Skip to content

Lesser Known, Vibrant Italy: Southern Piemonte’s Life and Wine

August 1, 2017

First, my latest Forbes posts are here, and include pieces about the new high-speed Paris/Bordeaux train, a book about Lisbon wines and a summer festival you have never heard of.

Second, I have a confession.

I have been doing business with Russians.

You can’t blame me.

For the dozens of wineries located in 18 countries who contributed recipes for my forthcoming book The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion—these two ladies below are finding the correct publishing house for that book. Also, we are discussing alternative publishing strategies with a new publishing imprint that Forbes acquired less than a year ago.

Sonya, Elena and Friday afternoon glasses of Pessac-Leognan white wine.

Sonya Marchand (on the left) is a neighbor who took a cruise to Bordeaux, said goodbye to her roots in Moscow and Siberia, and moved here to the countryside. She produced the promotional video for my book The Winemakers’ Cooking Companion, and has her own video production company—STA Marchand.

Elena Malgina (on the right) is also Russian and now lives in Lugano in Switzerland (where I also once lived many years ago). While not working as a financial controller, she is a bibliophile with her own literary agency and is representing my book to various renowned publishers in the U.S. It was Elena who had the idea to produce the promotional video. (She also seriously scolded me for not having ever read books by Bulgakov.)

These charming and intelligent women are helping to ensure that The Winemakers’s Cooking Companion finds a secure publishing home that produces long-lasting, appreciated books. The photograph is from days ago when we spent time together here in Blaye.

Gateway to summertime in Italy

Third, I recently visited the southern portion of the Piedmont wine country in Italy. Aspects of that trip that relate to Dolcetto wine covered in my recently written Forbes piece.

Below are practical tips for visiting this region.

First, a little background about the geography of the Piedmont region.

Italy, including its southern isle of Sicily, is generally shaped like a tilted J. The top left portion of the upper horizontal bar is mostly the region of Piedmont (the lower strip of that bar being Liguria, along the coast). The Italians call this not Piedmont, but Piemonte. Because this rolls off the tongue smoothly, I shall do alike. It means, literally, the foot of the mountains.

Piemonte is a hilly land, once so cloaked in forests that medieval dukes from Austria visited its hilltop castles so they could spend days hunting.

Fountain at the Castle of Cremolino

This is a varied countryside. It’s a hilly land of sunflowers, winding roads, cobbled alleyways and road signs that warn of jumping deer. It’s filled with birdsong and tenutas (mansions), corn stalks and crenellated hilltop towers. There are raw rock buttes, ivy covered taverns and the Ligurian Apennine peaks. Unlike the more expensive haunts of Asti, Alba and Barolo to the west and north, southern Piemonte includes rugged roads and summer gatherings that include the Suckling Pig Festival of Toleto, or the Wild Boar Festival of Rocca Grimalda.

As with most locations in Italy, the language is musical. This is a land where conversation is sport, discourse is theater and a simple discussion about where to locate the water meter sounds like a poetry recitation.

View from Cremolino Castle

‘Stereo2’ band from Genoa plays at the ‘suckling pig festival’ in Toleto

An ancient fortress in the hills

Motor scooter by roadside, with village of Carpeneto in the distance

The food and wines here are truly special. Seriously, even the bottled water is the best I’ve tasted in years. There’s filleto baciato salami, porcini mushrooms, succulent blackcurrants, nougat, distinct Marroni chestnuts, and Amaretti di Acqui cookies. I can’t even recall any of the number of cheeses. And, yes, truffles.

In the southern portion of Piemonte, the wines include red Dolcetto and Barbera, and whites include Gavi. These are generally affordable, easy drinking wines.

Here is a little recollection.

At a hilltop societa’ a tavern in the Madonna della Villa village in the hills, we drank glasses of negroni before the owner and his wife agreed to rustle up amazing dishes of pasta al pesto di Pra at nine in the evening for a group of us (this is a Genovese dish; the mild, small-leaved basil should be grown on the windy, sunny slopes of Pra near Cristoforo Colombo airport). With this we uncorked a bottle and enjoyed glasses of chocolate, truffle and green pepper flavored Barbera wine, which also paired well with the bunet chocolate and amaretti dessert—a custard made from chocolate and amarone and served in ramekins.

Barbera d’Asti wine

Pasta al Pesto di Pra

Another wine produced in this region is white Gavi, which is also the name of a sizable town.

On a wall in Gavi, a plaque commemorates a legend about the name.

