customers can also have the chance to build a relationship with the producers. People are therefore more aware of what they are eating and they know who they are supporting when they buy these products. If you take a look at Local’s website and Twitter page, you’ll also see that they host a number of meetings with local producers, as well as food and drink masterclasses.
The dish I had here was “Il primo del giorno”, the risotto of the day which came with radicchio, pancetta and walnuts. As you would expect from the Italians, the risotto was the perfect texture; the rice al dente and not swimming in sauce. The lovely meaty, salty and fatty chunks of pancetta providing contrast to the bitter radicchio leaves. I’m still somewhat on the fence when it comes to radicchio. Sometimes I find the bitterness just a bit too much, and it really shows how the accompanying flavours can alter its taste. For me, the citrus touch of the blood orange enjoyed at Ellory is still the best pairing to radicchio.
Lunch eaten, we headed off to find the local bus to take us to our hotel Albergo dell’Agenzia. A short fifteen minute trip through the rolling countryside and neighbouring villages later, we arrived in the village of Pollenzo. Small, quiet, and peaceful (apart from the roaring main road straight through the middle of the area), this town is the surprising home of the University of Gastronomic Science, and the headquarters of the Slow Food movement. Our hotel was (and still is) actually on the tiny university’s campus and not only shares its beautiful architecture, but guests of the hotel can also enjoy free entry into the university’s much treasured Banca del Vino.
Yes, that’s right. A Wine Bank. Like the Caves of France, this is a huge underground collection of wines from all across Italy. Unlike Caves however, the Wine Bank is more of a museum, set up by the university in order to maintain a historic record of the grapes, vintages and soils from the area that have been lost over the years. If you are not a guest of the hotel, you can enjoy a full priced guided or a self-guided tour around the Bank for a whopping 3 Euros, followed by a tasting of a rotating selection of wines from the Bank. So, what do you do when day two rolls around and its torrential rain all day? You go to the Wine Bank of course.
I’ll focus on the most interesting part of this afternoon which was, of course, the wine tasting. There are four whites and four reds to choose from at any one time, but the maximum number of tastings you can do is five, but do not fear, you get more than a decent size glassfull.
Doing the sensible thing and opting for the five glasses meant that between us, we could actually have a small sample of the full eight wines on offer. From white to red, I drank my way through the following:
- La Raia – Cortese di Gavi
- Umani Ronchi – Plenio Castelli Di Verdicchio – 2014
- Vino Bianco – Carolus
- Barolo Castagni – 2011
- Barbaresco Baserin Reserva – 2011
I wish I could offer some insightful tasting notes into the complexity of the flavours and the notes of chocolate or blackberry or whatever else it is that you are supposed to smell from the bouquet…but I can’t. Mainly because I enjoy drinking wine and not dissecting every little thing about it. I will say this though, that Barbaresco has to be one of the most interesting red wines I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. Almost brown out of the bottle, it smelt and looked as though it could be on the edge of turning. However, the flavour was deep, malty, and almost Marmite-like, with a mildly treacle-like mouthfeel. I’m probably not doing a great job of selling it here, but it was my second favourite to the Carolus Bianco, which I think I could have quite happily (and easily) polished a bottle of all by myself.
I’ll end Part Uno of our trip to Piedmont with a very brief diary of the food enjoyed in between these two particular highlights of the trip. Check back in for Part Due where we will pay homage to the two entirely Slow Food accredited meals eaten, along with some must see #foodporn moments.
Day 1 – Cenare (dinner) at La Soffitta:
- Pizza x3: Speckotta, Cristian and Chiara.
Day 2 – Colazione (breakfast, all ingredients from Slow Food producers):
- Cheese from the Piedmont region x5.
- Fruit salad.
Day 2 – Pranzare (lunch) at Caffe La Rosa:
- An assortment of ciabattas with prosciutto, cheese and salami.
Day 2 – Cenare at La Soffitta (again, it’s a very small town):
- Pasta x3: Tajarin (a 40 egg yolk fresh pasta), Pesto, Pancetta.
- Affogato x2.
- Cassata x1.
Day 3 – Calazione:
- More cheese and meat.