I’ve been working and staying in Piemonte, a region in the north-west of Italy, for just over two weeks now. It’s a place of extreme beauty. Sheer forested mountains, rolling vineyards, clear lakes, running rivers, immense waterfalls, trickling streams, hot sunshine and tremendous thunderstorms. Every morning, I wake up to the sound of cows being herded from one mountain to another, their bells chiming furiously. A reminder that agriculture is still taken seriously here.
This is the region of Barolo and Barbaresco wines, intense cheeses and well-reared veal. Go to any market and you’ll find locally made jam and honey, hazelnuts, sweet peaches and snails. Piemonte prides itself in its local food, especially in the province of Cuneo where you’ll find Alba and its white truffles and Bra with its raw beef sausage. You needn’t go far to find vitello tonnato – an odd dish of veal, tuna, mayonnaise and anchovies – and bollito misto: what Anna Del Conte calls “that stalwart of northern Italian cooking – mixed boiled meats”, which provides stock and leftovers for the entire week.
On a trip down to Alba, I ended up in the hilltop town of Verduno, overlooking the Langhe vineyards, where I ate the best meal of my stay so far. Veal “di fassone Piemontese”, bashed out until paper thin, then marinated overnight in rosemary-infused olive oil. Tajarin pasta (dialect for what is basically tagliarini), made rich with 24 yolks per kilo of flour (!). The eggs come from the local and now quite rare Bianca di Saluzzo breed of hens. Next sage and lemon chicken, followed by sweet, roasted apricots with a spicy red wine syrup. All washed down with wines from their own winery. If you’re ever in the area, go to Castello di Verduno for a good meal.
Yesterday, we hiked for a little over an hour to waterfalls, high up in the valley. Gushing mountain water cascaded into rock pools, that flowed into more streams, water slides and sheer drops, all the way down a ravine. Each edge looked like the end of the world until you got to it and realised it was another waterfall dropping into the next dip of cold, clear water. I’ve never seen anything like it.
Just next to all of this, sat on the side of the mountain and overlooking the vast valley is a little agriturismo. Here they grow blueberries and raspberries, which you can buy at quite a pricey rate or pick yourself (which we did). The farmer, aware of their expense told us to go and see the plants for ourselves: “stolen fruits taste far better” were the words that came out of his mouth, which we took at face value. We bought local Erbaluce wine at €1.30 a glass, and counted our pennies to see if we had enough for the plates of Piemontese cheese and salumi. We didn’t, sadly. The only hot food was a simple bowl of spaghetti with butter or oil and pepper. I am returning with the mere €6 to eat it.
Italy is full of these agriturismi. Small-holdings that have realised their potential in attracting tourists, selling beautiful food that was produced just meters from the table. What gets me about Italy, and the main reason I decided to start my journey here, is just how prevalent small-scale farming is everywhere. Food is so painstakingly produced and harvested, it’s no wonder that Italians value their ingredients so much. They understand the effort it took to grow it, and how unworthy it would be to waste it. Every meal, every slice of cheese or piece of fruit has a story behind it, and one they can recount without any pretension or arrogance. This is good, clean food, and I like it.
It’s really no surprise actually that Piemonte is also the region where the Slow Food movement began, the international organisation that promotes local food. I went down to meet them at their HQ in Bra last week, and I actually landed a job working at their huge bi-annual event, Salone Del Gusto, in Turin this September! Five days of press, meeting incredible producers from around the world and seriously prestigious speakers in the world of sustainable food. I am so chuffed!
If you don’t know much about Slow Food, you have to read about them here. In a nutshell, they want to protect the diversity of foods around the world, which are becoming endangered as more of us eat the same homogenised foods out of the hands of a few multinational food giants. They promote a more sustainable way of eating, impacting the environment and our health in a positive way, and helping small-scale producers to make a living. Pretty amazing. Their Ark of Taste project sums them up quite well.It’s a mega encyclopaedia of endangered ingredients (3,411 of them to date), which the BBC4 Food Programme do a great job of profiling. I will leave you with my favourite podcasts from their archive, which just go to show that incredible, exciting and well-cherished food doesn’t just belong to beautiful Italy.
This is a great one about the Faroe Islands. Sheep is one of their only sources of meat, but to preserve it for the scarcer months, they leave cuts of it to ferment slowly in the sea air. Over time, it develops a thick layer of mould, but slice into it and the meat is perfectly edible. Wtf?
Or this one about a certain type of wild walnut in southern Albania. It’s harvested by hand in the wild, then preserved in a sugar-water syrup.
And if you’re interested, here’s the full list. Enjoy!