The city of Gavi, legend tells, was named after a sixth century princess—Gavia. The daughter of a Frankish king and a mother who descended from the king of Burgundians, she married against her family’s desires and then fled to the Lemme Valley. When her father’s soldiers found her, she was protected by the Queen of the Goths—Amalasuntha, who granted her power over a territory. The grateful inhabitants of this land later named their town after her, and named the local white wine grape after a characteristic of their ruler Gavia: Cortese, or courteous.

Salami store in Gavi

Alleyway in Ovada

Here is practical advice for visiting the south and east portions of Piemonte wine country.

  1. If you are visiting Piemonte for the first time, do stop by Barolo and Barbaresco wine producing regions, as well as such towns as Alba and Asti. Save the lesser known region of southeast Piemonte until after spending days in the more popular regions. They are renowned for a reason.
  2. Towns have posters telling of upcoming sagras, or festivals. Try visiting one. These will provide insight into local culture and history you cannot get from a guidebook or tour. If the festival includes food (and wine) all the better. Arrive with an open mind and a curious attitude and don’t be shy to strike up a conversation. Those who speak a little English will love the practice.
  3. Consider staying at an agriturismo. These are guest houses that are also working farms. They are all rural, have individual characteristics, and often serve their own homeade food and wine. Here is a good article about them.
  4. A frazione is even smaller than a village. If you see a sign for a festival there, expect few people and a more intimate experience.
  5. If you want to learn some Italian before visiting, I highly recommend Pimsleur language lessons. These involve a lot of repetition and practice, and you will find that years after taking a course you remember phrases and understand the gist of what people are saying. If you want to complement this with a grip on grammar, choose the Babbel series. You can subscribe online (about $6 to $9 a month) and the interactive courses are excellent. Remember—understanding grammar is great, but you have to practice speaking phrases in order to communicate.
  6. Carry small money notes. If you pull out a 50 Euro bill (or a 20, at times) in even a medium sized town, many people will wave it away because they lack change. Remember also that they may not take credit cards.
  7. Ask for local food at restaurants. I visited one restaurant that served 45 types of pizzas, but also dozens of local pasta dishes—which are more intriguing. Different towns often have their own specialties.
  8. For red wines, Barbera and Dolcetto go well with most foods. Barolo and Barbaresco match heftier beef dishes. White Moscato is a bubbly, low alcohol wine good anytime of the day.
  9. Stop at a tourist office (marked with the symbol) to pick up maps and literature regarding local events.
  10. Consider flying into Genova’s Cristoforo Colombo airport instead of Milan.
  11. Rent a car. Unless you are taking a train or bus between large towns or cities, public transportation in rural areas can be a dodgy proposition.
  12. If you go in winter (I did once; bare but beautiful) make sure you get all-weather tires: many hills are steep.
  13. Never ask for cappuccino after noon. This is a form of sacrilege.

Flags in the town of Acqui Terme

A special Thank You to my guide (and long time friend) Domitilla Zerbone, who introduced me to the wine and foods (and suckling pig festival) of this region, navigating her incredible Panda vehicle across winding roads. Thanks also to her friend and author Sylvia Padoa who took us to a poolside at the Agriturismo Villa Pallavicini in Gavi wine country, then introduced us to cones of stracciatella e nocciola gelato (chocolate and hazelnut ice cream) in Gavi.

Hot sun and cold wine at Villa Pallavicini in the Gavi wine region

Incredible hosts – Domitilla (right) and Sylvia (left)

Finally, at a fruit store in the city of Gavi, this is written across one wall.

It is a quote from the 20th century Milanese writer named Leo Longanesi. La natura ha strane leggi ma lei almeno le rispetta. 

Translated, these words of wisdom mean:

‘Nature has strange laws, but at least she respects them.’

That’s an insight to ponder.

Once again, thanks for tuning in.

 

^^^

My book Vino Voices has gone through a few iterations in the past years.

I just re-published the illustrated version (with dozens of original photographs) as an online ebook, which can be found here.

I will be happy to email a free copy of the ebook to the first three people who let me know they want one.

 

 

2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2017 2:05 PM

    Elena Malgina wrote the following when she reposted this post. As usual, her humor is evident:

    “Fame has found me))). Thanks Tom.”

    Like

  2. August 2, 2017 2:04 PM

    Friend Domitilla Zerbone provided this input when she reposted this blog:

    Best article on my favorite places from a very good friend. Thank you Tom Mullen from Willy Baldocci, Silvia Padoa, myself, Cinzia Meirana, Lorenzo Spadotto and many other friends….

    Like

Comments, Thoughts, Input?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: